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.

True Burrito Tales

June 22, 2011

You can go a lot of places in this world, but you can only be from one place, and I’m from the east side of L.A. Though I’ve lived in the Bay Area for more than twenty years, there are still a few things I miss about my hometown. The mild winters. The crazy profusion of FM radio stations. But above all, the L.A. burrito.

With all due respect to San Francisco’s  celebrated Mission burrito, let me be frank: it is not a real burrito. Real burritos are not packed full of rice like a Chinese freighter. Real burritos contain neither sour cream nor guacamole. They are made with lard-infused refritos, not whole beans and certainly not black beans. And under no circumstances are they wrapped in anything other than a large white flour tortilla. If it’s some weird color, like red or green, it is most certainly not a burrito.

Many world travelers conclude that the burrito, due to its widespread unavailability south of the border, is one of those made-up faux-Mex dishes like taco salad. Nothing could be further from the truth. The burrito was a regional invention, native to a part of Mexico that was ceded to the Yankees in the 1840s: Alta California. Some nameless rancho cook decided to make a few oversized flour tortillas for wrapping up the leftovers, and an important  culinary innovation was born, right up there with the sandwich on the short list of wildly successful workman’s lunches.

On a recent trip south, I paid a visit to Manny’s El Loco in East L.A. to reacquaint myself with the Real Thing. I was not disappointed. Thoroughly and unashamedly old-school, Manny’s has changed very little since I used to go there in the 1970s as a long-haired teenager.  Same orange-plastic decor, same clientele of working-class Chicanos and the occasional Anglo or Asian down from  Monterey Park. The few menu changes in evidence seem to be half-hearted nods to “healthy” eating: they’ve added a turkey wrap and something called a Santa Fe salad, and deleted the pastrami quesadilla, one of those freaky “only in LA” things that have now gone the way of the Chinese Kosher Burrito.

The king of Manny’s menu is and always has been the El Loco Burrito: beans, cheese, a chile relleno, steak picado, and salsa. It’s big, it’s messy, and it’s God-knows-how-many-calories. This is the burrito against which all others must be judged.

A great burrito is a symphony of flavors, and one false note can ruin the whole effect. At Manny’s there are no false notes. The tortilla is same-day fresh. the beans are runny, lardy, and cooked for days; almost a soup. The steak picado is likewise cooked down for savory goodness: round steak, onions, chiles, and tomatoes. There is no shortage of cheese or green sauce, made with hot peppers and tiny flecks of avocado. And at the heart of this beast, robed in deliciousness, is the mighty chile relleno, a study in contrasting textures and flavors: the chewy crispness of the fried batter, the sweet snap of the fresh Anaheim chile, and the gooey river of hot melted cheese inside.

Don’t get me wrong: there are some other great places nearby. El Tepeyac, for instance, is another classic joint, with an even bigger and gnarlier burrito called the Manuel’s Special. But El Loco remains my personal favorite, and the one I think of every time I settle for a riced-up, foil-wrapped Mission “burrito.”

Manny’s is located just off Atlantic Blvd on Pomona Street, a block south of the 60. Si mon!