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Apr 19, 2009 01:33 PM

Mexican Burritos in LA

Gabachos, Angelenos, hounds , and pochos. What am I going to do with you? Burritos, tacos, tortas, carnitas, guacamole, shrimp cocktails, and chips! That’s all you ever talk about. You eat authentic Chinese in the SGV, poopoo our best ramen joints as being nothing like the ones in Japan, are in lock step in regards to the Izakaya Bincho’s, do Indian in Artesia,you know how lame the latest fad restaurant opened by a celeb chef really is, you give only golf claps to our best Italian, and every last one of you seems to know authentic Thai. Yet, you can’t wait to have your next Hollenbeck, carnitas and margaritas at some hipster fave like Alegria, or chow down on a plate loaded with cheese, rice, beans, and enchiladas. Que paso?
Well, don’t be discouraged, help has arrived to wean you off these vices. Yes, there are Mexican burritos, which originated in northern Mexico, but there is a difference between the burritos nortenos and the American version, a slop envelope of flour tortilla. For the purpose of this post I’m calling all non-Mexican burritos American. That includes Cal-Mex, Tex-Mex, East LA Mex, Mexican-American, etc.

The burrito was born in Chihuahua where popular tradition attributes the invention to Juan Mendez, who would would store guisados in flour tortillas and transport them by burro to Ciudad Juarez for sale.Hence the name, burritos! Today the fine Chihuahua burrito tradition is famously represented in Villa Ahumada with their famous burritos of asadero cheese, where motorists driving from Cd. Juarez to Chihuahua stop to pay homage to the burrito norteno. In Sonora, there burritas de machaca are a must have snack, along side a bit of frijoles maneados(refried beans made with two cheese and chorizo mixed in). Northern Mexican burritos are thin, usually made with wheat flour, and have a single guisado, but no more than two ingredients. The best ones I’ve had recently were in Jalisco at a burritos nortenos stand, a burrito with picadillo and another with rajas con queso (chile strips with cheese), great 2AM street eats.

Sergio of Mariscos Chente turned me on to Ricos Tacos El Tio in Inglewood. These burritos can be found in Sinaloa and other northern states. Here they are known as all-meat burritos, o de puro carne . El Tio is a ‘hood joint frequented by local blue collar types and itchy scratchy armed street characters, another great people watching opportunity. Here I ordered a chicken burrito, which had a dollop of slightly runny refritos to give the burrito a more stew like texture. These aren’t the norteno burritos, but Mexican in their simplicity of a meat with some cilantro and onion, and saucy beans. There is no rice, sour cream, lettuce, or guacamole. As the chef said, no one puts rice and all that stuff in a burrito. This was good, but not the burrito norteno I was craving.

On my way to La Casita, racing down Florence I caught the word Nortena on a sign out of the corner of my eye. I pulled over and there it was. Gorditas Nortenas in Bell has typical foods of Mexico: tacos, sopes, quesadillas, some Americanized comida corrida(fast food), and a burrito menu.

The burrito norteno comes with deshebrada with avocado, and a light spread of mayo. It’s rolled thin and then finished on the grill. But you can request any guisado to be done norteno style. They have many interesting guisados despite their rather ordinary menu: nopal con huevo(cactus and eggs), carne de puerco en chile rojo, requeson(Mexican version of ricotto cheese), choriqueso(chorizo and cheese), chicharron en chile verde, and of course frijoles con queso. This a Mexican cafeteria style place and the various cooks hail from Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Morelia, and other heartland cities of central Mexico. The gorditas are excellent from this part of Mexico, and you should try the gorditas here as well, there are thin and light like you would find in Zacatecas, Guanajuato, and Aguascalientes. Pick any guisado from the menu to stuff it with.

So, the next time you get a craving for Mexican, but aren’t ready for a rabbit mixiote, sautéed ant eggs, or a breakfast of barbacoa and morcilla(blood sausage), you can eat an authentic northern Mexican burrito, guilt-free. When your food snob, or Mexophile friends start hating you can have your savory revenge. Just don’t’ order the wet burrito!!

the burrito norteno
burrito norteno with cheese and poblano chile strips
burrito norteno filled with deshebrada, avocado, and a smack of mayo
the all-meat burrito at El Tio

Gorditas La Nortena (open 'til 7PM
)3309 E Florence Ave
Huntington Park, CA 90255
(323) 584-0275

Ricos Tacos El Tio
4200 W Imperial Hwy
Inglewood, CA 90304
(310) 671-8133

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  1. Thanks for your report and the ray of hope.

    You have also affirmed my previous posts about the (now fairly common around LA county) all-meat, minimalist style burrito mostly seen at catering trucks; it became my minimum standard about ten years ago. Besides Ricos Taco El Tio, IIRC just west on Imperial Acosta Taco serves the same style of burrito and is open 24/7.

    It's still a crap shoot, some trucks also include rice or worse. When you see that 14" tortilla Be Very Afraid. The mini chain Amigos Tacos used to be OK, but they've standardized on the Americanized product. Pollo bowls, arggh. All reasons why I'm much more included to order tacos, especially for the 'specialty' meats.

    sgla, I know you rail against carnitas, but with catering truck food I avoid carne asada (can't grill it properly), pollo (usually stewed and bland) and al pastor (rarely see a vertical spit roaster).

    Good pics of the griddled tortilla - if you don't/can't do homemade at least crisp up the commercial product. Just like home :-).

    Ricos Tacos El Tio
    4200 W Imperial Hwy, Inglewood, CA 90304

    Gorditas La Nortena
    3309 E Florence Ave, Huntington Park, CA 90255

    1 Reply
    1. re: DiveFan

      You're right, can't find those tacos done well here. I've had carnitas in Mexico so good that I think about them on a regular basis. I had some carnitas driving through Chihuahua with my grandparents when I was about eight.My grandfather went to a vendor and brought a bag of carnitas, corn torillas, and some salsa. I actually ate these with just tortilla and pork and must have finished off the kilo by myself over the course of the day driving to Aguascalientes.To this day, those are my benchmark. I've been to Uruapan, the carnitas capitol of Mexico and had them there. It's just not very enjoyable the times I've had them here in LA. TJ is the closest place for some good carnitas, for me.

      You can eat these burritos nortenos and still go back to the club and bust some merengue.Try doin' that with one of those giant slop bags, verdad?

    2. The original comment has been removed
      1. Yo Street... when my parent's first came as Mojarras in the early 80's... all the Mexicans that worked in or around downtown seemed to congregate on this one Sinaloense joint a few blocks south from Grand Central Market... it was on the same block as the sweatshop where my mom worked... and I am not sure why I would end up there with mom and/or dad... maybe that was the one place la Migra would respect =) Or maybe it was that good that we would take the bus from Lincoln Heights on days they didn't work just to eat at this place.

        Its too late to call my parents... but I have to get the name... who knows maybe its still there. To this day I still remember the crispy, red oil slicked Machaca in the burritos.. handmade, paper thin almost see through flour tortillas, the Frijoles Maneados on the side and bowls of blistered Jalapenos & Nopales (the latter of which my parent's claimed were foraged from around the city... such as Chaves Ravine etc., because they were fairly scarce in those days).

        I also have such fond memories of Clifton's & the Newberry's Cafeteria (probably the first places I ever had American food)... but as ironic as it may sound that ___ Cafe with its killer Sonoran burritos is the one I crave the most.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Eat_Nopal

          Ooohh.Please call your parents ASAP.Machaca burritos, with perhaps flour tortillas made in the sinaloan style? Only bested by the tortillas from Sonora. That would be muy chido!

        2. Slop bags? Please. Burritos are an afterthought in Mexican cuisine -- a vehicle for leftovers. The burrito has reached its zenith in the US, where it's properly the focus of a meal. People who insist otherwise are a bunch of foodie -- that's right, foodie -- snobs who confuse authenticity with good taste. I would put a thoroughly Americanized border burrito from Eduardo's against ANY of the burritos you mention in a taste test. I would be willing to bet money that most Hounds, judging on the basis of taste, rather than their foodie prejudices, would favor the Americanized version.

          PS: Apologies...I was being a jerk. Burritos are my passion, and threads like this really rankle me. I will try the places you mention with an open mind and report back.

          14 Replies
          1. re: a_and_w

            I have to get over to Eduardo's again this week. Excellent burritos. And I stopped in at Gallegos Mexican Deli the other day and had another of their quite delicious all barbacoa (with only added avocado) burritos. Sublime.

            Eduardo's Border Grill
            1830 Westwood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90025

            Gallegos Mexican Deli
            12470 Venice Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90066

            1. re: Servorg

              Yes, for Guisado style burittos on the west side, Gallegos is your best bet...


            2. re: a_and_w

              Sorry a_and_w... but you would lose that bet... I have had both... back when I was a 13 year old... and not at all the "intellectual" food snob I am today... i.e., I had no agenda.... and the quality differences were immediately apparent. In Northern Mexico... the burrito has just as much focus as in L.A.

              Hell, I am willing to bet a kidney that in a taste test involving people who have NEVER had any burritos before... maybe some remote Thai or Vietnamese villagers.... even the Sanborn's burritos would blow away the vast majority of our highly regarded L.A. burritos.

              1. re: Eat_Nopal

                As the man said, I've had both styles.I've had the Mission in S.F., every burrito imaginable, since the burrito is a teenage boys idea of nirvana.

              2. re: a_and_w

                No apologies necessary a_and_w.It was with a light hearted mind that I wrote this report, and don't begrudge you for your burrito passion. In northern Mexico, the burrito is a legitimate after club food just like a torta. The very delicious ones I had were at a stand about 3AM in Guadalajara just recently, and after many chelas and no food, they hit the spot.In Sonora, burritas de machaca with a side of frijoles maneados are no afterthought.I'll be there on Thursday, an you'd better believe that's what I'm having at the airport while awaiting my flight Friday morning.

                The burritos of guisados make more sense, speaking as someone who grew up eating Americanized burritos. In high school, a giant burrito? Pure heaven. That's the burrito concept turned into a main, as opposed to the antojito version in Mexico.

                It's the carbo imbalance and dryness of grilled meats that's off putting for me, as opposed to a nice picadillo.Ultimately, burritas are just tacos de harina. And, the burrito will only be as good as the guisado. Are you saying that a nice picadillo would be better if smothered in guacamole, rice, and sour cream?

                I would argue that an A and B taste test wouldn't be valid based on the fact that they are different foods with completely different profile. Stewed meats vs. grilled meats.

                Since burritos are your passion I do encourage you to try the Mexican sort, just to know another member in your burrito galaxy. Then you'll know the difference and have another option, or, another reason to keep doing what you're doing.

                1. re: streetgourmetla

                  I love burritos, and gotta preface this by saying I came from the Bay, so I LOVE mission burritos and have had a little trouble finding some burritos down here that I like as much, but I've found some. I've always wondered about the authenticity of burritos, and figured it was like pizza is to Italians.

                  That being said, I love reading your posts SGLA (I owe you a ton of gratitude for showing me Nina's on Breed St!), and really love to eat more authentic food, atleast to try it (maybe I will like it more than the version I am used to, maybe not, but atleast I would know). So, please keep giving more places that I can try some authentic burritos! Preferably close(r) to the Westside (insert laugh).

                  1. re: mdpilam

                    You don't even know how much sense you are making right now. Your clarity of thought is genious!! I mean that. Exactly, a little information to know and some things to try, that was the point. It was about 15 years , but I quite enjoyed my Mission burrito that day.

                    To undo years of Mexican-American comfort food will not happen overnight and may never happen for some. I don't ever try something once and make a judgement when I'm unaware of that food. It takes time to appreciate some things.Just like you I prefer actually trying the food.Call us crazy.

                    I shared a pambazo with some friends at Nina's last night.That place rocks!

                    And, hopefully more will have Mexican burrito recs to name, as there are many posts about the other kinds.

                  2. re: streetgourmetla

                    "It's the carbo imbalance and dryness of grilled meats that's off putting for me"

                    I agree there... further its also the other components of the slop with Sour Cream AND Guacamole AND Pico de Gallo AND... blah, blah, blah.

                    To put it in an Angelino centric matter... a great Americanized Burrito is to a Tito's Taco (7 layer dip in a shell?) as a great Mexican Burrito is to an El Parian steak taco.

                    Yeah... you are going to find some people the prefer & ardently defend the Tito's version... but I think most people who aspire to a higher level of cuisine (whether we are talking farm fresh but humble peasant food that takes days to prepare using rustic tools... to design conscious haute cuisine)... I think most people would prefer the El Parian version over the TIto's Taco.

                    1. re: Eat_Nopal

                      Most adults with an experience would have to agree.LA teenagers would go with the Tito's and Americanized burritos. As I recall you saying once, those aren't the food of grown-ups. I would not be able to convince my teenage cousin to have the burrito norteno, he would hate it.Just like he won't eat my grandmother's frijoles, where she was cooking for the men in the family by the age of 7 in Aguascalientes until now, almost 90, but he will scarf on some beans from Taco Bell.

                      Have burrito norteno for a snack, but dinner time is for something serious.

                      1. re: streetgourmetla

                        Good point... unfortunately our society produces so many people with child taste buds. I was thrown aback when one of my employees admitted it in those frank terms.

                  3. re: a_and_w

                    a_and_w, I have faith that as you age, your chowish brain will cause you to re-examine the tastes of your youth. I grew up in the SFBA and mostly had Mission style burritos. Fortunately travel, lower metabolism and increased interest in cooking changed my perspective on American food.
                    Americans are overly addicted to cheese - corporate marketeers understand this and stuff our chain restos and processed food with often questionable dairy products. Emphasizing quantity over quality compounds the decline of food culture.

                    REJECT the corporate profit burrito! /rant
                    Leave room for a taco or two :-).

                    Actually, I like the dry 'carne puro' burrito with caveats. With good homemade salsa at the ready, bite the end, add salsa, consume Immediately, repeat until finished. BTW a *thin* schmear of frijoles refritos is desirable to stick everything together.

                      1. re: DiveFan

                        Yes, and since I've lived in the area a long time the place looks strangely familiar.
                        Unfortunately my most recent lengua burrito there was not acceptable - it was mostly frijoles. I don't remember if it was necessary to specifically order 'carne puro' there; hopefully this is not a big, nasty trend. I need to 'recalibrate' at Acosta or luck onto a truck (not common in Hawthorne).

                        1. re: DiveFan

                          That's why I went with the chicken, to be safe. I thought it would be less dry.

                          What I'd love to see is a guy sittin' outside a club with a cooler full of his burritos nortenos, all soft and warm after siting inside the steamy environment.Just the burritos and a squirt bottle of his homemade salsa.

                          Until then I'm happy to go back to gorditas nortenas to try more northern burritos and those delicious gorditas. The menu had other promising items. Tortas of camaron con nopal.

                    1. Thanks for the info and links. As a devout burrito buster, I'm always open to trying more places; especially burritos made in the style you describe with no filler i.e. rice, beans, sour cream.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: vinosnob

                        Great, be sure to report back, vinosnob.

                        1. re: vinosnob

                          Beans aren't filler; beans are the entire point of a burrito. It is the guiso that is optional.

                          1. re: condiment

                            Hey condiment. The northern Mexico burrito is not based on beans. Beans and cheese are one of the popular filling, though. Picadillo, rajas con queso, mole, chicharron en salsa verde o roja, tinga, etc. The other kind found in the northern states, the pura carne burrito, is based on a guisado as well. El Tio does all meat, but mostly grilled meats. There is a chain in TJ that does these burritos but with more stewy options, I will hit those up sometime to get a comparison. I've only had the nortenos when traveling.