If a burrito is a flour tortilla delivery system for tasty ingredients, we’re thinking about it all wrong. We obsess over constituent parts—debating maximalist (San Francisco) versus minimalist (Los Angeles) tendencies. We argue about rice, or french fries.
These positions draw on important preferential distinctions in terms of taste, bang-for-buck, and hometown pride. But I see far more similarity than difference between them. They are thinly veiled expressions of Northern-vs.-Southern California nativism, through a seemingly unending debate over what does and does not belong wrapped inside a tortilla.
But when was the last time you ate a burrito that made any kind of structural sense?
Our burritos are too messy. With their surfeit of ingredients, San Francisco’s Mission District super burritos are perhaps most cumbersome to eat. And L.A.’s quintessentially Spartan burritos, in their amorphous squishiness, can still be equally untidy.
In terms of eating, (We’re talking about eating here, right?) we should be looking at a more tight-wrapped, modestly portioned burrito, structurally engineered to fit in the human mouth. Because what really matters is not just what we put inside a burrito. It’s how we deliver it. It’s a question of burrito architecture—and the burrito architecture crisis is real.
But there is hope. Picture it—a dainty-necked, scaled-down cylinder, texturally varied and sultry in its simplicity. It’s time to start moving toward a definition of the slender burrito.
And I know what you’re thinking. Where do large, tight-wrapped tacos end and slender burritos begin? Is a trio of slender guys, ordered wet, ersatz enchiladas? If you fry a slender burrito, is it a flauta? A chimichanga? One hand clapping, my friend. Stay focused.
It all starts with the tortilla. Flour tortilla, obviously. House-made, obviously. The tortilla is your walls and your foundation. Warmed properly on the comal, a homemade flour tortilla’s surface assumes an alternating soft/stretchy and flakey/crispy texture. I love a burrito that’s toasted just a tiny bit. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, visit La Azteca Tortilleria (4538 E Cesar Chavez Blvd, Los Angeles, 323-262-5977) and Burritos La Palma (5120 Peck Rd, El Monte, 626-350-8286), where you can get two of the best, most structurally correct burritos in the country, and take house-made flour tortillas to-go for a small price.
You should be able to eat this burrito one-handed. And it must maintain its shape. Structural integrity is best achieved through a tight wrap and a mindful proportionality of filling-to-tortilla. May I quote from PUMP UP THE VOLUME (1990): “Is it bigger than a baby’s arm?” A microwaveable dorm-room frozen burrito is a more reasonable eating experience than most of the burritos serious eaters talk about. I’d rather eat several modestly proportioned burritos than one unruly one. At Burritos La Palma, you can easily order three or four burritos for a single meal, and trust me, there is no better feeling than ordering three or four burritos all for yourself.
Do not put too much stuff inside of this burrito. I’m not talking about whether to include rice or corn or whatever. I’m talking about volume and proportionality. Ever bite into a Mission District super burrito, only to realize your meat is a few inches away on the other side of the thing? That’s what we want to avoid here. Look at the way it’s assembled. Flawed! Think of a burrito more like the other closed-system foods we eat with our hands—sandwiches, burgers, even maki rolls and nigiri—where careful layering provides the eater with all the diversity of ingredients in each and every bite.
Which brings up the topic of textural variation. For most of my life, my gold standard in this category was always the super burrito from Taquería Cancun (2288 Mission St, San Francisco, 415-252-9560). But in my dotage I have come to realize how excessive this burrito is. It’s the Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” burrito (Is that the guacamole or the sour cream I’m eating? Rice?)—none of the individual parts enunciate themselves over the others, and we end up with a distorted mush. But recently I’ve discovered the chile relleno burrito with asada from La Azteca. It’s modest in size and sleek in shape—structurally similar to a quesadilla suiza from El Farolito in San Francisco. And each bite includes the total range of textures possible—a little fattiness from the cheese, a little crunch from the raw onions in the pico de gallo, a little fleshiness from the roasted pepper, some chewiness from the meat—all wrapped in a flakey, stretchy flour tortilla forcefield.
Please don’t consider this an entry in the unending SF vs. L.A. burrito debate. While it may seem like I’m showing a Southland preference here, in fact, I’d say the burrito that’s probably farthest away from what I like is one of L.A.’s most iconic, that of El Tepeyac #1 (812 N Evergreen Ave, Boyle Heights, 323-268-1960)—a burrito served with knife and fork and doused in sauce so that the flour tortilla becomes a gooey mess. If you get half-way into it (you might not) you'll discover some guacamole that’s texturally undistinguishable, but this burrito still lacks the variety of the super burritos of the Mission District. And I love Yuca’s (2056 Hillhurst Ave, Los Feliz, 323-662-1214), but that burrito makes no structural sense. Just because it’s flat doesn’t mean it’s slender, or engineered properly.
Gustavo Arellano, eminent authority on Mexican food in our country, holds that the burrito reaches its apotheosis as a thing “tightly wrapped to the girth of a child’s wrist.” Between the two of us, we were hard pressed to come up with even a handful of burritos potentially classifiable as “slender.” And yet we live in a world where a man who increases the size of his Chipotle burrito by 86% makes headlines. Shame.
So why don’t we change what we talk about when we talk about burritos? The slender burrito could be the Platonic ideal of closed-system flour tortilla meat delivery. It could defuse the great SF vs. L.A. burrito debate. It could streamline everything that is formally stunning about small burritos, and still allow for any combination of constituent ingredients. The slender burrito could be the best burrito on the planet.
The trouble is, it doesn’t exist—yet. And if you think I’ve wasted your time pondering the possibilities, think about how much of my time I’ve wasted looking for it.