In January 2015, the Twitterverse responded emotionally to the news that Chipotle would put a halt to serving carnitas. Some people invoked conspiracy theories, dubbing it #carnitasgate, while others expressed their lunchtime angst—all over a flour tortilla loaded with ‘fixins.
Such is the grasp the burrito has over Americans’ heartstrings these days.
“Tacos became almost instantly popular when they first arrived here” says Mexican food scholar and author Gustavo Arellano, who penned the monumental book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.
“Burritos have been in the U.S. commercially since the ‘60s, but it almost took 30 or 40 years until they became a cult obsession. They were late blooming.”
The story begins with the clash of Aztec and Spanish cultures during the colonial era. Flour tortillas appeared after Spaniards encountered difficulties growing corn in the New World, so they opted for wheat instead. While the burrito’s true origins are still a mystery (Arellano is betting on Sonora, but it very well could be Juarez or Chihuahua), we do know it was borne out of borderland territory.
A group of regional styles have emerged since its inception, widening the burrito lexicon and building upon the bean-and-cheese burrito archetype that initially fueled braceros.
To settle the growing partisan divides among burrito-eaters, statistician Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight got in on the action last year, using data-driven analysis and a complex bracket system to crown a burrito champ.
That the winner—La Taqueria in San Francisco—came from California is no surprise either. Whatever the birthplace of the burrito, California was where it became a religion, says Arellano. “Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego are there major areas where innovation took shape. That’s all the burrito culture you really need anyway.”
Out of San Francisco grew the Mission Burrito-style burrito—a noticeably heftier version assembled on a production line, filled with rice, meat, pico de gallo, sour cream, guacamole, beans, cheese, and always wrapped in foil.
This prototype became the blueprint for Steve Ells, founder of Chipotle. “Burritos did not become an American phenomenon until the advent of Chipotle,” insists Arellano. “It’s the true apostle of burrito culture. If the Mission burrito is the word, than Chipotle is Jesus. Ells perfected that form for an audience of hipsters and college students.”
We called upon a group of noted Mexican-American food scholars, data analysts, tortilla savants, and diehard fans to give us a hand in our never-ending search for a superlative burrito. Our esteemed panel includes:
- Eddie Ruiz, chef at Corazon y Miel (@corazonymiel)
- Gustavo Arellano, editor at OC Weekly, author of Taco USA (@gustavoarellano)
- Scarlett Lindeman, writer and recipe editor based in NYC (@itsmescar)
- Amy Cavanaugh, restaurant editor/critic at Time Out Chicago (@amycavanaugh)
- Anna Maria Barry-Jester, writer and FiveThirtyEight burrito correspondent (@annabarryjester)
- Sam Hiersteiner, writer based in Boston (@samsgoodfeed)
- Darin Ross, creator of Superfight, burrito advocate (@luckyshirt)
- Joseph “JJ” Johnson, chef at The Cecil (@thececilharlem)
- Adam Schop, chef at Miss Lily’s (@misslilyschat)
- Chris Schonberger, editor in chief at First We Feast (@cschonberger)
- John Birdsall, James Beard award-winning food writer (@john_birdsall)
- Adrian Miller, author of the James Beard Award-winning book Soul Food (@soulfoodscholar)
- Ryan Joseph, writer and social media manager at First We Feast (@ryan_m_joseph)
- George Weld, founder of Egg in Brooklyn (@georgeweld)
- Wes Avila, chef at Guerrilla Tacos (@guerrillatacos)
- Matt Gross, former editorial director of realtor.com, Boston.com, BonAppetit.com, and “Frugal Traveler” for the New York Times (@worldmattworld)
Arellano says: “Call it taking the ultimate one for the team. Last year, I was one of the advisers for FiveThirtyEight’s epic Burrito Bracket, which sought to determine America’s best burrito. The place I thought would win, La Taquería in San Francisco’s ever-gentrifying Mission District, would go on to do so. But I excluded my all-time favorite burrito, El Castillito (just up Mission Street from La Taquería) in the name of objectivity. Oh, how it pained me. Its perfect marriage of meat, rice, sour cream, cheese, and beans is everything a Mission burrito should be; its claustrophobic space remains one of the last genuine spots in the Mission. I’ve always stopped here whenever I’ve visited San Francisco, whether for a week or an hour, out of respect. I figured my love for El Castillito was clouded with bias, but nevertheless, I told my fellow judges they should try it. And they did. David Chang said it was the best burrito he’s ever had. And the ultimate judge for the contest, Anna Maria Barry-Jester, called it “the burrito that went away.” Moral of the story? Always go with your burrito love, damn the bias.” (Photo: Yelp/Josue V.)
Marcelino Pan Y Vino
Ruiz says: “I’ve been lucky to have two different types of burrito experiences in my life. As a youth I had the OG version of burritos, which consisted of some machaca, frijoles fritos, and a raja de queso fresco wrapped in a small handmade flour tortilla. Often these little burritos wouldn’t even be wrapped closed on the ends, and sometimes they would be served deconstructed on the plates so that I could “aqui mijo para te hagas unos burritos.” The second experience, of course, is the one where I would stumble into a small stand like Boca Del Rio in La Puente after a night of drinking with the boys to order carne asada, rice, beans, cheese, and guacamole (btw, guac was never extra in the early 2000s). Although the large burritos are very filling and provide sustenance for anyone looking for a flavor bomb meal wrapped in gift form, my heart always yearns for the OG. And for this there’s Marcelino Pan Y Vino in the suburbs of Austin, Texas. Although they don’t technically have burritos on the menu, I always find myself making my own at the table with their little fluffy flour tortillas, nopales, chorizo, eggs, and any other stews they may have that day. When you look around you see everyone is on the same page, wrapping their made to order breakfast and pouring that one-of-a-kind red sauce on top of their burrito—proving well that not everything is bigger in Texas.” (Photo: Yelp/Chris M.)
Fast and Fresh Burrito Deli
Lindeman says: “There are many goods reasons as to why New York City is a burrito desert—let’s talk about it over a taco placero. So when people ask me what my favorite NYC burritos is, I normally just wave them off. The one place I do back, however, is Fast and Fresh Burrito Deli, a joyous anomaly that makes a good case for New York City burritos: they’re not a chain, and they’re not glossed with celebrity. Rather, they’re an immigrant owned- and operated-joint on a side street off Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn—and the ideal place to beeline when the bailiff excuses you for lunch while on jury duty. The deli is run by a family from Tlaxcala, the smallest state in the republic, with a cuisine that shares similarities with its neighboring Hidalgo, Estado de Mexico, and Puebla, to which the fanciful painting of a torta on their window harkens. Rich stews and braised meat luxuriate in the steam table with troughs of creamy pintos and loose black beans. The burritos come together with a chosen protein, a sprinkle of rice and cheese, salsa, a healthy lashing of crema, and yes, a bit of lettuce, swaddled in a well-made, albeit industrial, tortilla. Best are the carnitas, a salty porcine rubble, and the finely-ground chorizo, which quivers with cumin, clove, and coriander, leaking a dangerous orange oil that helps to coat the tortilla from the inside out. Take your properly foiled wrapped package and migrate out to the backyard housing wooden picnic tables and a television tuned to futbol. Use the church key that dangles from twine to pop open a caguama of Victoria, undress the top quarter of the heavy tube, and gorge away. Does the internal burrito temperature match the sweltering, sticky heat? If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be summer.” (Photo: Serious Eats/Scarlett Lindeman)
Cavanaugh says: “Chicago’s Mexican food scene is so completely dominated by tacos that I had to pause for a few minutes before I remembered that L’Patron—located only a few blocks away from the best cocktail bars in the city—serves a damn good burrito. Ernesto Gonzalez worked under Rick Bayless at Topolobampo, but now he runs up L’Patron with his brothers. While the food may have pedigree, it’s anything but fancy—the menu consists of simple, well-executed Mexican staples. Besides tacos and tortas, there are eight burritos, all of which have a base of housemade refried beans, avocado, sour cream, tomato, and lettuce, and you can add fillings like carne asada and chorizo. I always order interesting vegetarian dishes when I see them, which means I get the Poblano Rajas, with roasted poblano peppers, caramelized onions, cheese, and a roasted tomato sauce. That’s a lot of fillings, but this isn’t a burrito sized like a small puppy—this is a burrito that respects you. Before each bite, squeeze on the fiery housemade salsa, then devour with an absolutely perfect horchata on the side.” (Photo: Yelp/Angie K.)
Address and phone: 1429 Alexandria Dr, Lexington, KY (859-455-9237)
Barry-Jester says: “Last year, I spent three months driving around the country in search of the best burrito in the United States. There was a winner, but of the hundreds of burritos I consumed, I most often think back to one tucked away in the northwest corner of Lexington, Kentucky, not a place known for its Mexican food. Tortilleria y Taqueria Ramirez sits unassumingly in the corner of a small, rundown strip mall. Shelves and refrigerators are a backdrop for a handful of tables and benches in the dimly lit store-restaurant combo. But don’t let the humble surroundings fool you: this food would be impressive in any setting.
True to its name, they make the tortillas at Ramirez, grinding the corn and cooking hundreds of tortillas each day. They are gloriously thin and pliable, and a quick turn on the griddle leaves the outside crisp and bubbly in all the right ways. Ramirez’s burritos have both cheese and crema, which melt together into a tangy liquid that fills the spaces between a selection of meat, thick slices of pickled jalapeños, lettuce, tomato, avocado, and salty farmers cheese. On paper, there’s nothing special or unique about the ingredients, but by the time they’ve been rolled together into a burrito, Ramirez has created a masterpiece. These aren’t the hulking monsters served in San Francisco; they are a filling but delicate knife-and-fork affair that more closely resemble the burritos found in Guadalajara, the owners’ home state. The small staff is friendly, and the aguas frescas delicious and never too sweet. This place is a pure oasis in the burrito-barren South.” (Photo courtesy Barry-Jester)
Taqueria El Amigo
Hiersteiner says: “Indicators of a good burrito abound at Taqueria El Amigo, a joint 30 minutes west of Boston in Waltham. The place is hard to find, sandwiched between a terrifying dive bar called The Hose Trough and a liquor store parking lot. It’s a cash-only business, which sends many visitors on a trot to the gas station with the perennially broken ATM machine, and then to Stah Mahket (translation: Star Market). Spanish is the dominant language among the staff and diners at the tiny grouping of six tables in the restaurant. It’s an unusual place when you consider that most of the Latin food energy in Boston is wrapped up downtown in Eastie. And it’s the only place I’ve ever found where they’ll wrap a cow’s head in a flour tortilla for the right price.
That would be Taqueria El Amigo’s “burrito con lengua y cabeza,” which in practice is a magical mashup of braised and crisped bits of beef tongue and cheek with beans, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, sour cream, pico de gallo, and house hot sauce. The funky barnyard flavor and richness will challenge fragile palettes, but thankfully, the burrito isn’t packed like the cruise missile you’ll find at most trendy, fast-casual joints. It is manageable enough that one might see the need to order up some of the restaurant’s tacos, arguably the best in the Boston area, for dessert. Either way, you’ll get your fill for not much more than $10, which is yet another reason that I rend and repeat at El Amigo.” (Photo courtesy Hiersteiner)
Al & Bea’s
Address and phone: 2025 E 1st St, Los Angeles, CA (323-267-8810)
Avila says: “The burrito I choose to talk about is East L.A. icon Al & Bea’s chicharron burrito, “wet” with green salsa. The reason I enjoy it so much is because it is the closest thing to the same burrito from Toñias, a Pico Rivera institution that shuttered just this year. The chicharron is stewed to perfection, served simply in its sauce, and rolled in a flour tortilla. You have to ask them to make it wet and they will smother with a green tomatillo salsa, cheddar cheese, and Anaheim chiles. The best way to wash it down is with a strawberry fanta—the combo brings back fond memories of summer little league.” (Photo: Yelp/Rosie B.)
Normita’s Surf City Taco
Ross says: “In the beginning, there was only darkness. Then stuff exploded, things crawled out of the sea, grew some hair, put pants on, and made burritos. That’s when creation peaked, and the point on the tip of our burrito tower is the fish burrito at Normita’s in Huntington Beach. I know what you’re thinking. Partly because this burrito is so good it has granted my supernatural powers, but mostly because I’ve had to share this planet with people who are weird about fish in general, and way more weird about fish in a burrito. But hear me out. You remember when Kristen Stewart started dating Rob Zombie or whatever his last name was? Neither do I, but that’s what this burrito is like—one thing people really want, inside another thing other people really want. Except instead of being limited to sex-starved teens and their sex-starved moms, we all get to enjoy this. It’s like Normita went to the county fair, grabbed the biggest fish she could find, and body-slammed it into a thing that was pretty much already an amazing burrito. Combine that with the fact that their hot salsa is some of the best you’ll ever taste, and you’ll be driving 60 miles to shove this in your face like someone I know who is me. This burrito will make you glad we crawled out of the sea, and even more glad some things never did.” (Photo: Yelp)
Address and phone: 137 E 116th St, New York, NY (212-410-2450)
Johnson says: “My all time favorite burrito is from El Aguila in New York. It’s a little place tucked away in East Harlem that feels like you are in Mexico. I love their chipotle paneras burrito which is filled with spanish rice, lettuce, organic black beans, queso fresco, caramelized onions with some jalapeños, tomato, roasted tomatillo, avocado, and cilantro sauce. The homemade chorizo and tortillas take it over the top. (Photo: Yelp/Sandy L.)
Schop says: “I recommend the carne asada burrito at Tacos Jalisco, a local taqueria that I frequented too many times growing up in Arizona. The place is situated in a dodgy strip mall next to a laundromat and an extremely seedy dive bar. At one point, I lived down the alley, 100 yards from their front door, and ate there sometimes twice a day for several years. The construction of the burrito is quite simple. They use commodity meat, which is slowly braised, diced small, and stored in the greasy braising liquid. When ordered, the flour tortilla is placed on a shiny griddle and warmed slightly to make it pliable. The tortilla is chewy and sweet, and you can taste the seasoned fat that went into the production. The meat is then put on griddle and lightly fried until it has dark color, and the fatty bits gain a crispy texture. Proper Mexican rice is placed on the center of the tortilla, followed by pinto beans, then a healthy portion of the meat. It is only adorned with a red sauce made from guajillo and morita chiles, fresh cut cilantro, diced raw onion. I have never been fond of cheese, crema, guacamole, pico or whatever else Californians think tastes good in their burritos. The fact that you can pick this burrito up and eat it out of hand—without having a tortilla malfunction or getting a huge sloppy mess—makes this burrito one worth traveling for.” (Photo: Yelp/Dustin C.)
El Taco De Mexico
Miller says: “The “Special Burrito” at El Taco de Mexico makes me feel like I’m ordering from, and eating in, someone’s home kitchen in Mexico City. Maybe it’s because the entire operation from beginning-to-end is run by Latinas, or it’s the rhythmic sound of chopping that I hear after I place my order. Either way, I’m immediately at ease with the promise of good food. Unlike the goopy renditions of burritos found in “Tex-Mex” joints, this restaurant takes a minimalist approach. A thin, but not too chewy, flour tortilla is filled with a layer each of rice, refried beans and large chunks of tender, braised pork specked with cilantro and onions and topped with an ample squirt of red chile sauce. The entire thing is wrapped up and a thin chile verde (green chile and tomatillo sauce with just enough piquant spice) is ladled over it with the final touch being a sprinkling of white cheddar cheese. Sometimes, it’s the simple things that yield the best results.”
Address and phone: 16 28th St SE, Grand Rapids, MI (616-245-0494)
Schonberger says: “One of my favorite things about traveling in the U.S. is discovering the country’s endless remixes of familiar foods. From Memphis-style nachos (BBQ pulled pork, cheese sauce), to Sonoran hot dogs, to the sheet pizzas of the Rust Belt, these dishes often tell the story of cultural exchange, immigrant ingenuity, or simply the so-dumb-its-brilliant scheming of a local entrepreneur. Some might call them ‘bastardizations,’ but I call them delicious—and just as worthy of study and consideration as their forebearers.
When I was driving around the Midwest writing for the Let’s Go: USA travel guide, I came across the ‘famous wet burritos’ of the Beltline Bar in Grand Rapids, MI. Having gorged on Upper Peninsula pasties (a specialty that traces back to Cornish miners in England) and Traverse City cherry pie during the rest of my Michigan tour, I wasn’t expecting to find a monster burrito in Grand Rapids, stuffed with ground beef and refried beans, then smothered in melted Colby cheese and red enchilada sauce. It was the chili-cheese dog of burritos: over-the-top, messy, and impossible to stop eating until considerable physical pain is the only thing you stopping you from feeding your pleasure receptors.
Wet burritos exist across the country, but civic pride in this one is particularly endearing—the place is hopping on a weekend night, and Beltine recently shipped wet burritos to Congressman Bill Huizenga’s D.C. office to help him celebrate Cinco de Mayo with a taste of home. It also provided exactly the comfort I needed as I escaped the hellish motor lodge I’d chosen to make home for the evening, where some sort of booze-fueled domestic dispute had erupted around the syringe infested ‘pool.’ What else is food for but to escape the ugliness of humanity?” (Photo: Foodspotting)
Address and phone: 2779 Mission St, San Francisco, CA (415-824-7877)
Gross says: “It will surprise no one who gives a damn about burritos that El Farolito, a gloriously dingy pair of taquerias clustered around 24th and Mission in San Francisco, serves one of the finest torpedoes of rice, meat, beans, and guac in the known universe. This is the Mission, after all. Countless East Coasters like myself, having grown up with only inedible imitations, have journeyed here in search of tortilla-wrapped revelation. And we have found it.
My own first step toward enlightenment began late, when I was 35 and visiting San Francisco with my then one-year-old daughter, Sasha, whom I alone was in charge of feeding, bathing, and entertaining for a full week. The kid liked rice, I knew; maybe she’d also like rice mixed with meat, and encased in a flour tortilla? Into El Farolito we walked, and out we walked 15 minutes later, full and happy. Sasha had eaten several bites of my carnitas super burrito, and I had eaten the rest, delighted at the way the intense pork fat permeated every corner of the dense cylinder. There could be nothing better.
I was wrong.
Five years later, on a trip back to San Francisco, I tweeted my intention to hit up El Farolito once more. A rando named Rowerdink responded with the tip that changed my life: Rather than carnitas, I should ask for half carne asada, half carnitas. Huh? Was that order even possible? Should I trust the Internet? I did, and was rewarded: Turns out the sharp, beefy char and the rich shredded pig (I ask for it “crispy”) balance each other perfectly—it’s grilled and fried! It’s also the only burrito I (or you) need ever eat again. And again, and again…” (Photo: Yelp/Ringo M.)
Address and phone: 4 W State St, Athens, OH (740-592-2016)
Get the extinguishers out. I’ll qualify.
I grew up in Ohio, which is a wasteland for Mexican food. Southeast Ohio is an especially tragic food desert, widely considered one of the most disadvantaged regions of the country, disregarding college towns like Athens.
Yet in this vacuum exists Casa Nueva, an establishment where the majority of the ingredients have been locally sourced for the entirety of Casa’s nearly 30-year existence. Their burritos are known primarily for their fresh vegetables, salsas, and dairy—not their meat.
The staff legitimately cares about the food, too. “Of course they do,” you say, rolling your eyes. But here they really have to because Casa’s is a cooperative, meaning everyone on staff—from the line cooks to the front of house—owns a stake in the place. As a result, it buzzes and hums like a well-oiled machine, and the burritos they produce are served with a roots-y care you wouldn’t expect from a Mexican restaurant in Southeast Ohio. The burritos never unravel sloppily, and you can catalog the layers of tomatoes, onions, black beans, guacamole, and Monterey Jack cheese—a perfect architecture. What I’m saying is this: Casa succeeds in spite of the circumstances. That, and the fact that Dave Grohl wore the restaurant’s t-shirt at Courtney and Kurt’s wedding, has to count for something.”
El Gallito Drive Inn
Address and phone: 8540 Brentwood Blvd, Brentwood, CA (925-634-4992)
Birdsall says: “Before the Mission burrito, Mexican workers in California’s Central Valley knew a simpler version. It was 1962 when ex-farm worker Rafael Borrayo opened El Gallito in Brentwood, on the far-east edge of the San Francisco Bay Area, where laborers from Mexico picked asparagus and peaches. Most of Brentwood’s fields and orchards have been subdivided into cul-de-sac neighborhoods of hulking stucco, but Borrayo’s refried-bean burrito still exists. It represents a survival of bracero culture, the deepest roots of Cal-Mex diner cooking—messy, satisfying, and loaded up with cheese that turns stringy when melted.”
Address and phone: 301 Keap St, Brooklyn, NY (718-388-8761)
Weld says: “I had a kind of master class in burrito eating from my friend and former kitchen sidekick Stephen Tanner, with whom I ate burritos several times a week before dinner service at Egg. Our spot was Taco Santana on Keap Street in Williamsburg, which we stumbled on after a disappointing meal at Mexico 2000, the more popular spot around the corner on Broadway. Stephen taught me to order burritos “sin arroz, with all the sauces,” and the folks at Taco Santana were always happy to oblige.
I checked back in at Taco Santana yesterday and it has changed: it’s a little dressed up, with a proper enclosed kitchen, decorations, and even umbrella’ed seats on the sidewalk. But the food was as good as ever, and now they have the juiciest of all burritos, the burrito mojado, which is a plated burrito smothered in sauce. I forgot to order it sin arroz, but I did get all the sauces, which resulted in a giant bomb of a burrito loaded with beans and chunks of roast pork and painted like the Mexican flag: green sauce on one end, red on the other, and a hearty band of cheese and crema down the middle. The longer it sat on my plate, the more delicious it seemed to get, which made devouring it an exercise in conflict resolution, negotiating between the part of me that wanted to wait until it hit ideal saturation, and the part of me that wanted it all right away. That’s the drama of a great burrito, and Taco Santana plays it just right.” (Photo: Yelp/Peter D.)