When Did the California Burrito Become the California Burrito?

Categories: Mexi Meals
Thumbnail image for californiaburrito.jpg
Flickr user PermanentlyScatterbrained
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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29 comments
Eric Kauschen
Eric Kauschen

Actually San Francisco's Mission style burrito's started at El Faro in 1961. They later became what everyone called the "California Burrito". SF never bothered to market it as such because they were more focused on the "Mission style" burrito or "San Francisco" burrito.

San Diego just had better marketing and french fries as filler instead of beans and sometimes rice here in San Francisco.

Robinsonh214
Robinsonh214

Ok reading all of this made my mouth water! I was in SD for 2yrs about 10yrs ago and still tell everyone about California burritos! I would love to find somewhere that ships them to MD! :)

Snk1955
Snk1955

If I wanted to ship a San Diegon who has been displaced back east some California burritos, do you know of any of THE BEST that will package and ship?

Debi
Debi

Interesting article, looking forward to your book. I worked at  Omega Burger on Katella in Orange (in the late 70's?), . I recall seeing a burrito made of some type of non-descript  ground meat and beans with a french fry filler. It was pretty dismal; unable to recall the name,  

Lee Rivas
Lee Rivas

You're hung up on the name "California Burrito."  It's a common enough name that has been used for decades.  Unfortunately, you also have precise ingredients in mind.  Your quest should be to find when and/or where the name and ingredients came together.  The french fries in breakfast burritos have been a staple at burger stands since the sixties,  I save left-over french fries to scramble with eggs, onions and sausage/bacon and whatever for a great breakfast burrito filler.

MT
MT

Ohhh man, love the California burrito. Best place I've had one is at Papa Chito's on Governor Drive, but there are tons of places in SD to find a good one. I life in San Francisco now, just wish I could find a place that sold them up here...

Bigjen12000
Bigjen12000

Hi - I am a San Diego native. I remember eating 1lb. California burritos (carne asada, guac., cheese, sour cream, pico de gallo) in High School as early as 1993 in Mission and Pacific Beach and Clairemont. There were some earlier attempts that were more breakfast burrito style that included hash browns rather than french fries maybe 1990. I think the french fries were added in once Carne Asada nachos and subsequently carne asada fries moved on to menus. Roberto's, Albertos and Santana's reigned supreme in this category. Cotixan came in later.

beckys408
beckys408

This must be a regional thing because I have yet to come across a proper California burrito in the Bay Area.  I've seen Carne Asada Fries but not the burrito version.  I feel cheated! 

Jay Porter
Jay Porter

The earliest reference to the California Burrito I know of is this: In the April 1995 issue of our 'zine (remember 'zines?), "Big In Vegas", my friend Fred Kokaska wrote a review of the Roberto's on the corner of Convoy and Opportunity:

"I was excited to see the handmade sign displaying the special of the day: "California Burrito".

I had to laugh. How oxymoronic!....I tried to imagine how my politically correct burrito would look; would it have alfalfa sprouts?  Would it be filled with dolphin-safe tuna?

Answer: No. Turns out, a "California Burrito" is a carne asada burrito with cheese, stuffed with tater-tots!  Ummmm!"

I don't know when in 1995 the Albuquerque Tribune piece was, so this might be before or after.

Jay Porterhttp://thelinkery.com/blog

Bill T.
Bill T.

Well, there's a reason the Union is (or was, in my time, born there but got squeezed out some time ago) locally referred to as the San Diego Onion (not to be confused with The Onion, a superior source for news). What's the count-down on your book? I want a copy NOW!

Dweezle.Di
Dweezle.Di

My favorite Burrito houses are in LA County, It has been a while since I have been to either but There is El Tepeyac Cafe on Evergreen Ave in E LA They used to serve a wet burrito called the "Manuels Special" and if you could eat one in one sitting, they would give you a second one to eat there for free! Then there is/was a place called the Burrito Factory on Pacific Ave in San Pedro Used to serve Great Food! I have yet to find a place in OC to compare with Costa Mesa's Taco Mesa on 19th St West of Harbor Blvd across from the old DMV office! They always offer specials that have yet to disappoint me. Their Jamica, Horchata, & Tamarinda are made fresh daily, (I am told Not from a mix) They also fresh squeeze Fruit Drinks to order!

Claymalo
Claymalo

For those in South Orange County, Aurora's Taqueria serves a damn good California Burrito, I used to cut it in two and save half for dinner, it's pretty big.  One good California Burrito variant is in Sunset Beach, on the corner of Warner and PCH at a place called Secret Spot.  I've never seen it written up in the Weekly, but am sure Gus would love it:  It's called the HB Surround Sound Burrito and the main ingredients are: Chicken (or tofu), Avocado, Cheese, Potato, and BBQ Sauce.  Check it out (if you haven't already)

Steven
Steven

I love these. I grew up in OC and went to school at UCSD, so I've had a few of these in my time. In my experience, the best California burritos i've come across are as follows:

4. Albertacos (Cypress). I grew up going to the one in Cypress (on Valley View and Lincoln). I've recently tried the one near Mission Viejo mall, and it's serviceable, but not as good as the one in Cypress. They have great carne asado burritos and carne asado fries too. Plus, if you go to the one in Cypress, you can wash it down with some italian ice and custard in the same plaza...yelp it...awesome reviews.

3. Albatros (Lake Forest). It's in Lake Forest, and this is now my go-to for cheap mex in Orange County. For a cheap/"dirty" spot, it's not so dirty either, so bonus points. The california burrito here is pretty close to the good ones I've had in SD, so it's definitely a good way to hold me over til the next time I get to make it down there.

2. El Cotixan (San Diego). I had my first california burrito experience at El Coti on Genesee in Clairemont Mesa back around 2000. Back then, the spot was very small and looked like it was part of a gas station--it's since gotten a littel bigger and nicer. The burrito is very large, the tortilla a little softer than the others on this list, and I believe unless you ask specifically for fries, they do potato instead (so do yourself a favor and ask for fries). The thing that makes this burrito though is the sauce. The hot sauce here is my favorite on this list.

1. Sergios (San Diego). My mouth starts watering when I think about it. The burrito is the perfect mix of carne asada, french fries, guacomole, and onions wrapped in a lightly burnt tortilla. So good. If you want to mix it up, ask for sour cream and try it with pollo asada. Be warned, the restaurant is not gonna win points for ambiance, but it sure is worth it.

Newportblue65
Newportblue65

I lived in San Diego County in '96 - '99 and never came across a burrito with french fries anyplace!!?? Aberto's was the KING down there but I don't remember french fries in their burrito's.......

I Toddicus
I Toddicus

You could order a California Burrito in Arizona as far back as I can remember.  So 2003 at least.

ICregular
ICregular

Hello! Cool article. Now where in the heck can I find this (The Burrito) in the OC. You sound like you may very well have some ponters for OC California Burrito biters.

gustavoarellano
gustavoarellano

We wrote about Secret Spot years ago--gotta read closer, son!

Hector
Hector

If you were living in North County, you should have tried Rico's, in Encinitas.  Their "Justin Burrito" has french fries and everything else a California burrito has.  

Shuji Sakai
Shuji Sakai

Taco Pronto. Two locations, in Santa Ana and Anaheim

Dave Lieberman
Dave Lieberman

Any of the Alberto's clones. Albertos, Alertos, Albertas, Albertacos...

gustavoarellano
gustavoarellano

Gracias for the kind words! Click on the link on my first sentence for one place, and there's also Alejandro's in Costa Mesa and Albatros in Lake Forest!

Snk1955
Snk1955

That's funny!  Okay, let me rephrase my question: Say that I have a friend from CA who is currently displaced from CA while serving his country on a secret mission to defend truth, justice and the American way.  Do you know if any stellar local restaurants will ship him CA burritos?

PS. THAT is heresy to get a Ca burrito.  My friend is back east at school.

Lee Rivas
Lee Rivas

Whoa there, amigo!!

Quoting you, "...Regular readers know I'm obsessed with the California burrito...?" 

Sounds like you, not the beans-and-cheese-burrito San Diegans, really care.

Further quote, "...But the question remains: when did what's now the California burrito first get called the California burrito?"  Let's have a mutual meeting of the minds here. "...Cal-Mex staple stuffed with French fries?"  That's your California burrito? That doesn't give us a lot to go on.

Can we have a more precise description of the ingredients so that we can refer to our brain's Mexican food culinary database?

gustavoarellano
gustavoarellano

Try the Roberto's chain--I know they love their customers!

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