This past week, I hosted ESPN's burrito correspondent, Anna Maria Barry Jester of the company's FiveThirtyEight data-mining site. We ate at Athenian Burgers #3 in Buena Park, which is a competitor in FiveThirtyEight's epic Burrito Bracket competition that seeks to find the greatest burrito in America by facing off Yelp stats versus actual critics.
Anna Maria loved her Athenian Polish sausage breakfast burrito, although I worry about it advancing, given it's facing off against the legendary Manny's El Tepeyac AND Al and Bea's. She told me about her burrito adventures so far, from the Deep South to Santa Fe to Ventura and beyond. And as she recounted one cylindrical god (or imposter) after another, it got me thinking of all the different burrito styles in America. While you may think you know them all, you'd be surprised at the amount of burrito diversity in this country, from the Mexican hamburger of Denver to burritos in El Paso that function more as tacos, to the monstrosities of Taco Bell, austerity of a bean-and-cheese, and more. So, without further ado, in no particular order of deliciousness...
The first burrito to spread across the United States, and still stocked by all the pioneer fast-food chains, from Taco Bell to Del Taco to TacoTime and more. Beans, cheese, and a light sauce--so deviously simple, and now usually found only at fast-food chains and the homes of Mexicans, because more popular nowadays are monstrosities.
The best name I could think of for the burritos of northwest Mexico and El Paso: small, simple things usually stuffed with a guisado (a stew) and nothing more--no guac, no cheese, no nada. Usually folded so that two flaps stick out of the side, as opposed to getting completely wrapped into a tight tube. Severely underrated.
The best name I could think of for the burritos of a previous generation of Southern Californians: the ones in big tortillas with your choice of meat, rice, and beans. The burritos I grew up eating, the kind you'll get if you enter a taquería in Southern California. No sour cream, no veggies--just the meat, beans and rice. And, yes, insufferable hipsters: rice. The only people who think rice doesn't belong in a burrito are people who didn't grow up with burritos from birth.
San Francisco's gift to the world, a gargantuan beast where most everything goes inside a massive flour tortilla, then the results get wrapped in foil. Key to the Mission style is the preparation: down the assembly line. Style copied wholesale by Chipotle, which most of the U.S. still doesn't know.
Carne Asada Burrito
Somehow, San Diego has claimed what's really just a meat burrito with guacamole, salsa and cheese into their own creation, and unique. Um, okay...much better to claim is, of course... California Burrito
The carne asada burrito (otherwise called a "burrito" by everyone else in the world), but stuffed with French fries. Still amazed it hasn't gone nationwide, and still mostly in San Diego (although OC has more than a few spots that stock it).
Most famous nowadays as the domain of Asian-Mex ala Kogi, but old hat in Southern California, where pastrami burritos have reigned since at least the 1950s, and Polish sausage breakfast burritos since the 1980s. NOT a wrap, as that's a separate, lesser category, the multicultural burrito fuses the pocho burrito with parts of the fish burrito (the emphasis on a secret sauce) to create something new.
A Southern California and New Mexico staple, although done quite differently. In New Mexico, the fillings are beans, eggs, meat and some red or green chile--simple, small. Southern California, of course, likes them monstrous, with potatoes thrown in, usually of the hash brown or homestyle variety. Am surprised breakfast burritos haven't spread across the United States--but we're getting there...
A burrito for gabachos who are scared of calling a burrito a burrito, who think their burritos don't deserve the name burrito because burritos don't have such classy ingredients--did I say burrito enough?
If I had to guess where the wet burrito was born, I'd say Southern California. Usually covered in cheese, always drowned in red or green sauce and--this is the most important part--as large as a brick. But wherever it was born, it's the bastard stepchild of the...
...this style of burrito. It's essentially a wet burrito save for three things: the name ("smothered" in New Mexico and Colorado; "enchilada-style" in Arizona's copper country); the size (usually smaller), the lack of a combo plate, and--this is the most important part--that the sauce used for smothered and enchilada-style burritos is actually delicious, as opposed to the super-vast majority of wet burrito sauces, which mostly taste like tin.
Definitely a Southern California thing due to our proximity to the coast and Baja California. Where fish burritos are particularly distinctive is in the use of a spiked crema to add sweetness to the seafood, and the slaw that goes with it. This is where white rice and black beans first reared their bland little head in the world of burritos...
A smothered burrito exclusive to Denver: Denver-style chile, hamburger patty inside--the greatest meal in the United States.
Fried burrito born in the Sonoran desert. Stuffings are usually just meat and beans.
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Name for the wackjob creations from the Taco Bells, Del Tacos, Taco Times, and all the other chains of the world. Sometimes good; usually vile. But at the forefront of burrito evolution, so there's that...