The Minimalist Appeal of a California Burrito
With Mexico just to the south of us, many border states have created their own dishes that combine ingredients from both countries: the Sonoran hot dog, chili con carne, chimichangas, Mexican pizzas. In San Diego, Mexican restaurants put a very American spin on the burrito, creating a much-loved dish: the California burrito.
What’s in it?
It might be easier to talk about what’s not in it. Unlike most burritos, a California burrito has no rice, no beans, and no lettuce.
The list of ingredients makes it probably the simplest burrito ever created (after the simple bean-and-cheese variety): carne asada, salsa, cheese, maybe some guacamole, and—with no exception—french fries.
But there’s got to be more to it than that …
As a counterpoint to San Francisco’s overpacked Mission-style burritos, the beauty of the California burrito is its simplicity. However, certain characteristics make it more than just grilled meat and fried potatoes.
“Wall-to-wall meat” is how the California burrito is often described—the bulk of it is stuffed with carne asada made from flap meat, a thin cut of meat that comes from near the belly. Similar to but tastier than flank steak, it’s coarse and can become tough if not cooked correctly.
After being seasoned with just salt, pepper, and a quick marinade of orange and lime juices, flap steak is thrown on the griddle rather than grilled over a flame. The griddle caramelizes the meat and gives it a nice bark without drying out the insides.
The favored cheese is cotija, parmesan’s Latin cousin. Though some taquerias sub a more melty cheese—such as cheddar—purists swear by cotija, the cheese also used on elotes. Finally, the fries should be shoestring, fast-food-style potatoes, which provide the most surface area for melted cheese and guacamole to soak into.
Where to get it
The California burrito has no true origin story—no one can even agree on where it was invented. But its popularity can be attributed to area surfers who liked being able to hold a simple, filling meal in just one hand. Here are some restaurants in San Diego where you can try this surfer’s delight:
- At Lolita’s Taco Shop, a taquito wrapped inside the burrito gives it extra crunch.
- Many Fresh MXN Food fans say the California burrito originated at this popular shop.
- Don Carlos Taco Shop’s Scripps burrito is a vegetarian version, subbing soyrizo for steak.
- While some can’t agree whether this Old Town San Diego restaurant is called Las Brasas or Dos Brasas, the super-casual spot serves great California burritos, as well as crisp rolled tacos.
- The wrestling-themed Lucha Libre puts an adventurous spin on Cali-Mex food. The Surfin’ California—featured on Man v. Food—adds shrimp and a house chipotle sauce to the traditional California burrito.
Though Aimee stays up to date on the latest food trends for the Guide, most of her meals are served cold and cut into tiny, toddler-sized bites.