State of the burrito
California Burrito3672 J St.
As a Californian, native or otherwise, it is your civic duty to learn about the hybrid dish known as the California burrito. This burrito originated in Southern California, specifically in San Diego, and is a mixture of carne asada, cheddar cheese, grilled onions and french fries. It simple, elegant, timeless and a brilliant mash-up of Mexican and American culture, just like California herself.
As one would hope, California Burrito makes an excellent example of such a dish. It has lots of gooey cheese; salty, chewy steak; and soggy fries (but no pico de gallo or salsa, so make sure to get some from the salsa bar to douse each bite). It’s quite addictive: During one visit, I kept trying to put the burrito down and walk away, but I wound up eating every last shred.
Another San Diego regional dish offered here is the rolled taco—or taquito, as you may know it from the Taco Bell menu. It’s a small, rolled, deep-fried corn tortilla stuffed with meat and topped with guacamole. The beef has more character than the dry chicken, and they make for satisfying, crunchy snacks.
The veggie burrito is served Mission style (with pinto beans, rice, guacamole, sour cream, lettuce, pico de gallo); this is a starchy, overrated approach that is a path to a nap wrapped in a tortilla, but go for it, if you like that kind of thing.
The menu ventures out of the Golden State and into Southwestern and Tex-Mex cuisine with the chimichanga. The debate over the origin of this deep-fried burrito is in hot dispute, but many believe it was probably invented in the Tucson, Ariz., area. If you’ve ever tasted a deep-fried flour tortilla chip, possibly at El Novillero (4216 Franklin Boulevard), then you’ve already encountered the puffy, oily decadence of the chimichanga wrapper. The filling is equal parts beans and carne asada (it can also be ordered with various meats), and it’s served smothered in a slightly bitter and spicy red chili sauce.
Fajitas are another primarily Tex-Mex dish, and the chicken version, served with strips of sautéed onion and green pepper, is more healthful than most dishes on the menu, but it’s still bland and oily.
I don’t know from whence the restaurant’s fish taco came, regionally speaking, but it needs to swim back. It’s essentially a fish stick wrapped in a corn tortilla, accompanied by a mostly mayo “tartar sauce” as garnish. The spicy fish plate, although a bit pricey, is much better. The lime-marinated white fish is served with a tart enchilada-style sauce.
When it truly goes south of the border, California Burrito is on ground as shaky as the San Andreas Fault. Simple carnitas tacos are desiccated and topped with too many onions; the chunks of the pork in the chili verde don’t have the desired pull-apart texture, and the tomatillo sauce lacks heat.
This space, which previously housed a KFC and a Thai restaurant, among others, retains the bones of its generic, fast-food ambience. The restaurant’s logo depicts the state of California wearing a sombrero, with a burrito where the lap of California would be if California had a lap.
Both times I visited the restaurant it was icy cold inside, and on one visit, Bandamax, the Mexico-based music-television network, blared on a nearby television set. One fix for this is that the restaurant will deliver for free within a 2-mile radius for an order of more than $20. Another solution is just to pop in, order a California burrito to go and head home to watch Bandamax in surround sound—the accordion and tuba will sound crystal clear.