The year was 1922. Monica Flin was in her kitchen at El Charro Café, rolling burritos—or burros, as they’re known in Tucson Mexican restaurants. Inadvertently, she dropped one into the fryer and began to curse in Spanish: “Chi–!” But mid-expletive, she caught the wide eyes of her young nieces and nephews, and swiftly elided her outburst into a common slang word, similar to the English thingamajig or whatsahoozie: “Chimichanga!”
And so, like many other foods before and after, a dish was born from a happy accident.
A chimichanga is, essentially, a deep-fried burrito. The fillings are wrapped in a tortilla, then dropped in the deep fryer as Monica Flin did in 1922, only this time it’s on purpose.
In Tucson, though, they get a regional twist: they’re wrapped in a Sonoran tortilla. While a wide range of fillings are acceptable for a true chimichanga, it’s the tortilla that’s key. Sonoran tortillas are larger and thinner than standard flour tortillas, but still sturdy, almost like comparing a crepe to a pancake.Thus, the chimichanga is one of the first examples of Sonoran cuisine invented in the US.
Sonora is a state in Mexico, just south of the Arizona border. So while it’s commonplace to most Tucsonans, it is virtually unknown to the rest of the country, unlike its catchier-named cousin, Tex-Mex.
Influenced by that Mexican state, Sonoran food is hearty yet uncomplicated, more rustic than refined. Tacos fried with the ingredients in the shell, citrus-marinated carne asada, and beans refried in bacon grease are key dishes. As are smoky, griddle-fried flour tortillas.
If you’re in Tucson, you can visit the chimichanga’s original home, El Charro Café. Now run by Monica Flin’s grandnieces and grandnephews, the legendary restaurant serves both burros and chimichangas in several locations.