(Updates: 2/15/15, a link to a blog post about the earliest mention of a burrito in a restaurant review in the S.F. Chronicle; 12/14/16, fixed broken links, added an early cookbook mention.)
In 1998, the Washington Post sent Peter Fox, one of the founders of the Burrito Brothers chain in Washington, D.C., on a search for the origin of the burrito. The story was published on Nov 4, 1998, but is no longer available for free to the general public. Wanting to view the story in its original format, I went to the public library to read it on microfilm (as an aside, it was a fun experience to scroll through the time-machine that is newspaper-on-microfilm. Nov 4 was the day after the 1998 national elections, so the front sections were filled with news and commentary about the mid-terms). If you love burritos, it is worth seeking the entire article either on-line or at the library. As a snack, here is a short summary of Fox’s findings:
The trip began in the Mission District of San Francisco. Named after the over 200 year old Mission Dolores (which was featured in Hitchcock’s classic film Vertigo), it is a predominantly Latino district. Tens of small restaurants, generally called Taquerias, sell variations of the San Francisco Burrito, which consists of flavored rice, beans, salsa, cheese and meat (or special vegetables) wrapped in a freshly-steamed flour tortilla and packaged in foil. Peter Fox talked to the owner of La Cumbre, which was founded in the late 1960s. Raul Duran initially ran a meat market and grocery, but after hearing from friends in Los Angeles that burritos were a sure moneymaker, he started offering them and eventually the burrito operation took over the whole shop.
Next, Fox went to Los Angeles, where the earliest burrito reference he could find was at El Tepeyec in East Los Angeles. They first appeared on the menu in 1954, and unlike the San Francisco burrito, they are served on plates and can be sauced to create a “wet burrito.”
Fox went south to Tijuana, Mexico, where after a day or two of hunting around, found Restaurente del Bol Corona, an establishment with an all-burrito menu. These burritos were much smaller than those found at the previous two locations, and consited of only one or two fillings enclosed by a 12 in. flour tortilla—no rice, no guacamole, no sour cream. The restaurant started as a snack stand in 1934. The current owner, Leopoldo “Polo” Borquez thought that burritos originated in Alamos or Navojoa in Sonora, Mexico.
Fox’s final stop was Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, just south of Arizona. Sonora is primarily an arid plain, and flour tortillas have been the standard since soon after the Spanish brought wheat to Mexico. Many street vendors in town sold burritos which looked like those served in Tijuana. Poncho Durazo, owner and founder (in 1939) of Restaurant Xochimilco, said that machaca burritos (machacar = “to pound or crush”) are the Sonoran tradition. Filled with beef that has been dried in thin slices, then pounded and boiled to tenderness, machaca was a staple for those who had to live out in the wilderness for long periods—miners, ranchers, and cowboys. The burrito provided a portable meal that could be made from ingredients that could travel with them into the backcountry.
Fox concludes his article with this apt image:
As we followed the historical trail, and got closer and closer to the source, the burritos became smaller and smaller, and our favorite ingredients disappeared one by one. When we finally found what we thought was the original burrito, it was very different from the burritos we knew and loved. The burrito’s evolution seemed like a cross-generational version of the children’s game of telephone, in which a message is passed through so many people that the message at the end is completely different from the original.
For additional Burrito lore, visit Peter Fox’s radio postcards for National Public Radio (Real audio streams at each link): Burrito Odyssey, July 17, 1998; Burrito Trail, August 12, 1998; End of the Burrito Trail, September 3, 1998
- Burritos! Hot on the Trail of the Little Burro – a book about burrito history by David Thomsen and Derek Wilson (Gibbs Smith, Salt Lake City, 1998) (out of print)
- Fiction – History of the California Burrito
- The Food Timeline
- A Wikipedia entry on the San Francisco Burrito
At the San Francisco Chronicle’s web site, Peter Hartlaub is helping with a project called Our San Francisco, a collection of articles and blog posts about San Francisco’s past and present. One of the sub-projects is called “First Word,” where he searches the immense archives of the newspaper to find the first incidences of important words (note that the full archives aren’t easily searchable by the general public, even those with access to superb academic libraries like U.C. Berkeley). Given the importance of the “Mission Burrito” to the culinary life of San Francisco, he decided to look for “burrito.” He found the first burrito review in the S.F. Chronicle on December 2, 1973 and the place was actually not in the City, but in Los Altos on the southern end of the Peninsula. It was Estrellita at 971 San Antonio Road in Los Altos: “The house specialty is the burrito ($1.95 [$10.40 in 2014 dollars, using the BLS Inflation Calculator]), all beef, bean and beef, or chicken, accompanied by either salsa verde (homemade jalapeno sauce) or the more usual tomato-based sauce. In the case of the most popular of these, the beef burrito, you get an enormous platter that consists of a large rolled flour tortilla filled with nothing but chunks of beef in a delicious gravy…very filling, a meal in itself.”
Interesting, but I wonder when burritos were first served in restaurants that never received reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle. I’d guess that most of the taqerias in the Mission District have never received more than a passing mention in the Chronicle.
Also, if the above history is correct, this statement of Hartlaub’s is way off target: “I’ve been told the burrito may have originated from California field workers, not from Mexico. But it is a San Francisco tradition that dates back to the first half of the 20th Century.”
On Twitter, San Francisco Chronicle’s Paolo Lucchesi shared a photo of a burrito recipe from a 1979 book called San Francisco a la Carte.