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Oct 29, 2012 06:05 PM

Burrito Tectonics

Let's break it down, Hounds. What does make a good San Diego burrito? Some musings:

I teach a lot of music, and one mnemonic I use to have bass-clef players remember the names of the lines of the staff is Good Burritos Don't Fall Apart. This got me to thinking: is this actually true? because I've eaten a few good ones that for sure fell apart. As in a mass of sextuple-folds-of-tortilla-in-salsa-fresca-water-with-congealed-cheese-and-chunks-of-carne-asada-fall-apart-but-I'm-gona-down-it-anyway kinda fall apart. But then, there are those that have goodness+structural integrity that blow me away.

I've been to a handful of places that do something wonderful to the burrito: another turn on the plancha after being rolled for Sublime Exterior Toastiness. A secondary result: no sump of agua de salsa polluting my last five bites. I ask for it every time now. Heresy?

No rice.

No veggies, unless it's a veg deal, about which I know nothing.

These don't always do their part to offer integrity to the whole in my experience.

Salsa poured from the cups on the rack at the ensaladera, or inside de burrito?

Breakfast burritos are exempt. They hold their own, and in my opinion are like pumpkin pie: the worst slice is not much worse than the best. I love them. But no potatoes, please. Heresy?

Structural integrity. That is to be discussed. Who does it best?


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  1. Well, part of it is in the eating technique.

    If one chooses to unwrap the burrito entirely before dining, one deserves the unavoidable structural disaster. A properly stuffed burrito will unfold at the bottom, spilling its precious contents. And the diner is left to suffer the indignity of using a tenedor off the small styrofoam plate on which these are sometimes (and incorrectly) served- unacceptable. A amateur's mistake.

    A seasoned burrito eater should be able to consume it in the car without staining interior or clothing. Not a drop, not an errant crumb. This is advanced-level technique, and not for the timid.

    Pockets of agua de salsa are one of the hallmarks of a pooly made burrito. However, guacamole pockets are entirely acceptable, as are pockets (veins) of sour cream. In fact, advanced burrito consumers can detect the end of the burrito that has the lowest temperature, indicative of the guacamole or sour cream, and choose to begin eating from that end to assure safety of the delicate tissues of the tongue and upper palate.

    The tortilla must be made structurally stronger on the plancha, but too much time there makes it more of a egg roll, and is contraindicated in all cases. The proper ratio of blackened bits to white flour (always!) tortilla must be maintained to specification.

    Most important is the humidity of the contents. Too much precious liquid and the diner is unable to meet the eat-in-car goals, and the contents lack the harmony of flavor- fundamental in the creation of this important food group. Too little liquid has the opposite result- tastes of the components, not the synergy.

    In our next chapter, we can discuss proper conduct in the drive thru lane, communication skills, and proximity of vehicle to the pickup window.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Fake Name

      Not an errant crumb.

      You sir, are a professional.

      I salute you.

      "When a burrito weeps from the bottom, all is lost. When a burrito weeps from it's event horizon, Viva Mexico! "
      -Winston Churchill that is, if a single seared morsel of carne asada falls, dances 'pon styrofoamen platter, I presume that you, like me, calmly place it upon the top back within it's milieu, and respect it for it's pluckiness. No?

      1. re: Fake Name

        'In our next chapter, we can discuss proper conduct in the drive thru lane, communication skills, and proximity of vehicle to the pickup window.'

        Last year, we went to a unnamed taco shop that serves whole fried fish..took 45 minutes and we were wedged between 5 cars and the taco shop didn't have the car pull off and wait while we all could get our food and move on..

        Still reliving that moment...rat frigging bastards!

      2. I don't know if they fit all of your criteria, but I like the burritos at Las Cuatro Milpas.

        Why? Because they meet my one and only criteria. They taste good. Damn good.

        A close second would be La Fachada (and they make an awesome plate of carne asada fries)

        19 Replies
        1. re: ipsedixit

          Aha! A sensualist! I thought so...

          I love LCM. I need no more in fine dining.

          I recently had the $1.99 brecko burro at the place off Cristianitos near Old Man's in Onofre. Get this:

          eggs, scrambled too hard, wet beans (skins present in bean matrix), soft tortilla, salsa verde inside de burrito, a worked. Violating all my integrity rules. A bit on the humid side, but what the hell?!

          And I was fed for the day...or at least four hours. You would like this burrito. It "tasted good," and I'd get it again, but it lacked structure, which is something I love, unaccountably, in a burrito. What gives?


          1. re: SaltyRaisins

            Yeah, I guess I'm a sensualist.

            Sometimes if you overthink food you lose what is most important (and really the reason we eat food) -- the taste.

            1. re: ipsedixit

              Well said. Well said.

              I've had all kinds of burritos. Don't even get me started on the enchiladas. And the totopes. Carne secas, desert cured off the winds of Dzil Ligiai's flanks in Tucson, re-stewed with acidic tomatoes off the desert floor 'round the Tohono O'odham res. Those were good. But the burrito...I guess I'd filed it away under Honkamann's "fuel" category...

              I want to know more. Where, how, why you eat it...Do people really order the Chile Relleno Burrito (CRB)?

              And it's structure...Fake's 'Guac Pockets, Veins of Crema"...vivid. Are they a proxy for cannaballism? I think so...therefore I search for bony integrity, yet I know not why.

              1. re: SaltyRaisins

                I used to love a good chile relleno burrito.

                  1. re: SaltyRaisins

                    I now live in San Francisco, and have learned I am lactose intolerant. For the most part I've been eating a vegan diet, but am now going to try 30 days of paleo eating (which means no more burritos for a month).

                    Since moving here, though, I've eaten a lot of Mission-style burritos and have come to prefer them to the San Diego taco shop burrito. Actually, let me emphasize that it depends on the Mission burrito. Most of them are not that good. When they are done well, though, they are fantastic. A spot near my office makes a nopales burrito that was one of my go-to lunch options.

                    1. re: SaltyRaisins

                      He's a mission style burrito traitor, Salty.

                      I don't know why he lowers himself to even visit the San Diego board any longer, unless it is to thumb his nose at us.

                      1. re: RB Hound

                        I still visit SD from time-to-time. Have to keep up on the latest Cheesecake Factory locations. (I have yet to see one of those up here, at least in the city.)

                        1. re: Josh

                          Fear not!

                          251 Geary Street San Francisco, CA 94102

                          1. re: Fake Name

                            Google says that is the only one, though. They need something for the non adventurous tourists. :)

                            1. re: Fake Name

                              That's the tourist area of downtown. Unsurprising that's where it'd be. Don't know how I never noticed it, though.

                      2. re: SaltyRaisins

                        I confess to regularly ordering chile relleno burritos. A little tough on the road because the stem is usually crammed in there. The quality of this treat is widely vaiable as are the accompanying ingredients. Best with beans, guac, sour cream, salsa.

                        As for burrito consumption technique generally, I often cut the monster in half. Helps with application of salsa and salt, where needed. It is heretical, I know, but I cut my burgers in half too. Forgive me.

                        1. re: eatemup


                          Cut a burrito in half?

                          Burger, sure at a fine dining establishment.

                          This hurts just to read.

                          Wait- longitudinally? Like a vivisection? Say it's not so.

                          1. re: eatemup

                            I got your back eatemup...
                            I cut my burrito in half too.
                            I like to ooze that super hot sauce and salt for every to look at that sour cream, cheese, guac and refried beans staring at me..

                            I cut my veggie burger in half too...yeah, I said it..flame away Sir Fakey, flame away!

                            1. re: Beach Chick

                              Glad to know I'm not alone. I usually do this when I take it back to my desk and close my door. Can't abide the scorn and derision (at least not any more than I am typically subjected to).

                            2. re: eatemup

                              Sinner! Burrito Apostate!!! Never, ever, ever cut a burrito in half or suffer the scorn of the righteous chowhounders. The salt and salsa can be applied after the initial judicious bite. The only time it is ever permissible, and even this is questionable, is when sharing with another, and the person you are sharing with has a cold. More acceptable, and safe, to just buy two burritos!

                              May the salsa be with you . . . Via Con Burritos!

                            3. re: SaltyRaisins

                              Do Chile Relleno Tacos count too???

                              Rather a distant cousin of your CR Burrito, both are a modern invention

                              1. re: DiningDiva

                                Wow. Excellent field work. Never seen this species before. Kinda like filling a taco with, well, a taco or something.


                      3. Salty!!
                        I don't eat meat but love me a rice, beans, gobbs of cheese with veins of guac, sour, grilled chiles cut up with super hot salsa..
                        Las Cuatro Milpas makes me me a killer bean/cheese/guac burrito and love their salsa and flour tortillas.
                        Grilled scallops, shrimp or lobster work for this drummer chica.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Beach Chick

                          Ok, I gotta try LCM burrito. I have a weekly breakfast there and never tried it.

                        2. Well, technically, there are always veggies in a San Diego burrito, as tomatoes are legally vegetables (at least for tariff purposes). Additionally, the occasional inclusion of iceberg lettuce to a carne asada burrito can be a welcome thing - at La Posta at 3 a.m., for instance. It is also common to have onions and peppers in a machaca burrito - though my favorite machaca burrito, from a now-defunct taco shop, did not have onions and peppers.

                          As far as wetness goes, it depends on the filling. Carne asada, carnitas, pollo asado, and adobada, should be moist, of course, but not create any structural issues. Chorizo and machaca (my go-to breakfast favorites) have a tendency to have too much mosture, leading to the bottom of the burrito being soggy, and usually discarded. In so doing, the eater can assure himself/herself of not being a huge glutton.

                          Lastly, the application of salsa CANNOT be made by unwrapping the burrito. This is key for two reasons: 1) it messes with the integrity of the burrito; and 2) it dilutes the flavor of the salsa (which I term hot sauce, for some reason). As the salsa is used to season the burrito's ingredients - providing heat, garlic, salt and some acidity - diluting the flavor is poor form. For that reason, taco shops with watery salsa should be shunned, even if that means (*gasp*) you have to walk an additional two blocks to fill your burrito fix.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: jmtreg

                            Having just downed a machaca burrito from Fiesta (on India) for lunch, I will say that it was blissfully free of the excess agua de salsa/tomatojuice/eggwater that can sometimes accumulate in the bottom.

                            As to a chorizo one, what accumulates in the burrito's bilge is not so much water as grease and juices from the lymph nodes and salivary glands. Often too much to do as a shot (unless you have a couple Lipitors to chew, after), but if you can find a place to safely pour this out, the remaining tortilla hull and folds will have sopped up much deliciousity, just as a few hunks of bread allow you to savor the dregs of a fine stew or a Duckett's Bucket from Fish Market..

                          2. A while back I started requesting NO PICO DE GALLO in any of my burritos that are meat based. Takes the burrito to a whole new (outstanding) level. Helps with those sloppier burritos, and doesn't muddy up other similar ingredients. Frankly, I find pico de gallo completely useless in burritos. I expect it from somewhere in the midwest or a chain restaurant (just like rice in seafood burritos).

                            25 Replies
                            1. re: MrKrispy

                              So what is a San Diego burrito exactly?

                              And why can't I ever get a bean burrito that has just enough beans and not a big ol' blob?

                              1. re: pickypicky

                                A San Diego style burrito has no rice, no lettuce,beans, no gussied up fancy salsas, no extraneous vegetables and in some cases no cheese. The burrito most often associated with our city is the CAB...carne asada burrito. Tortilla, carne asada, pico and guac = your basic San Diego burrito. With only 4 basic ingredients, if you screw one of them up, or the proportions of each are off the whole burrito just isn't right.

                                As for bean burritos, I'd just like one in which the beans are good from scratch and not rehydrated out of a bag. And you get a big ol' blob because the beans are portioned onto the tortilla with a scoop (for portion control you know)

                                1. re: DiningDiva

                                  Controversial question...what do you think of sour cream in a burrito? ;D

                                  1. re: foodiechick

                                    hee hee hee...beans or carne asada?

                                    ; - )

                                    1. re: foodiechick

                                      I adore sour cream. I can eat it with a spoon sttaight out of a container. On a carnitas burrito, no. But on a CAB or chicken burrito, as long as the person prepping it doesn't get carried away, why not. It's a strong ingredient. It can really add some rich, cool dimension. Too much and then you don't taste anything except the sour cream :-(

                                      1. re: DiningDiva

                                        thumbs up for crema! thumbs down for sour cream.

                                        1. re: DiningDiva

                                          Yeah, I don't have a problem with sour cream on top a burrito, but for whatever reason, I simply cannot abide [gobs of] sour cream inside a burrito. It throws off the critical ratios of the other ingredients, and turns carne asada into faux beef stroganoff.

                                          1. re: The Office Goat

                                            Great description "turns carne asada into faux beef stroganoff."

                                      2. re: DiningDiva

                                        ' gussied up' said my fave word!

                                        Don't you love when you go by a taco shop and you can smell the beans cooking a block away..

                                        1. re: Beach Chick

                                          Yep. My favorite burrito is actually a plain ol' bean & cheeze with some really fine salsa verde. . .and maybe a bit of sour cream.

                                          1. re: DiningDiva

                                            bean and cheese and sour cream...I can't think of a better late night burrito.

                                            1. re: DiningDiva

                                              Totally agree, DD. I'm always looking to the best version of the bean 'n cheezer, as they're called in my house. Other than making it yourself, where do you find your favorite version?

                                              1. re: aloha925

                                                Still lookin' Aloha.

                                                There is a Los Primos close to my house and their B&C is decent. The beans, however, are too loose and the burrito gets too hard to eat by the end of it, but their salsa verde provides a nice tart contrast.

                                                The gals in the Cafe at City College make a pretty decent one. The beans are dehydrated but they're using the Del Real Salsa Verde which for a commercial product is pretty killer. And at $1.50 it's a pretty good deal.

                                                At home I really like to take black beans and turn them into pretty chunky refrieds and pile them onto the tortilla, top with a bunch of shredded cheese (jack or cheddar), add some well drained pico and a couple of squiggles of sour cream, roll and eat. The other thing that's really great is to take charro beans (i.e. they've got pork <bacon works spectacularly here> in them) and mush them up, then add the pico, cheese and crema. I know this is heresay, but shredded iceberg lettuce works surprisingly well in a B&C burrito.

                                                1. re: DiningDiva

                                                  Have you tried the b&c at Mi Rancho Taco Shop Numero Uno?

                                                  I'm not a big fan of b&c but my colleague -- who is -- swears by theirs.

                                                  I think it's the generous -- but judicious -- use of lard.

                                                  1. re: ipsedixit

                                                    Yummmmmmmmmm. Lard. Where is this place?

                                                    1. re: pickypicky

                                                      In Barrio Logan, corner of Main and 32nd.

                                                      Good horchatas too.

                                                      1. re: ipsedixit

                                                        Thanks. Daughter coming for Thanksgiving. Need to be prepared for bean burrito stops.

                                                        1. re: pickypicky

                                                          El Cuervo in Hillcrest has awesome bean burritos. That was my go-to for months while living there. Their chile de arbol and chipotle salsas are both excellent.

                                                          1. re: Josh


                                                            I appreciate El Cuervo for many things, but mainly the family-run vibe. And the puerco en chile verde. Just superb.

                                                            Their birria's not to shabby, but their "bean slap" as we call the bean burrito is second-to-none. Requires a good application of hand pressure ("slap") before consuming to temper the distribution of the beans.

                                                            Roll on.

                                                            1. re: SaltyRaisins

                                                              I used to love the carnitas burrito at El Cuervo. I can't remember trying their B/C before. Sounds like an excuse to go eat one this weekend :-)

                                                  2. re: DiningDiva

                                                    Thanks for the recs and recipe inspiration DD and others. Looks like I'm making burritos for dinner! Happy to have some more spots to try. I'll have to give El Cuervo another try. I've had one bean 'n cheezer there, but couldn't tell you much about it. Will have to try Mi Rancho too. I don't eat pork, but I give myself a hall pass for beans cooked in lard. Definitely my weakness! I do have a certain affinity for the b 'n c at the original Santana's (or MXN) on Rosecrans. The best I'm sure it's not, but a sentimental favorite - Santana's was the taco shop of my youth.

                                            2. re: DiningDiva

                                              Also, and I think this is the most distinctive quality of a San Diego burrito, it comes in a big flour tortilla which is heated on greasy plancha (flattop grill) as opposed to steamed (Mission style).

                                              Gustavo Arellano's new book "Taco USA" (title approximate) does a great job, in a brief section, of exploring the history of the San Diego taco shop. It's also a really compelling, inspiring book on the whole (and I was quite skeptical, as I wasn't engaged at all by Arellano's prior food writing).

                                              1. re: jayporter

                                                I've only gotten about 60% of the way through Taco USA, I've found him to be a bit full of himself in parts of it and had a hard time finishing the book. Try Planet Taco by Jeffery Pilcher. I liked it better.

                                                Actually, I think the tortilla itself is a key component to a good burrito. It needs to be slightly stretchy and slightly leathery in order to hold up to all the wet ingredients going into it. I think the pit stop on the plancha helps product this type of "skin". I actually like burritos made with this type of tortilla better than some that have a flour tortilla that's too thick, too "fluffy" and too soft.

                                                1. re: DiningDiva

                                                  Interesting, that's what I've generally thought of his writing persona before, in spades (also that it is narrow-minded/provincial). But I got less of that in this book, which is why I enjoyed it. That said, I'm going to check out Planet Taco now, too.

                                                  1. re: jayporter

                                                    I think Taco USA is very narrow in many respects, especially to some of the historical difference. I did find the opening material pretty interesting, but he could have used a good editor for some of the chapter on Chili Queens and Tamale vendors. Interesting but far longer than needed to establish the historical significance of them.