Before I moved to the US, I remember telling my partner (who was living in SoCal) what I was having for dinner one evening. I learnt something very important at that moment: throwing a bunch of stuff into a tortilla wrap and calling it a burrito does not make it a burrito. And Southern Californians really know their burritos.
You might figure that I don’t really have much authority on the status of The Burrito on the West Coast, what with my vegan status. However, not only are vegan burritos so plentiful and at least mostly authentic in this region, but also, Mexican food is enjoyed by everyone—seemingly no exceptions—so you can feel fully immersed in this cuisine just by living here, without ever eating meat.
What is a burrito?
Well, while it appears there is no united consensus on what should be in a burrito, there are some mainly agreed-upon staples: meat, cheese, beans and sauce. Rice is very common, as is guacamole/avocado and sour cream. All of this of course wrapped in a tortilla.
For an example, we can refer to local chain Miguel’s Jr, a favorite in parts of Southern California, which includes in its “Original” offering: refried beans, Spanish rice, cheddar cheese and a choice of meat (shredded chicken, Chile Verde pork, shredded beef or carne asada).
The best vegan burritos in Southern California
Like Miguel’s, not every Mexican-style restaurant chain caters for vegans. Fortunately, for the likes of me, there’s Chipotle Mexican Grill. It may have been founded by some white dude from Colorado, but Chipotle’s burrito game is absolutely sublime. (I’m sure some Mexican food lovers will vehemently disagree, but to this white English palate, it's hard to beat them.)
You order Subway-style at Chipotle, building your mission burrito (basically a massive burrito with even more filling), tacos, salad or bowl as you progress along the line through the ingredients. My perfect Chipotle burrito includes sofritas (their tofu-based protein), black beans, brown rice, salsa and guac. It’s…the best food I’ve ever eaten from a national chain, that’s for sure.
It's not that Chipotle's burritos are the best out there, more that they are so accessible and happen to taste effing great. If you're looking for a lush vegan burrito and you're willing to travel, I'd recommend the mushroom carnitas burrito from Cafe Gratitude, which has a number of locations across LA and the Southern California coast.
A firm favorite: the mushroom carnitas burrito from Cafe Gratitude
Despite my love of eating burritos past the midday mark, the majority of my most wow-worthy burritos have been of the breakfast variety.
It seems that vegan and vegan-friendly breakfast establishments in this part of the world have made it their duty to cram as many different breakfast ingredients as possible into a tortilla wrap (along with those trusty burrito staples), with the result nearly always being a mélange of mouthwatering flavors that I just cannot get enough of.
The top breakfast burritos in California that I’ve had the pleasure of sampling have been at:
- Localita (Hollywood and DTLA)
- Breakfast Republic (a fast-growing chain along the LA-San Diego coast)
- Groundwork Coffee (Venice Beach)
- The Grain Cafe (Long Beach)
Madre Tiere’s breakfast burrito would have made the list—but they changed the ingredients and ruined the magic. (Luckily my wife pretty much worked out what they used and makes a mean version herself.)
Burrito photos rarely do the food justice. But here's pictorial evidence of Localita's sumptuous breakfast burrito all the same
The origins of the burrito
Meaning little donkey in Spanish, the burrito is subject to various origin stories. My favorite being of a man in Ciudad Juárez (which borders El Paso on the Texas/Mexico border) who, during the Mexican Revolution, used to sell tacos while moving his food and self around on a donkey, and keeping the ingredients warm by wrapping them in large tortillas. Somehow “the food sold by the man who rides the little donkey” became “little donkey”. That’s just so good—although probably not the true origin.
It’s likely instead that burritos were invented by people from the north-western Sonora region of Mexico as a way to eat leftover rice and beans. And probably named as a nod to the faithful donkey that was used to carry an assortment of wares, much like the burrito.
The burrito in the US
Northern Mexico may be the burrito’s birthplace, but when you head north of the border, California is easily its US home.
LA apparently boasts the country’s first ever burrito-serving restaurant, in El Cholo Spanish Café. I say apparently, because, while many websites seem to think this is the case—probably using this book as their source—El Cholo’s own website says they introduced burritos in the 70s after borrowing the idea from another LA restaurant, so who knows.
Regardless, Los Angeles and the surrounding area is inundated with high-quality burrito establishments, from long-standing local institutions standing by secret family recipes to street vendors cooking up meaty, greasy, unabashed stomach fillers.
Meanwhile, both San Diego and San Francisco invented their own burritos which are now mainstays.
San Diego’s California burrito is defined by the addition of french fries—yes they are amazing—while the aforementioned mission burrito is named after where it was conceived—the Mission District in SF.
So when you take all the above into account, it’s probably no surprise I’ve fallen in love with Mexican food, and especially the burrito. You really cannot beat the burrito’s transportability, density, surprising variety and guaranteed ability to make you feel like you'll never need to eat again.
What are your burrito-eating experiences? I’d love to hear about your favorite spots, whether they’re in California or elsewhere. Let me know in the comments. Go on, it’s all about that engagement, folks! You can also contact me directly here. To find out more about my blogging and content writing services, click here.