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A West Coast Burrito Tour: Try the 6 Original Burrito Styles at These Restaurants

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by Justina Huddleston, food writer for the Menuism Blog

photo: Wally Gobetz/Flickr

Who doesn't love burritos? From poor college students to CEOs on the go, farmworkers to surfers, burritos are basically one of our national foods. But where do they come from? And how have they evolved?

Burrito origins

The modern burrito hasn't actually been around that long, but its predecessor dates back to the Mesoamerican people of Mexico, who wrapped foods like chilies, tomatoes, squash, and other veggies in tortillas. Likewise, the Pueblo people in the Southwestern U.S. used tortillas to hold meats and beans.

Though we associate the burrito with Mexico, they're only widely eaten in the Northern part of the country. This is likely because the wheat used to make the tortillas was, until recently, only grown in that area, while other regions exclusively farmed maize.

The modern burrito is thought to have been developed by the Mexican American community in the Southern United States. One theory is that it was brought here by Mexican cattle ranchers in the 1800s, or by farmhands and miners from Mexico who found work in California in the 19th century. That explains why the most common burrito styles found in the U.S. today all developed in California, and why the first mention of the burrito on a restaurant menu in the U.S. was at El Cholo Spanish Café in Los Angeles in the 1930s.

Mission burritos

Mission burritos are super-sized, and stuffed to the gills with ingredients like rice, meat, beans, and cheese. The ingredients are commonly held on a steam table, and the burritos are made assembly line-style. The large flour tortillas are usually steamed before they're filled, so that they are flexible enough to hold all of the ingredients without bursting.

The style originated in San Francisco's Mission District in the 1960s, where it was a popular meal for being cheap, filling, and portable (you can try the modern iteration at the popular Taqueria Cancun). But I think we can all agree that the continued popularity of the Mission-style burrito (the inspiration for Chipotle and Qdoba) can be attributed to its general deliciousness.

San Diego burritos

San Diego burritos are smaller than Mission burritos, and usually consist of a few simple ingredients - meat (especially carne asada), cheese, and salsa, or beans, cheese, and salsa. Sometimes the cheese is omitted, and guacamole is included instead. The style is thought to have originated with Roberto Robeldo in the 1960s. Today, there are more than 60 outposts of his burrito chain, where you can get a taste of the original San Diego-style burrito.

California burritos

California burritos, which originated in San Diego in the 1980s, are a hefty meal consisting of carne asada, french fries, and cheese wrapped in a flour tortilla. Other common ingredients include pico de gallo, sour cream, guacamole, and onion. California burritos are a favorite of hungry surfers, who flock in droves to Nico's Mexican Food after hitting the waves.

Los Angeles burritos

The classic Los Angeles-style burrito is filled with only meat and cheese. Some include green chile or red chile, referring either to actual diced chile peppers or a chile sauce, and occasionally meat or cheese. Sometimes, add-ons like pico de gallo, sour cream, and guac are offered as add-ons for an additional price. Rice is usually not included, which is one of the most distinctive features of the style. Try the famous version at Al & Bea's.

Chimichangas, a fried burrito with fillings closely resembling those in the Los Angeles burrito, originated in the Sonoran Desert. The first restaurant version was allegedly created at El Charro Cafe in Tucson, AZ, which is still open, so try the original for yourself.

Special mentions in the LA burrito scene include two fusion styles.

The Kogi burrito, invented by Roy Choi for his Kogi BBQ food truck, is a Korean-Mexican fusion burrito that is filled with marinated Korean BBQ meats, along with fusion condiments like sesame-chili salsa roja and more typical ingredients like cheddar-jack cheese and cilantro.

The availability of the sushi burrito in LA is also increasing, thanks to the popularity of the original version created by the Jogasaki food truck. Sushi burritos are wrapped in a traditional flour tortilla or soy paper, and are filled with classic sushi items, like tempura, spicy tuna, and cucumber.

Even across the country, these West Coast styles tend to dominate the burrito scene. No matter where you are in the USA, chances are a tasty burrito isn't too far away.

Justina Huddleston is a food writer living in Los Angeles. When she's not writing for Menuism or SheKnows, she spends her time in the kitchen creating both virtuous and decidedly junky vegan food. Buffalo chickpea pizza, anyone? She's also been known to eat a plain block of tofu or beans straight out of the can for lunch, but somehow those culinary adventures don't make it to her Instagram. You can follow Justina on Twitter or see what's cooking in her kitchen on her blog A Life of Little Pleasures.