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The wrap that ate L.A.

It's not just rice and beans anymore. These days, burritos are positively stylin'.

November 10, 2004|Carolynn Carreno | Special to The Times

Armchair authorities on Mexican cuisine are fond of saying that burritos aren't really Mexican. It means "little donkey," they argue. It's not little, it's not a donkey -- so it couldn't possibly be autentico. As if we care.

Like pizza, which supposedly comes from Naples, or that all-American phenomenon, the hamburger, invented, so they say, by some fancy-pants in Germany, burritos have transcended their roots, real or supposed. And unlike the chile relleno, the enchilada, or even the soft taco, which, if made "correctly" should be pretty much the same wherever you go, burritos, regardless of their origin, are not mired in tradition. The burrito as we know it is puro Californiano and, like all things Californian, a product of innovation and reinvention.

San Francisco's whopping Mission-style burritos are legendary, of course, giant packages of saucy meat, beans and rice. For San Diegans, carne asada burritos are as integral to the experience of the place as a slice of pie is to a New Yorker -- what you grab when you want something cheap, easy to eat, and in the wee morning hours, allegedly capable of reversing the effects of alcohol (and even of curing them the next day).

But though the taco has long eclipsed the burrito's fame in Los Angeles, we do in fact have a burrito culture, and then some. You've always been able to find great burritos here in town -- at least as long as burritos have been around. But sometime in the last decade, burritos evolved into something so varied, so delicious and so ubiquitous that it would seem as though the burrito might one day replace the hamburger as L.A.'s signature bite.

Generally speaking, the little donkey we Angelenos know and love is a big, messy, hand-held monster. You find it in every neighborhood, from Boyle Heights to Northridge to Beverly Hills-adjacent; it emerges from colorful, corner burrito joints, from stalwart taco stands, from the trucks that pull up in front of construction sites or pull up in front of parks -- even from sit-down restaurants.

What gets handed over the counter at these places is a warm (steamed or quickly grilled) 12-inch flour tortilla, into which any variety and combination of Mexican culinary components -- meat, rice, beans, cilantro, onions, sour cream, guacamole, pico de gallo and hot sauce -- might be layered. (Order it con todo, and you'll get the works.) The sides of the tender, pliable tortilla are folded over the filling and the whole shebang is then rolled in the other direction, creating a nicely sealed, neat and clean log: a self-contained Mexican meal.

That is, except when it's a burrito mojado, a "wet burrito" that comes on a plate, drenched in sauce. While there are some who insist that a burrito isn't a burrito unless they can hold it in their hands, these less common hybrids have their fans (the author of this story being one).

A great burrito, as opposed to a merely good one, has a certain gestalt, in which every element adds up to something so delicious it can't exactly be explained, except to say you know it like you know a good PB & J.

The quality of the ingredients is important, of course, especially for the tortilla. It should be tender, floury and redolent of the salty, almost meaty scent of lard. But even more, a great burrito depends on striking just the right contrast of flavors and textures: spicy meat set off by cool crema or guacamole, the perfect proportion of filling to tortilla, and of rice and beans to the primary ingredient.

But when it comes to burritos, any aficionado knows that god is in the filling, be it the most delicious carnitas, moist chunks of beef in a red chili sauce, or juicy, smoky carne asada.

The classic carne asada burrito is a rare find these days, as the moist chunks of grilled meat are usually replaced with what seems to be stew meat, cut before it's marinated within an inch of its life, and cooked. But you can still find the real deal in a few taquerias and restaurants, among them El Parian in Pico-Union, which has one of the best carne asada burritos in town. There, the high-quality meat is cooked on the grill.

Creative stuffings

Carnitas, those delicious little morsels of long-cooked pork, also make a mean burrito. Those that fill the burritos at El Diablo and Benito's Taco Shop are moist and tender with crispy edges, just the way they should be. Slathered with extra shots of salsa verde, there's nothing like them.

And machaca, a traditional Sonoran specialty of dried, shredded beef that is stewed to make it juicy and flavorful is a draw at Burrito King, the Silver Lake stand that's been making them since 1969. They're as compelling as ever.

But more and more, L.A.'s burrito makers have started thinking outside of box. If chicken mole poblano or albondigas are delicious on a plate, why not roll them up in a flour tortilla?

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