Ecce Burrito

July 21, 2011

My rant about the L.A. burrito (vs. San Francisco’s patently inferior Mission burrito) triggered some controversy, and spurred me to further research on this majestic fast-food format, second only to the sandwich in the divine pantheon of handheld foodstuffs.

Celebrity chef Rick Bayliss, while we may find fault with his TV persona, undeniably knows a thing or two about Mexican regional cuisine. In his excellent Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico, he devotes just a single page to the burrito, confirming its origins in the northern, wheat-growing provinces and noting that as one travels south it is known simply as a “taco de harina,” or a taco made with a flour tortilla. He includes only one recipe, for burritos de machaca, that he picked up in the Baja California town of San Ignacio, and I can attest that it is authentic to the region, made from shredded dried beef (carne seca), fried up with onions, tomatoes, and chiles. Anyone who’s traveled in Baja has probably eaten one of these.

Meat? Check. Beans? Check. Tortilla? Check.

As for the burrito being invented in Aztlan, the northernmost territories that are now part of the USA, there is also considerable documentation, though it appears that New Mexico has a better claim than Alta California as the actual birthplace. According to Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World, the Pueblo peoples were making flour tortillas long before the Spanish showed up, and wrapping them around meat and beans to make a taco-like snack.

Yet while the Anasazi may have invented it, and while the first printed recipe appeared in a collection of New Mexico recipes from 1934, Mexican Cookbook by Erna Fergusson, the burrito as we know it today clearly got its start in Los Angeles, where it was on the menu as early as the 1920s at the legendary El Cholo, then known as the Sonora Cafe.

Mission style: More rice than a Chinese freighter

The Mission burrito, by comparison, can only be dated back to the early 1960s, when El Faro owner Febronio Ontiveros had to make a big batch of “sandwiches” for a nearby firehouse, and threw in everything but the kitchen sink. Now the most widely known burrito format in the US (thanks to chain-store abominations like Chipotle), the Mission burrito is distinguished by too much rice, whole (rather than refried) beans, and a generous slathering of guacamole and sour cream, yielding an arm-thick product that has to be wrapped tightly in foil to keep it from exploding.

San Diego style, con papas

San Diego is also known for a local mutation on the theme, the so-called “California burrito,” easily recognized by the inclusion of French fries as an ingredient. And as one heads further south, any number of even stranger ingredients may be encountered (chopped hot dogs anyone?). In all regions, burritos may be deep-fried (the chimichanga or chivichanga) or smothered in sauce (a “wet,” “mojado,” or “enchilada style” burrito). For the record, I enjoy all of these variations on the theme (except, maybe, the hot dog burrito). Any burrito is better than no burrito. But in my heart of hearts, the LA burrito still reigns supreme

The LA burrito seems a bit austere when compared to these other forms. Beans, meat, and a flour tortilla are the only essentials, frequently augmented by cheese and/or salsa. Certain meat fillings, like the insanely hot chile verde from the now-defunct Acapulco Taco Bar in Monterey Park, require no additives, while others, like carne asada or chicken, usually need some added salsa. And cheese is just always a good idea, isn’t it? Everything else I can take or leave, except rice, which I will always leave. Don’t get me wrong, I love Chinese food. Just not in my burrito, thank you.

Mission San Miguel Arcangel

January 5, 2010

Like every other graduate of California’s public schools, I learned about the Spanish missions in fourth grade by building a model out of cardboard and sugar cubes. But unlike most of my classmates I kept an interest in the subject after my voice changed, and went on to discover a lot of things that my teachers never mentioned. Did you know, for instance, that the soon-to-be-saintly Father Serra was in fact a notorious flagellant who liked to preach the gospel stripped to the waist, scourging himself with chains and burning his flesh with hot candle wax? Or that each of those quaint little mission cemeteries is actually a mass grave, packed with the bones of thousands of natives? No wonder the 4th grade lesson plan focused on arts and crafts.

Over the years I’ve managed to visit most of the 21 mission sites, and last weekend I cut another notch in my traveling stick, touring the long-shuttered Mission San Miguel Arcangel, just north of Paso Robles. Nearly destroyed by earthquakes, it has been closed to the public since the San Simeon quake of 2003, and only recently reopened. While most of the complex is still a private retreat for Franciscan monks, visitors can once again enter the main church and tour the adjoining wing of the quadrangle, which dates back to 1816.

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