Pity the Aztecs, whose empire rose and fell four hundred years before anyone in Mexico could get a carnitas burrito. Almost exactly four hundred years, in fact – their capital city of Tenochtilan was conquered in 1521, and the first documented burrito was made in 1922. Burritos might date from slightly earlier, but it’s hard to tell, since the little cafes in the dusty desert towns of the Mexican state of Chihuahua didn’t bother to print menus for their largely illiterate clientele. Nevertheless, despite the heroic murals of Montezuma that adorn some local Mexican restaurants, the emperor who tasted defeat at the hands of the Spanish never tasted a treat that so many Americans identify with Mexico.
Even if some culinary genius among the Aztecs had been given a vision of a carnitas burrito while standing atop a pyramid in a peyote-induced trance, he wouldn’t have been able to make one, since the required materials were unavailable. Wheat flour and pigs both arrived in Mexico in 1519, along with guns, smallpox, measles, typhus, and a rather demanding gentleman named Hernan Cortes. The Aztecs therefore couldn’t have had either flour tortillas or pork – or, for that matter, chicken or beef, so carne asada and chicken flautas are out too. Their staple grain was corn, to which they added turkey, duck, seafood, and insects for protein, with avocado, tomatoes, chillies, and chocolate for flavor.
Fast forward a few hundred years, and a vibrant, spicy fusion cuisine had developed, still mainly based on corn, but incorporating all sorts of European ideas. One area of Mexico was different – the northern part of the northern state of Chihuahua. Here corn grows poorly but wheat does well, and here some unsung villager of the late 19th century created the flour tortilla. Sometime afterward, someone rolled the tortilla around some meat and named it a burrito, after the burro colts that are born to pack animals of the region. Despite the oft-repeated suggestion that the name was used because horse or burro meat was inside the tortilla, the name probably came about because newborn burros are fat and cute. It was a triumph of culinary marketing, and it came from some little village along the long and poorly marked border.
The invention might even have come about on our side of that border – the first certain reference to a burrito is from a roadhouse café near Tucson, and it probably wasn’t much like the burritos we enjoy today. Burritos in Chihuahua are still usually simple affairs with a big flour tortilla wrapped around meat, a little sauce, and perhaps some onions and chopped chillies. The addition of rice, beans, cilantro, and other fillings didn’t come along for decades, and burritos certainly weren’t part of the culinary mainstream for some time. The first mention of a burrito in the Los Angeles Times wasn’t until 1958, the same year that the term initially appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary. Burritos took even more time to spread further north; the first restaurant in San Francisco known to serve one did so in the late 1960’s.
They’ve made up for lost time since then, and acquired a variety of fillings and toppings that are even more alien. Beans, almost universally served with or in burritos, were raised by the Aztecs, but never served in the style we call “refried” because that involves lard or other cooking oils, which the Aztecs didn’t have. (Refried beans aren’t fried twice – it’s a mistranslation of the word “refrito”, which originally meant thoroughly cooked. The mistranslation spread so pervasively that the original meaning is now almost obliterated.) Rice was an Asian grain brought by the Europeans by way of Africa, and the use of cheese, sour cream, and lettuce all originated around the Mediterranean. Of all the ingredients of a typical burrito, only two – onions and guacamole – are actually indigenous Mexican foods.
Even the flour tortilla, that relatively recent invention which in its simplest form is composed only of flour and water, has been rendered complex. You can buy spinach, tomato, and bell pepper versions of this simple flatbread that started as a peasant’s food. When they’re served in restaurants, the result is generally called a wrap rather than a burrito, though even a cursory glance at how wraps are made and folded reveals the debt to that Chihuahan village.
LA’s own claim to fame for inventive burritos comes from a couple named Bill and Irene Grill, who opened Bill’s Taco Stand in the late 1950’s. One day someone took the hamburger meat, lettuce, yellow cheese, and fresh tomatoes that were on hand for taco fixings and wrapped them in a flour tortilla, and the tacoburrito was born. The restaurant located by the Hermosa pier became Bill’s Tacoburrito House and flourished into the late 1970’s, when it was replaced by Diana’s Mexican food and then completely rebuilt to become the Hermosa Hennessey’s. Alas, tacoburritos aren’t on the menu at Hennessey’s, so they’ve vanished from the place where they were first served.
These days we serve burritos that cross cultural lines; Mago’s Café in Marina Del Rey served them packed with Chinese char-siu pork as early as 1970. The breakfast burrito was invented in 1971 in a café in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and spread around America at astonishing speed, and haute cuisine burritos stuffed with Thai chicken, Polish kielbasa, and other outlandish items have appeared on menus in all manner of unlikely places. Almost a century after they were invented, you can even get them in most of Mexico, though in the southern part of the country they’re still regarded as an oddity to be served only to tourists.
Given the recent genesis of the burrito and the way that the once simple formula has been embellished over the years, it’s safe to ignore any claim by a purist that one recipe or another is the unadulterated and authentic article by which all others should be measured. The burrito has always been a platform for creativity, and what you like is what you should eat. You now know what burritos have been and what they are now, and can invent yet more variations on the theme yourself.