The Burrito: Quintessential American Food

 

My mother first came to the United States from Mexico at the age of seventeen. She’d never had—or even heard of—a burrito in her life.  I’ve been to her hometown of Miguel Auza in the Mexican state of Zacatecas twice.  I can verify that there are no burritos there.  My abuelita thinks they’re absurdly named, and has taken to calling them burrototas.  But everyone in my family eats them.  They’re one of our favorite foods.

And so it was with great pleasure that I savored Gustavo Arellano’s thesis in his article in the June edition of Reason, “Taco USA: How Mexican food became more American than apple pie.

Arellano, a Southern Californian, found himself in South Dakota visiting a university there. Longing for a taste of home, he stopped into Taco John’s and walked away with something called a Potato Olé burrito.

There is nothing remotely Mexican about Potato Olés—not even the quasi-Spanish name, which has a distinctly Castilian accent. The burrito was more insulting to me and my heritage than casting Charlton Heston as the swarthy Mexican hero in Touch of Evil. But it was intriguing enough to take back to my hotel room for a taste. There, as I experienced all of the concoction’s gooey, filling glory while chilly rain fell outside, it struck me: Mexican food has become a better culinary metaphor for America than the melting pot.

Back home, my friends did not believe that a tater tot burrito could exist. When I showed them proof online, out came jeremiads about inauthenticity, about how I was a traitor for patronizing a Mexican chain that got its start in Wyoming, about how the avaricious gabachos had once again usurped our holy cuisine and corrupted it to fit their crude palates.

In defending that tortilla-swaddled abomination, I unknowingly joined a long, proud lineage of food heretics and lawbreakers who have been developing, adapting, and popularizing Mexican food in El Norte since before the Civil War. Tortillas and tamales have long left behind the moorings of immigrant culture and fully infiltrated every level of the American food pyramid, from state dinners at the White House to your local 7-Eleven. Decades’ worth of attempted restrictions by governments, academics, and other self-appointed custodians of purity have only made the strain stronger and more resilient. The result is a market-driven mongrel cuisine every bit as delicious and all-American as the German classics we appropriated from Frankfurt and Hamburg.

It’s a fun read.  And that picture?  Member Humza Ahmad, the biggest burrito aficionado I’ve ever known, snapped that at a mini-meetup in San Francisco last year.

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  1. Profile Photo Member
    @MelFoil

    Probably not the real story, but should be:

    An often-repeated folk history is that of a man named Juan Mendez who sold tacos in a street stand in the Bella Vista neighborhood of Ciudad Juárez, using a donkey as a transport for himself and the food, during the Mexican Revolution period (1910–1921). To keep the food warm, Mendez wrapped it in large homemade flour tortillas inside individual napkins. As the “food of the burrito” (i.e., “food of the little donkey”) grew in popularity, “burrito” was eventually adopted as the name for these large tacos.  —Wikipedia

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Member
    @Sumomitch

    The burrito is replacing the sandwich as the quintessential American cuisine. The problem with the sandwich is 2 pieces of bread cannot contain the American…ummm… appetite for more.  A big round tortilla that wraps up the whole thing and allows you to hold it without spilling. (Yes I think I’ll put some black beans, rice, quacamole, meat, lettuce tomatoes, onions, cheese, what’s that over there, olives, why the hell not?)

    • #2
  3. Profile Photo Member
    @dogsbody

    I’m at the local Chipotle, eating a chicken soft taco, right now.

    • #3
  4. Profile Photo Member
    @tabularasa

    The burrito–great subject.  One of my sons did an LDS mission is Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, and didn’t see anything like the American burrito, though he did eat some things from street vendors that he said were marvelous (he is a great advocate of street vendors).

    Back to the burrito.  It’s nearly perfect.  All you need is a good tortilla, then you can fill it with an infinite variety of combinations of good things.  It is completely variable to any person’s taste.  Two people can sit side by side and eat “burritos” that, other than the tortilla, are utterly different.  

    That, to me, sound something like the nearly perfect food: you can make it whatever you want it to be.

    • #4
  5. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Is there a more perfect food than the tortilla?  Except maybe refried beans what come in a can?

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Member
    @Foxman
    HeartofAmerica: Love the post. As a frequent customer of a local Mexican eatery, I am reminded of the owner’s “menu pitch” to new customers. If you ask the owner to suggest something on the menu, you will get what we call “the speech.” Basically, it consists of how “in his country, there is no yellow cheese, burritos, etc.”. · 7 hours ago

    Years ago, when I lived in Houston, there was a Mexican restaurant not far from my place that had a sign:  We will give you sour cream if you ask, but the chef will cry.

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  7. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Once, while I was driving along a straight, flat stretch of rural highway in Kleburg County, Texas, I was evertaken by a small car.  It had nearly completed passing when it suddenly swerved back across the highway, into a pasture at about 75 mph, then back across the road narrowly missing an oncoming truck, off the otherside of the highway, spinning 180 degrees, and eventually coming to rest with it’s rear end impaled up on a corner post.

    I pulled over and ran to assist.  The driver, unhurt, was a teenage girl covered in nachos.

    • #7
  8. Profile Photo Member
    @MelFoil

    Norwegian Burrito

    • #8
  9. Profile Photo Member
    @HeartofAmerica

    Love the post. As a frequent customer of a local Mexican eatery, I am reminded of the owner’s “menu pitch” to new customers. If you ask the owner to suggest something on the menu, you will get what we call “the speech.” Basically, it consists of how “in his country, there is no yellow cheese, burritos, etc.” All that, he insists, comes from  Taco Bell and if that’s what you want, you should go across the street and eat there. I’ve often wondered if anyone has ever gotten up and left afterwards. “The Speech” is fairly long but usually comes with a sample or two to help you understand what he is talking about. Honestly, it’s some of the best food I’ve ever had at a Mexican restaurant.

    • #9
  10. Profile Photo Thatcher
    @danys

    Tortillas: additional proof that God loves us & wants us to be happy.

    Flour or corn?

    Flour for burritos. Corn for tacos (soft or crunchy) and tostadas.

    For a flavor treat try a bison taco or bison tostada with beans. Yum.

    mesquito: Is there a more perfect food than the tortilla?  Except maybe refried beans what come in a can? · 0 minutes ago

    • #10
  11. Profile Photo Member
    @
    etoiledunord: Norwegian Burrito · 4 minutes ago

    And tomorrow is syttendemai!

    • #11
  12. Profile Photo Member
    @tabularasa

    Diane:  Time for disclosure: are you a white Hispanic, a woman of color,  a Hispanic-American, or a plain old American?  Feel free to create new categories.

    • #12
  13. Profile Photo Member
    @JimIxtian

    Good article. It could have used a bit more fleshing out . Growing up in Southern California, Mexican food was closely tied to surf culture (and to a lesser extent off-roading cf Baja 1000) Almost invariably after a session at Swami’s/Trestles/WindandSea you always ended up at a Mexican food stand. My favorite was Juanita’s in Encinitas. For the more adventurous that sometimes meant a trip down to Rosarito Beach  or somewhere in Baja where you ate down there.  The food was cheap, especially for surf-rats who were poor, and really filling, more so when stands would offer ample offerings of salsa. Man, I’ve now got a craving for a carne asada burrito.

    Also, if you’re ever in LA and have the chance to have a bacon-wrapped hot dog, do NOT pass it up. It’s just heavenly.

    • #13
  14. Profile Photo Contributor
    @DianeEllis
    tabula rasa: Diane:  Time for disclosure: are you a white Hispanic, a woman of color,  a Hispanic-American, or a plain old American?  Feel free to create new categories. · 3 minutes ago

    Well if Elizabeth Warren gets to be a “woman of color”…

    But no, look at my profile picture. As white as white gets.

    • #14
  15. Profile Photo Contributor
    @DianeEllis
    tabula rasa: 

    That, to me, sound something like the nearly perfect food: you can make it whatever you want it to be. · 25 minutes ago

    This is a good trait in food.  Unfortunately for America, not in presidential candidates.

    • #15
  16. Profile Photo Member
    @tabularasa
    Diane Ellis, Ed.

    tabula rasa: 

    That, to me, sound something like the nearly perfect food: you can make it whatever you want it to be. · 25 minutes ago

    This is a good trait in food.  Unfortunately for America, not in presidential candidates. · 2 minutes ago

    Way true about presidential candidates.

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  17. Profile Photo Member
    @Misthiocracy

    I love this topic.

    It totally makes me think about how shawarma and poutine have become staples of anglo-Canadian fast food.

    Imagine, white bread WASPs digging in to a Levantine Arab garlic chicken sandwich with Quebecois fries, cheese, and gravy on the side.

    Authentic? Heck no.

    Delicious? Hells yes!

    • #17
  18. Profile Photo Member
    @Misthiocracy
    Tom Lindholtz: On one occasion when I was feeling adventuresome we went into a hole-in-the-wall little Mexican restaurant about lunch time on Sunday. I ordered Menudo (which I had never had) but, despite my assurances, the waitress refused to sell a Gringo Menudo.

    There are chinese restaurants near my apartment where (or so I’ve been told) the english menus and the chinese menus are completely different.

    • #18
  19. Profile Photo Member
    @barbaralydick
    Jim Ixtian: My favorite was Juanita’s in Encinitas.

    Wasn’t that the best!!  Haven’t been down there in a few years, but the last time I was there, surprise, surprise – it’s been remodled and if memory serves, there’s not that much space left to eat outside.  Funny, but the food – which was the same – didn’t seem to taste the same in that now ‘fancy’ eatery.

     

    mesquito: Is there a more perfect food than the tortilla?  Except maybe refried beans what come in a can? · 27 minutes ago

    As long as they’re not fat-free

    • #19
  20. Profile Photo Member
    @Sumomitch
    HeartofAmerica: Love the post. As a frequent customer of a local Mexican eatery, I am reminded of the owner’s “menu pitch” to new customers. If you ask the owner to suggest something on the menu, you will get what we call “the speech.” Basically, it consists of how “in his country, there is no yellow cheese, burritos, etc.” 

    Sounds like a Mexican version of the Soup Nazi. 

    • #20
  21. Profile Photo Coolidge
    @JosephStanko

    Tater tot burrito sounds yummy, I need to try that next time I’m in the Midwest. And I love that they didn’t even bother to name the chain “Taco Juan’s.”

    • #21
  22. Profile Photo Member
    @ultravires

    Diana, this was a delectable post.  I have been dieting for the MuscleMania Galveston for about four months now, and this burrito looks absolutely delicious.  As a tradition, after every one of my competitions we usually go out to a big dinner.  This picture by Humza has whetted my appetite already, this will be a tough couple of days until Saturday evening when I can have a nice big “Melting pot” burrito!

    • #22
  23. Profile Photo Member
    @HumzaAhmad

    For the record, that burrito was from El Castillo near Civic Center. The order was chicken, cheese, black beans, rice, onions, and guacamole.  I generously added hot sauce myself, as you can see.  However, the best burrito I’ve ever had in my life was at Papalote in Mission. Fair warning: my two friends both got sick after eating it. Price of perfection, I suppose.

    Interesting Humza’s-burrito-obsession factoid: Before my November 2011 trip to SF, the best burrito I had ever tasted was in Seoul at Taco Chili Chili. Many disagree, but really, it was heavenly. Also, the best burrito in Tokyo can be had at Frijoles. Though Frijoles burritos resemble what you’d find at Chipotle in the US, they are the best dry burritos in T-town. As for wet burritos and chimichangas (if you MUST use a fork and knife) in Tokyo, check out JunkAdelic.

    • #23
  24. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Valiuth

    Burritos are the best food on earth and when they are deep fried they become, like all food, even better. In fact one of the reasons I could never really live outside the US is the fact that I could not get Burritos. Have you tried finding a Mexican restaurant in Europe? I spent 4 months looking for one in Newcastle…. I eventually gave up and decided I would make my own Mexican food. It took me 4 hours to find refired beans, and I could not find jalapenos. 

    Viva Buritos!

    • #24
  25. Profile Photo Member
    @HeartofAmerica
    Robert Mitchell

    HeartofAmerica: Love the post. As a frequent customer of a local Mexican eatery, I am reminded of the owner’s “menu pitch” to new customers. If you ask the owner to suggest something on the menu, you will get what we call “the speech.” Basically, it consists of how “in his country, there is no yellow cheese, burritos, etc.” 

    Sounds like a Mexican version of the Soup Nazi.  · 40 minutes ago

    Very close.

    • #25
  26. Profile Photo Member
    @ChrisGregerson

     In San Diego try the  carne asada burritos from any vendor who’s store’s name ends in …burtos is fabulous. Albertos, Filburtos, etc. You cannot get that taste in carne asada anywhere else. Not in LA, or El Centro even.

    • #26
  27. Profile Photo Member
    @wilberforge

    Oddly enough, have spoken to a number of locals here that had spent a few years in the States, Wanna know what they miss ? Taco Bell !

    Ghastly stuff. To be blunt, the contents of that burrito look like the inside of a garbage can. Likely better than Menudo though.

    • #27
  28. Profile Photo Member
    @HangOn

    I’ve always thought of burritos as variations on empanadas. You throw the kitchen sink into empanadas as well. And invention of ethnic food is hardly restricted to Mexican food. Examples I can think of off the top of my head are egg fu yung, egg rolls, and pizza.

    • #28
  29. Profile Photo Member
    @kylez

    I gave a Latino friend a good laugh a few years ago when I told him about how my family used to eat canned tamales. He had never seen such a thing.

    • #29
  30. Profile Photo Member
    @TheKingPrawn

    Where’s the Tex-Mex love?

    • #30

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