Thomas J. Story

The California burrito is a many-flavored thing. Here’s your best practices guide to ordering the tastiest one possible

Sunset  – February 5, 2020 | Updated February 13, 2020

What is the best way to eat a burrito? A definitive answer has proven elusive, yet hotly debated. It’s a highly personal matter, first and foremost depending on what part of California you live in.

There’s the Mission-style burrito, with its origins in San Francisco, stuffed with all manner of deliciousness to nearly reach the girth of an adult forearm.

Others prefer a simpler take. “The classical Los Angeles burrito is not one clogged up with a whole dinner plate—just beans, cheese, and red or green salsa. And contrary to San Franciscan belief, it is better like that sometimes,” L.A. Taco editor Javier Cabral wrote eight years ago, throwing a massive gauntlet down to Mission burrito fans.

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For many years, the burritos of Northern and Southern California have eyed one another from afar like Starks and Lannisters, unable to peacefully coexist, even though they are hundreds of miles apart. After all, they’re so different, it’s impossible to define the California burrito.

And then came an unexpected (although in retrospect logical) interloper: Chipotle. The popularization of the brick-sized, bland version of the Mission burrito brought shame to such a delicious chile pepper. Now a burrito is everything, and nothing.

Grub Street‘s recent, and highly sardonic manifesto “How to Order a Bagel” was more an exercise in free will (basically, order whatever you like, they say). But, at the risk of angering the free-ordering spirit of the late L.A. Times critic Jonathan Gold, we’ve written a highly-detailed, supremely-subjective guide to ordering the best damn burrito in California. Here goes:

Know Your Contenders

The “California burrito,” as it is known, is a cheese- and French fry-stuffed monstrosity from the dear city of San Diego that we can’t stand by with pride (we’d rather smother those fries in some cannabis gravy, poutine-style). “Leave the french fries for gyros and shawarma sandwiches, or you know, for the kids,” Cabral wisely advised us.

We turn, ironically, to the north, in search of a burrito we can call our own. There are two contenders in the ring:

The Mission Burrito is the real San Francisco treat, filled with rice, beans, meat, cheese, and avocado, with the obligatory drips of salsa poured on each bite. FiveThirtyEight’s famed Burrito Bracket declared SF favorite La Taqueria’s the best burrito in America (quite a feat considering you can’t get most Mission residents to agree on the best burrito in the neighborhood).

The Los Angeles Burrito takes its finest form as East L.A.’s simple bean and cheese burrito, and Al & Bea’s is the go-to spot for supping on a good one. The beans are creamy, the tortilla is smooth and flexible, and there’s not a grain of rice in sight. But there’s a new kid in town.

“In Los Angeles, the best ‘California burritos’ are the bean and cheese burritos that have fueled L.A.’s Chicanos through the generations at Al & Bea’s and now the slender Zacatecas-style beauties at Burritos La Palma that are now perhaps L.A.’s most talked-about burritos now, stuffed with shredded beef birria and tender chicharrón en salsa,” Cabral told us.

Many an L.A. burrito is also a thick, fat breakfast mess of eggs, potatoes, bacon, and cheese—the kind that Lucky Boy slings to lucky Pasadena residents. There’s almost too much bacon in this breakfast beast—almost.

Here’s How to Order

Tortilla

There’s only one customization here. You take it the way they offer it (if it’s not steamed, do a U-turn), or you get it dorado, its happy golden shell all crispy from the plancha.

Protein

This is the most essential part of your burrito order, and we have opinions—so buckle up.

When you’re at a new spot, look at what others are ordering. You know the guy who orders the elk burger at a divey diner on a road trip, inspiring a waiter to chuckle at him, a cook to dig deep into the Siberia of the walk-in, and a pack of Rolaids to be his dessert an hour later? Don’t be that guy.

If the al pastor on the trompo is looking better than the carne asada on the grill, why would you order the carne asada, just because it’s your daily order?

Above all, do not be chicken. Meaning: do not order chicken, and also do not be afraid to try the lengua, the cabeza, or even the prawn. Meat is meat, and you’re not winning any points for your stomach by curbing a few calories and missing out on something you could love.

If you’re waffling on which meat to get, go for a combination of chorizo and lengua, or carnitas and carne asada. Ask them to grill your meat dorado-style too, making it extra crispy. When you taste a Super Dorado (dorado means golden, meaning the burrito tortilla was crisped on the oily grill) at La Taq in SF, you realize that to coat a carb-and-meat bomb in crispness doesn’t feel like cheating, but instead like burnishing a hunk of marble into a gorgeous Rodin.

Beans

Look, beans are a personal thing, all right? Some like it refried and creamy with lard, and others like a whole pinto or black bean. We’re not going to tell you which to order, because chances are you either already have a clear favorite or you aren’t going to have much of a choice at the restaurant you’re at. For instance, if it’s a small, East L.A.-style bean and cheese burrito, you’re going to get refried beans, most likely pinto, most likely made with a generous amount of lard and slow-cooked for quite a few hours—as many as 16, like Al & Bea’s does.

Salsa

Variety is the spice of life, and salsa variety is the necessary spice factor in your burrito order. Any taqueria worth its salt will have a strong array of options on offer. Pico de gallo. Roasted tomato. Tomatillo. Habanero. Chipotle. Etc. Some will be mild (no thanks). Others will be medium to spicy (yes, please). We’re in favor of crossing the streams and ordering a burrito with pico inside, and then carting a couple of other options (salsas, hot sauce) to drizzle on each bite.

The Extras

One of the most common add-ons comes via some form of avocado. But which way to go: creamy, chunky guac or whole slices of avo? If the avo is ripe, then it’s creamy enough to be a perfect texture for your burrito. Guacamole that oozes out the sides and steals too much of the focus from the meat? Nah.

And then there’s cheese. If you’re lactose intolerant, you are by all means exempt from adding it to your burrito. But if you don’t hew to a dairy-free diet, why on earth would you not want to gild the lily with some oozy, melty goodness? It doesn’t overpower, but rather enhances, the burrito experience.

Sour cream is another matter, though. Often taquerias slather on waaaaaay too much of it to make it worthwhile. We don’t even want a little bit of it on our burrito, as the cool creaminess balances out the salsa’s spiciness too much for our liking. If we had our way, sour cream would be canceled from this entire affair altogether.

To lettuce or not to lettuce? This is its own hotly debated topic, and the answer often depends on what the taqueria you’ve entered has on offer. Some don’t include lettuce as a rule, while others provide it as optional. We just say no. Too often the iceberg crunch gets reduced to a warm, soggy mess that results in strings of food unceremoniously hanging out of your mouth. Warm iceberg might taste good snuggled between two Big Mac buns, but it’s best left out of the little cylindrical steamer that is a burrito.

A lot of burritos are a little bit like In ‘N Out: deceptively simple if you don’t know about the special, off-menu customizations that are available. If it’s late at night and you haven’t got the mental bandwidth at a spot like La Taqueria, just request the blistered serrano chiles chopped up and mixed in with your burrito meat. As for escabeche, if you’re going to grab some from the taco bar, it’s great eaten as a side refresher from a few bites of hearty burrito, but seeing people put it on and in their burrito gives us pause. And as far as chopped cilantro and onions, leave that for your taco.

Further Food for Thought: FAQ

Hey, should taquerias serve burritos?

In Mexico, a spot may do well by serving just one thing (e.g. tacos), but Stateside, we-serve-everything is the predominant business model, because we don’t want to walk or drive to more than one spot for a meal, and the American way is having things “my way.”

If we had the robust street food life of Mexico City, it’d be easy to stand on the side of the road waiting for your co-worker to order a tlacoyo while you grab a burrito (of which D.F. has more than a few delicious ones, contrary to American belief that burritos are only ours), but if most taquerias in the U.S. want to survive, they have to serve burritos.

What about burrito bowls? Are those burritos?

No. Just NO. You have been double-crossed by fancy beans and rice. You may order a “taco bowl” instead, but burritos come wrapped in a pillowy tortilla blanket, and that’s that.

Speaking of which, how do you feel about Chipotle’s burrito?

If you are working in SF’s Financial District and have given up on all the lines for fancy salads, work a physically-demanding job, or are a parent of three or more children under 10, then sure, you have our blessing.

Is the foil or paper wrapper around a burrito necessary?

A burrito should be pretty warm. The tortilla should transmit heat such that, if it did not have prophylactic protection, your hands would be playing hot potato. Gently fold your wrapper down as you take bites, and be grateful for the cook’s wrapping skills. By all means, do not, we repeat DO NOT, remove the full wrapper before proceeding to eat the burrito. This is not an item meant to be eaten with a fork and knife.

Can I really not eat my burrito with a fork and knife?

Ok, there’s only one exception to the rule: if it’s a burrito mojado, also known as a wet burrito, a.k.a. smothered in enchilada sauce and melted cheese, a.k.a. the ultimate gut bomb. If you have the fortitude to take one of these beasts down, then we salute you. Use all the utensils you need to conquer this culinary feat.

What’s the best drink to accompany a burrito?

That really depends on what you expect your burrito to do. If you’re looking to cap a great night out at the bars, a Jarritos or a Corona is nice. If you’re about to hit the night shift for work, having a little coffee or espresso afterwards will keep you from devolving into a deep food coma. If it’s a hot day and you want to be refreshed, aguas frescas are perfect. If it’s cold and the restaurant has atole, why not? But generally speaking, a burrito requires no beverage and is probably better off followed by one than consumed concurrently with one. Your salsa, after all, is your ideal source of moisture.

Should I expect service with a smile?

You should actually expect an inverse correlation between sunshiney friendliness that non-Californians assume we exude, and the taste of your burrito. That is to say, service, whether good or bad, does not reflect the quality of your burrito. Go where the carnitas are crispy with cash in hand and don’t expect pampering.

Why aren’t burritos more ‘grammable?

A burrito hides its goodness in its interior, so if you feel like slicing it in half and angling your smartphone to take a photo, snap away, but the real reward of a burrito is quietly munching its various textures and savoring the feeling of warm fullness in your stomach. Get a few side tacos if you must ‘gram.

What would piss off my burrito joint?

Pondering the menu too long with seven other hungry burrito-eaters behind you, pontificating on burrito “authenticity,” changing your mind after four minutes (your burrito is already mid-roll), or hovering over your cook while he makes your burrito is enough to drive any restaurant mad. If you’re asking for specializations, say them right (use the spot’s lingo) and say them fast. Don’t forget that cash is king, and a tip is highly appreciated.