Burrito History

Nick Zampino and the dawn of the burrito

Photo by Joy BastNick Zampino has no evidence, no proof, no corroborating facts or photographs, but he swears he knows in his heart that his family originated that most delicious and conveniently held of early morning victuals: the breakfast burrito.

"I just know," says Nick. "I just know."

And you have to believe him because the one thing Nick Zampino has going for his claim is that he is the Nick of Nick's Deli in Seal Beach. And Nick's is where the breakfast burrito has reached archetypal proportions, where, Nick estimates, 65 percent of his sizeable clientele order the breakfast burrito. Where on weekends, the staff goes through 700 tortillas per day. Where the breakfast burrito is not so much food product as local landscape, every bit the Main Street fixture as the Seal Beach Pier and that bronze seal statue that'll burn your hand in August.

A steady flow of locals, contractors, retirees, gym rats, construction workers and office slaves order them all day—they're so popular that Nick now sells them until an hour before closing each day—flowing in and out of the unassuming shop tucked between a post office and a nursery. Of course, you can get a breakfast burrito just about anywhere these days—McDonald's sells 'em—but you can only get Nick's at Nick's. And the reason for that is that Nick learned from Frank and Julia.

Frank and Julia Zampino owned a restaurant called Mi Rancho on Imperial Highway in Anaheim. Back then, in the late 1940s, you could own a restaurant on the same four acres where you lived and grew the fruit and vegetables you used in your restaurant. People came by, many on their way to Palm Springs, many of them famous: Jimmy Durante, Desi Arnaz, the guy who played the dad on My Little Margie.They came for the fresh orange juice—a nickel a glass, squeezed from the 40 orange trees on their property—and something the Zampino's served called the breakfast burrito.

"Back then, it was just chorizo and eggs," Nick says. "But even then there was a trick to it. Chorizo is a very greasy meat and you have to know how to work with it."

Nick opened his first restaurant on Ocean Avenue in 1976, getting his startup money from Frank and Julia. They'd been chased off their land in the '50s when the county condemned their property for a road that was never built. In those first years, Frank and Julia worked for Nick—"They were my slave labor"—who was fresh out of Cal State Fullerton. The burrito was on those first menus, but it started to evolve. Kids began to ask for things—bacon, potatoes, cheese—until, in 1981, the present model reached its apotheosis: eggs, chorizo, cheese, bacon and potato.

Still, Nick doesn't think the specific ingredients are any more important than the condition they're in. "I think what makes the burrito stand out is that everything is fresh," Nick says.

The potatoes are cut every few hours; the bacon, which crunches as you bite, is fried up every few hours. The chorizo is prepared throughout the day.

"We always want fresh ingredients," Nick says. "But we're so busy during the day that we have to be cutting fresh and cooking fresh all day anyway."

In fact, burritos are always made to order by a staff in perpetual motion whose efficiency and enterprise probably owes something to the fact that all of them have worked at the place for at least nine years. Lorenzo Rubio, the bear of a man with the sweet face, has worked for Nick since 1984.

Oh, by the way, there are other things at Nick's. Fresh salads and soups and chili made from scratch. There is a terrific chicken salad and a great turkey sandwich. It's all good. Well, Nick says it's all good. I always order the breakfast burrito. But I'm sure he's right. I mean, you gotta believe the guy. I mean, hey, he's Nick.

Nick's Deli, located at 223 Main St., Seal Beach, is open Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sat., 7 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun., 7 a.m.-4 p.m. (562) 598-5072. Breakfast for two, $8, food only. Cash and checks only.
 
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