How did Sacramento’s most popular food come to be? And where can you find the town’s truly great burrito—if one exists at all?
You hand over five dollars and in return get a hearty pound-and-a-half of food—rice, beans, cheese, who knows what else—wrapped tidily in a tortilla, then in foil. An array of self-service salsas and pickles, and all the chips you could ever want, typically accompany these monstrosities. Burritos are convenient, fast, cheap, definitely filling—but can you get a truly great burrito in Sacramento?
In Mexico, corn was the staple food long before the Spanish conquest, and, for most of the country, it still is. Historically, the vast majority of tortillas were made at home, or in small local tortillerias, from white corn grown locally; cooked and soaked in lime (the mineral, not the fruit) to loosen the kernels’ skins and free nutrients and protein; then washed, hulled and pounded into fresh masa, which is pressed flat by hand and cooked on a flat terra-cotta or cast-iron griddle called a comal. When I asked Pola Valderrama, who was born in Jalisco and now serves tacos and burritos at Island Tacos on Folsom Boulevard with her husband and son, if she ever ate flour tortillas as a child, she replied, “Always corn,” and made the motion of flattening a ball of masa between two hands. Many of the native Mexicans I’ve spoken to in Sacramento find the idea of wheat-flour tortillas foreign and express the belief that burritos are “Texas food” or “more of a U.S. thing.”
More people immigrate to the United States from Jalisco, Mexico’s leading corn-producing region, than any other state. But wheat production is concentrated in the arid, more sparsely populated states of northern Mexico: Sonora, Sinaloa and Chihuahua. After Spanish colonizers planted wheat, it took some time for the bread-baking infrastructure to catch up, so Indian cooks used old corn-cooking methods to make the first wheat tortillas, a tradition that persisted in the northern areas where wheat was more plentiful. Tortillas made from wheat, like their corn predecessors, were wrapped around some food—meat, potatoes, eggs—to make a little snack. Nobody knows when people started calling them burritos.
In Sacramento, Sonia Chaidez, one of the eponymous three sisters of Tres Hermanas restaurant on K Street, says the burritos from her home town of Cuauhtémoc, in Chihuahua, are small, and beans and rice are never included with the meat. Chaidez speaks excitedly about the long, narrow Chihuahuan burritos filled with one or two ingredients: housemade tortillas stuffed with small chiles rellenos, picadillo (minced meat, sometimes with potatoes), machaca (originally dried, reconstituted and shredded beef, now often made by stewing and shredding fresh beef) and eggs. “I love burritos,” she says. “I could eat them all the time.”
The burritos served at Tres Hermanas are bigger than those Chaidez describes; just one contains too much meat for lunch. But they are very good: nearly translucent tortillas (Guerrero brand) filled with expertly prepared meat, a modicum of sauce and nothing else—just carne asada, carnitas with pico de gallo or chile colorado. Chaidez is astonished (and repulsed, I think) by the size of burritos at places like Chipotle, but says customers often complain about her elemental burritos: “Why isn’t there more stuff in it?”
These giant burritos full of stuff, like those at Chipotle, are fashioned after a tradition that began in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco in the 1960s, where Raul Duran reportedly introduced burritos at his butcher shop, La Cumbre. More ingredients—beans, cheese, rice, pico de gallo, guacamole—were packed into these giant tortillas, turning a little snack into a complex and extremely filling self-contained meal. By the time I started eating burritos in the 1980s, all these ingredients had made the meat superfluous; for me, the quintessential Mission burrito is vegetarian: just beans, rice, cheese, pico de gallo, guacamole.
In Sacramento, the La Fiesta/ La Favorita chain dominates the taqueria scene with its properly composed but ordinary tacos, once a rare commodity in this town. And for a long time, I thought the La Favorita on Florin Road made the best vegetarian burritos in town. Like their San Francisco counterparts, Fiesta/Favorita burritos are tidy packages wrapped up in foil and steamed hot (the best Mission taquerias heat tortillas on a flat-top griddle). Peeling away the foil bit by bit to reveal more burrito keeps it from falling apart, and the burrito itself tastes good. Always on the salty side, the rice is sometimes a little too soft, but the cheese (queso blanco?) is tangy and flavorful, and the beans are good whether you choose pinto or substitute black. When the taqueria is busy, burritos can arrive less than a minute after they’re ordered, but they are sometimes poorly composed: all beans up top and rice at the bottom.
But Fiesta/Favorita burritos suffer from a deep defect: goopiness. Some Sacramentans apparently like goop, from the mayonnaise-y sauces sushi rolls at Mikuni swim in to the ubiquitous “garlic cream sauce” at Olive Garden. I find goop unappetizing. In a burrito, crema and guacamole together often create a goopy mess, so I usually ask for no crema (as a non-Spanish speaker, I actually ask for “no sour cream”). It is sometimes even better to substitute avocado for guacamole: A Chipotle burrito is made goopy by the copious guacamole alone. Even with the goop eradicated, sloppiness sometimes remains in Fiesta/Favorita burritos. This apparently comes from the lettuce, an ingredient rarely found in Mission burritos but almost de rigueur in Sacramento. The chain should invest in a few dozen salad spinners; their wet lettuce often makes the bottom half of a burrito drippy and the tortilla soggy.
La Fogata Taqueria on Sunrise Boulevard in Fair Oaks looks like Fiesta/Favorita inside: It has the same leather chairs, called equipales, and a similar menu of tacos, burritos and seafood. Burritos, comparable to Fiesta/Favorita’s, are sealed on the griddle and not wrapped in foil, making the tortilla more flavorful and less stretchy and soggy. A michelada (beer, lime, chili) arrives in a giant goblet with a single shrimp perched atop a salted rim. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this had to be another Favorita location, and it turns out the owners are from the same hometown: Atotonilco el Alto, in Jalisco. Jaliscienses, who don’t eat burritos in their home state, seem to furnish Sacramento with the bulk of its supply, almost like Chinese serving Tex-Mex in New York.
Michoacan-born Luis Barrera runs Alejandro’s Taqueria on K Street. Although Barrera did not eat burritos in his home state, the carefully composed vegetarian burritos at Alejandro’s are some of the best in town. A lot of the flavor comes from the queso blanco, and the tortilla is almost crusty but still pliable (I’ve never had one fall apart in my hands). The beans are tender, tasty and intact; the rice is perfectly al dente; the guacamole and pico de gallo add the right tangy kick. Lettuce lovers will find Alejandro’s to be fresh and crisp, sliced wider than most and thus narrowing the window for oxidation which gives rise to the soured taste that tends to plague places where burritos are an afterthought or turnover is low.
Back at Island Tacos, housed in a tiny hut in the corner of a parking lot in East Sacramento and staffed by one or two Valderramas, the family heats tortillas on a small electric griddle propped on a counter among various kitchen tools. Their gargantuan burritos (Mrs. Valderrama shook her head when I asked her if she liked burritos that big) are composed like a taco—meat, cilantro, onion—plus large quantities of rice, cheese and excellent small, pale beans. Island’s chicharrón (pig skin) is stewed to a tender, gelatinous softness that makes it seem like a condiment, making the chicharrón burrito bright, like a vegetarian, and unique among Sacramento’s offerings.
Perhaps the best Jalisciense taqueria in Sacramento is El Herradero on Arden Way; before I started researching burritos, I had only tried their excellent tacos, ceviche, sopes and tamales. But their vegetarian burrito is a mystery. In fact, it’s vegan, lacking cheese and sour cream. But it’s still pretty satisfying, with a toasted, fresh tortilla; crunchy, high-quality romaine lettuce; flavorful beans; and nice al dente rice. But much better, in concept and in taste, is Herradero’s shrimp burrito. This was a surprise for me (if I found myself trapped at a place like Chevys or Dos Coyotes, a shrimp burrito would be the last thing I’d ever order). The burrito’s composition is pared down: It contains only shrimp, cabbage, rice and crema—no beans, no cheese, no guacamole. This highlights the shrimp, which are maybe two inches, sweet and succulent. In the burrito format, the shrimp is reminiscent of lobster, and the burrito is better than some New England lobster rolls.
Outside the Jalisco/Michoacan taqueria scene, Sacramento has an abundance of burritos. Some are good: La Superior’s saladlike vegetarian, with its thick slices of tangy queso blanco, tomatoes and sweet onions; Oscar’s vegetarian, with its cabbage-y crunch; the chile verde and vegetarian burritos at Nopalitos. There are some middling burritos: The rice on Chipotle’s clumsily rolled burritos tastes mass-produced; Los Jarritos makes a small, meat-only carne asada burrito, but the pellets of beef are tough and dry; Beto’s and Carolina’s will give you a chile relleno burrito in the middle of the night, but the chile is huge, soggy and bland, and the copious pico de gallo is usually full of big hunks of acrid onions. There are a few really bad burritos in town: poorly rolled and cut in half, overly big and bland and heavy, soured-tasting refried beans, yellow cheese, wilted lettuce, ketchupy hot sauce.
I don’t think I’ve had a great burrito, not even what I’d call great-for-a-burrito. The best vegetarian burritos I’ve had were in San Francisco, at Taqueria Cancun and La Taqueria; the best meat burritos have been at Tres Hermanas. Although these are very good, there is no night-and-day difference, like the New England pizza at Frank Pepe’s or, in New York, DiFara’s, against the other good pizzas in America. Despite a lot of thought and research, I have only a vague idea of what a great burrito would be.
In a great burrito, ideally, each ingredient would be great. The tortilla would be freshly baked, not reheated, and it would not taste like Wonder Bread, but like real bread, despite extraordinary thinness. A great burrito wouldn’t have 10 ingredients or even seven or eight—just as a great sandwich does not; the ingredient list would be pared down to highlight the excellence of each. Imagine a perfect spit-roasted suckling pig: Cut off a couple thick slices, wrap them in a freshly baked tortilla, let the fat be the sauce.
But just when I think I have the ideal burrito in mind, I remember tacos, and I think of how good those hot slices of suckling pig would be in a handmade corn tortilla, pulled fresh from the comal. And for me, this is the unsolvable conundrum of burritos: How can they escape comparison with tacos? Once you’ve really pared things down to one or two extraordinary ingredients, aren’t you better off wrapping them in a perfect, flavorful, traditional corn tortilla? For me, burritos are still inherently convenience food, whether Mission-style with rice and beans, or Chihuahua-style for a quick breakfast, with machaca or chorizo and eggs or potatoes; or served up at a rest stop off the highway.