Sunday, February 05, 2006

Burrito Origins

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! - a book about burrito history
Fiction - History of the California Burrito
The Food Timeline
A Wikipedia entry on the SF Burrito

3 comments:

Brett said...

Thank you for your excellent, and once again well-researched post and links. I never would've imagined that there was a Wikipedia entry for the San Francisco burrito! Also, it would good to have a chance to briefly chat with you again last night at the Commonwealth Club food blogging event.

Sean said...

And just the other day DPaul and I were wondering about the history of burritos. Glad I stumbled across this from your archives, via SFist. Nice work, Marc.

Marc said...

Sean,
I'm glad that you and others found the burrito history post of timely interest. You might also find my post about the origin of ingredients in a Mission-style burrito interesting. Some come from the New World, some from the Old World.