Regular readers know I'm obsessed with the California burrito: the Cal-Mex staple stuffed with French fries that was born in San Diego sometime during the 1980s. But in researching my book on the history of Mexican food in the United States, I came across a fascinating stumbling block: it wasn't the first burrito named after the state–not even the second. And what most of the United States knows as a California burrito isn't what San Diegans call the California burrito.
Confused? Don't be. Let me tell you more…
The earliest reference I could find to a “California burrito” actually came from Orange County. A 1979 Los Angeles Times ad for Taco de Carlos (the short-lived attempt by Carl's Jr. to create a Mexican-food chain) boasts of California burritos. But its description–“a big helping of taco meat with a blend of two special cheeses and mild green chili, rolled up in a flour tortilla and deep fried so it's crisp and flaky on the outside–is more accurately a chimichanga, an Arizona import. Why Taco de Carlos renamed the dish a California burrito is unknown, but it obviously didn't catch on–and there were no fries involved.
The next batch of references to a California burrito came in the early 1990s, when a batch of entrepreneurs tried to introduce the Mission-style burrito of San Francisco (the massive brick stuffed with beans, guac, sour cream and prepared assembly-line style: you might know it better as what Chipotle does) to New York City. The earliest reference I could find was a 1991 Newsday article; the following year, the California Burrito Co. opened in Gotham, forever identifying the Mission burritos they sold in the minds of New Yorkers as the true California burrito. To this day, lazy reporters across the country who aren't from California still refer to the Mission burrito as a California burrito–pendejos.
But the question remains: when did what's now the California burrito first get called the California burrito? You'd think the San Diego Union-Tribune, the city's main daily, would've been the first to document the term, but the earliest reference I could find is–incredibly–only 2005. The earliest reference to a proper California burrito–that is, one stuffed with fries–I could find appeared in, of all places, in a 1995 Albuquerque Tribune piece: A place in the Duke City sold it, and the author described the burrito as “a strange melange of beefsteak, cheese and french fries. It's odd and appropriately named.”
The earliest media reference to the proper California burrito in San Diego is only 2004, in the Los Angeles Times. Surely there are older references out there?
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