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 then she caught the 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. And the chimichanga became one of the first Sonoran dishes invented in the US.
Where Is Sonora?Sonora is a state in Mexico, just south of the Arizona border. Commonplace to most Tucsonans, Sonoran-style food is inspired by Sonora’s regional cuisine and is virtually unknown to the rest of the country, unlike its catchier-named cousin, Tex-Mex.
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.
The ThingamajigThough most Mexican restaurants in the US have chimichangas on the menu, they probably don’t make them the way the best restaurants in Tucson do: wrapped in a Sonoran tortilla. While a wide range of fillings are acceptable for a true chimichanga, it’s the tortilla that’s key.
These flour tortillas are larger and thinner than standard but still sturdy, almost like comparing a crepe to a pancake. Cooks grill them on a convex surface (like an inverted steel bowl) instead of a flat-top grill so that they retain their shape and are easier to handle.
After the fillings are wrapped in the tortilla, they’re sometimes dropped in the deep fryer as Monica Flin did in 1922, only this time it’s on purpose. However, in most of Tucson, chimichangas are fried in the pan since the tortilla doesn’t fall apart as easily that way.
Where to Get the Real Thing Now that you know what to look for, here are a few places to find chimis wrapped in those chewy, savory tortillas:
El Charro Café: Now run by Monica Flin’s grandnieces and grandnephews, the legendary restaurant serves both burros and chimichangas in several locations.Macayo’s Mexican Kitchen: The founder of this Tucson eatery also claimed to have invented the chimichanga, though in this case the creation was intentional—a successful experiment in different cooking techniques.Guadalajara Original Grill: Along with chimichangas, this newer eatery serves housemade corn and flour tortillas and tableside salsa flavored with cilantro.Photo: Fried pork and cheddar burritos by jeffreyw under CC BY 2.0