Burrito: A History

by Zach Mann on April 1, 2010 · 5 comments

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This story is eighth in a series. Zach will be posting a new story on Mexican food in San Diego every Thursday until he leaves Southern California for the San Francisco Bay, where he will continue to write and edit for The Eaten Path.

Pork Burrito - Las Cuatro Milpas - San Diego, CA
It wasn’t long before the burrito craze of the seventies spread throughout California, and it was a big enough deal that in imagining what a nostalgic “Cafe 70’s” must look like, I picture a taqueria.

The trend hit San Francisco first, and to this day hungry hippies believe their mission-style burritos of the sixties were the originators of today’s burrito kingdom. I won’t deny their claim, and I don’t see a point in arguing which California city deserves the burrito crown, because in the end it depends on your definition. S.F., for instance, believes that a burrito is a completely portable meal. Good for them.

My definition is a bit different, and much simpler. As the wheat flour tortilla grew in popularity in the early twentieth century, it only became a matter of time before some hombre dropped meat in the middle and wrapped the tortilla all the way around. That’s just practical, and that’s a burrito, invented simultaneously wherever flour tortillas hit the scene.

El Porvenir Tortilla Factory - San Diego, CA
That meaningfully includes the Barrio Logan area of San Diego, an inner-city ghetto formed at the turn of the twentieth century by refugees of the Mexican Revolution. Barrio Logan rests in the shadow of downtown S.D., tucked against the back of Petco Park like L.A.’s Echo Park is tucked against Chavez Ravine, and to call it a Mexican neighborhood would be an understatement. Even the pizza places only serve Mexican pizza and probably have carts outside selling aguas frescas, churros or deep-fried bananas. Down the street, Chicano Park has the largest collection of outdoor murals in the world, each in enough hypercolorful splendor to make Day of the Dead festivals look like a choir of nuns.

My guess is that the first burrito was folded in Northern Mexico somewhere, but if I were to conjecture at the location of the first burrito sold on this side of the line, I might point to that washed out cube pictured above. Sure, it looks like it offers 24-hour bail bonds, but it just might be the only Mexican food joint old enough to make the claim. At least, that’s one version of San Diego’s story, because that dilapidated box is El Porvenir Tortilla Factory, and it’s been feeding the barrio’s hungry since 1918.

To my and San Diego’s great misfortune, it appears that El Porvernir, which was open as recently as 2009, is closed, at least at the time of my writing this. I’m still holding out on the hope that it reopens before I return for a visit. Until then, I’ll turn to the second oldest tortilleria in the area, which fortunately waits just around the corner: This is Las Cuatro Milpas, representing Barrio Logan since 1933.

Las Cuatro Milpas - San Diego, CA
I wanted to dislike this place. In the area of Barrio Logan, Logan Heights and Memorial, where La Fachada and El Paisa make up only a small portion of the ancient cucina culture, it’s Las Cuatro Milpas that has the line going halfway down the block. It’s this one restaurant that gets all the credit for authentic San Diego Mexican food in the most authentic of San Diego Mexican neighborhoods. S.D. food bloggers and chowhound chatterboxes have ladened Las Cuatro Milpas with the “overrated” tag, and as I stood in line with sunburnt out-of-towners in khaki shorts and Navy recruits panicking at the sight of a “cash only” sign, I was ready to believe it.

I was sure it was the taqueria equivalent of the tourist trap, a place where reputation perpetuates itself regardless of the food, either by the novelty of seeing tortillas made right if front of you, or by mongering nostalgia with old clippings and kitschy decorations like Los Angeles’s Philippe’s. Then the interior dampened my worry. Las Cuatro Milpas’ starkly undecorated walls and picnic tables let the food do all the talking, and the prices here would surprise even the most trusting of tourists.

And the food… well, this chorizo con huevo can melt even the proudest of palates.

Chorizo con Huevo - Las Cuatro Milpas - San Diego, CA
If you don’t believe that chorizo con huevo can ever be outstanding, then you haven’t seen an old ex-ranchero ordering the large bowl at Las Cuatro Milpas for his entire family to share, fresh flour tortillas in each hand and expectant grins on each face.

That’s why you go to Las Cuatro Milpas – the tortillas. Even though the chorizo is probably the best I’ve ever had, in the end it’s just another reason to consume Las Cuatro Milpas’s doughy wonders. I don’t care how hard the menu is to decipher: Don’t order the tacos. They are unexciting, deep-fried, reminiscient of and possibly less worthy than West L.A.’s overrated Tito’s Tacos. Order the chorizo, or even just the beans and rice, which are also spectacular, then cherish the side of flour tortillas that come with.

In truth, all tortillas as fresh-off-the-grill as Las Cuatro Milpas’s are wonders, and it’s sad to consider how many people in this world think that tortillas taste like the stuff sold in supermarkets. I love Las Cuatro Milpas’s tortillas even more than most, though, as they are pleasantly undercooked and therefore warm and soft all the way through. It’s like waking up at first light to eat the first freshly baked loaf of bread from that little bakery in that little provincial town in France, except you’re at a communal picnic table at lunchtime in innercity San Diego, with everything covered in chorizo con huevo. Or beans. Or carnitas.

Tortilleria - Las Cuatro Milpas - San Diego, CA Pork Burrito - Las Cuatro Milpas - San Diego, CA
Tortillerias turned taquerias were common occurrences in forties and fifties San Diego, where the meat – usually carnitas – was an afterthought, a necessary addition for full meals, and usually present to showcase the tortilla more than the other way around. This was the case for El Porvenir, and Las Cuatro Milpas is carrying El Porvenir’s torch, rallying burrito history into the present day, showing all of us who care what true barrio food was really like.

If you don’t think San Diego’s version qualifies as a burrito, then you can at least admit it’s a direct ancestor. I’ll accept that, and I’ll let L.A. and S.F. duke it out for burrito supremacy on their own terms. If you ask me, however, San Francisco won that battle a long time ago. The last two burritos I consumed in Los Angeles were distinctly Mission-inspired, complete with rice, veggies and the question, “Black or pinto beans?”

I’ve never once been asked that question in San Diego. Why would they, when they know the correct answer? Pinto, of course, but in their own bowl, with the tortillas on the side.

Chorizo con Huevo and Tacos - Las Cuatro Milpas - San Diego, CA

El Porvenir Tortilla Factory
1786 National Ave
San Diego, CA 92113
(619) 233-4038
Las Cuatro Milpas
1875 Logan Ave
San Diego, CA 92113
(619) 234-4460

Zach’s San Diego Countdown
Week 1 – Super Cocina
Week 2 – Los ‘Bertos
Week 3 – El Tio Alberto
Week 4 – Ranas Mexico City Cuisine
Week 5 – La Fachada
Week 6 – Aqui es Texcoco
Week 7 – La Playa Taco Shop
Week 8 – Las Cuatros Milpas
Week 9 – Tacos El Paisa
Week 10 – Tacos Yaqui
Week 11 – Tacos El Gordo
Week 12 – Mariscos El Pescador
Week 12 – Mariscos El Pescador
Week 13 – Rudy’s Taco Shop


The Spatula Queen April 1, 2010 at 11:43 pm

This makes me I wish I’d made a mid-way stop to San Diego to get my burrito fix. I recently had an iffy experience with a famous S.F. Mission burrito joint, but I had no idea there was a way around my dislike of rice. Growing up in Texas meant I saw more chimichangas than burritos on the menu, so this is still pretty new to me.

Thanks to James for directing me to this post about all the different burrito styles in California, and thanks to you for all this info. These tortillas look fantastic, and might just be that extra necessary push to make me bite the bullet and go re-visit Southern California.

Zach April 2, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Thanks for the kind words, Spats.

A world where chimichangas outnumber burritos sounds like a pretty weird place to me. I can’t say I’ve ever experienced a must-have chimichanga, but I have to assume that they exist somewhere out there in the “Chimichanga Belt,” and I would like to learn where.

As for the San Francisco burrito – it’s so mainstream now that eating a burrito in SF is hardly a noteworthy tourist activity. I admit that I find the fast-food chain Chipotle to do a pretty good job at representing the mission-style (even if the fogeaters hate me for saying so).

But if you visit San Diego or Los Angeles, there are definitely “So-Cal Mexican” places worth going to as a visitor. El Tepeyac in East LA comes to mind, but lots of East LA places would qualify, and SD/TJ is chock full of border uniqueness.

Deb November 17, 2010 at 1:49 am

hi is there any one? or any way to get a recipe as close as can be to the beans and rice at Las Cuatros Milpas . I am a San Diegan born and raised and now live in Northern Va . DC area I miss MY Californian Mexican foods.

DG December 2, 2010 at 11:15 am

Been going to Las Cuatro Milpas for over 30 years & “NOTHING” compares to the flavor & Beans………sorry…NOTHING
Thanks for the great info

Don June 29, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Deb, I’m with you…..I moved out of SD about 8 years ago to the DFW area of TX….you’d think there would be at least ONE authentic Mexican food place around here. All I’ve found so far is TEX MEX. They have no idea what REAL MEXICAN food tastes like. I’ve been all over the internet trying to find a recipe that would compare to Las Cuatro Milpas’ chorizo rice and beans….I have very fond memories and would’ve camped out at their doorstep for more! I found that place back in the late 70’s, I’ve done some extensive travels and still nothing compares.

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