The California burrito is the standard by which all other massive bricks of Cal-Mex food are measured. It’s a jumbo flour tortilla filled with carne asada, guacamole, pico de gallo, cheese, and—setting itself apart from the bean and rice-base Mission burrito—a fat handful of French fries. The San Diegan delicacy is, in a word, perfect.
I remember the first time I had a true Cali burrito, except back then, the term didn’t really exist in any meaningful sense.
I was 9-years-old living in Oceanside, Calif., a slowly gentrifying beachside town in North S.D. county, pretty close to ground zero of the original french-fry-studded cultural mash-up. My best friend and I used to skateboard down to a taqueria called To’s (I imagine it was short for Alberto’s, but there were already a half dozen different Alberto’s in the area) to play Marvel vs. Capcom and eat $1.49 carne asada tacos.
One day I swerved from my usual order and pointed at a new item: the gringo burrito. I had just learned what a gringo was—more importantly, that I was one—and I wanted to know what my namesake tasted like. What came out to the table, double-wrapped in yellow paper and tin foil, was the french-fried carne asada burrito that I’ve been obsessing over ever since.
This was in 2001, three years before the term ‘California burrito’ was first used by the L.A. Times to describe the “overly radical steak-frites burrito.” It might not be as PR-friendly as the alternative, but I think ‘”gringo burrito” might even be more accurate.
Nomenclature aside, it still seems like the Cali burrito doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. Maybe it’s been overshadowed by the Roy Choi-forged Korean fusion movement, whose short rib and kimchi variety won out as the main not-so-Mexican burrito to enter the zeitgeist. Or perhaps the native San Diegan inventors are totally content with—what the L.A. Times called—their ‘breezy, laid, back burrito-eating life’ and simply don’t have the time between surfing and beach volleyball for burrito evangelism. But I’m not content with that. This is about more than regional burrito favorites—this is about California pride, dammit.
There needs to be a concerted, shamelessly nationalistic movement to rebrand the Californian food label to encompass more than avocado burgers and tubes of mayonnaise-laced imitation crab meat. Maine has lobster rolls, Maryland has crab cakes, Texas has brisket, and California’s eponymous burrito deserves to be hanging out in that same company.
Maine has lobster rolls, Maryland has crab cakes, Texas has brisket, and California’s eponymous burrito deserves to be hanging out in that same company.
In my ideal world, the history of the California burrito would be taught right alongside the Mexican American War in the elementary education curriculum. Like Herbert Hoover’s “a chicken in every pot” slogan, I want a Cali burrito in the hands of every child.
There might not be any Cali burritos worth mentioning near me now that I live in Los Angeles, but there is an In-N-Out and a Chipotle, so I figured I could jury-rig one of my own. I had this loose plan to grab an order of fries, bring it into Chipotle, and see if the employee would be down to roll me up a fat Cali. In my heart of hearts, I knew it wasn’t going to be that good—certainly a far cry from the burritos of my childhood—but I thought there would be some sort of value in sparking up a conversation about Cali burritos with some of the employees. More than anything, it was a cry for help, and I needed to know if anyone else felt the same way that I did.
I showed up at Chipotle 10:59 a.m., just before it opened, so I could do some gentle haggling and not hold up the line. No one wants to be the guy who orders a quesarito with a line 50 people deep. While the burrito artist (I think that’s the preferred title) was reaching for the rice scoop, I pulled out an order of fries that I bought from In-N-Out minutes earlier. I think she knew what I was going to ask—maybe I wasn’t the first person to try this—because she preempted my request and shook her head no.
She told me it was a insurance liability for Chipotle to put outside food in their burritos. I pleaded my case—a two-minute stumbling rant about pride and identity and culture and french fries—and, as a consolation, she agreed to sell me an unfolded burrito, then come around from behind the counter and help me roll it up.
It was the flavor equivalent of finding out that Santa Clause wasn’t real—or that most big-name actors use butt doubles in sex scenes.
I asked her if she was a fan of California burritos. She said she’d eaten a few in the past, but she was wasn’t too keen on them. I tried prying further, but she just shrugged and gave me the, “sorry man, I don’t know what to tell you” look.
The first bite of my makeshift Cali burrito was one of the most disappointing experiences in my life. It was the flavor equivalent of finding out that Santa Clause wasn’t real—or that most big-name actors use butt doubles in sex scenes.
I don’t think it was a metaphor for lost childhood innocence either (maybe a little bit), just a simple matter of poor execution. It was missing all the things I love about California burritos: the carne asada grease soaking into thick-cut fries, the cheese melting into the tortilla, and the squeeze bottles of chile de arbol hot sauce sitting in an ice bath near the salsa bar. It was nothing more than a pile of flaccid, lukewarm french fries inside a mediocre burrito.
The group of customers waiting in line watched as the employee rolled up my disappointment-rito. Most of them were pointing, some were taking pictures, and I think I heard the words ‘California burrito’ in the background chatter.
One kid, maybe about 15 or 16, told his friend he wished Chipotle had fries instead of rice. Me too, kid. Me too.