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Ranking Six of San Diego’s Classic California Burritos

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One of San Diego’s iconic foods gets the Eater taste-test

California burrito at Don Carlos in La Jolla
California burrito at Don Carlos in La Jolla
Chuck Cook Photography

The California burrito is one of San Diego’s most iconic dishes. There are dozens of restaurants that serve it, from sparse eateries with little more than a bare bones dining room and utilitarian kitchen to fancy “barstaurants” decorated in too many colors. Locals are nothing if not loyal to their favorite spots, and so passionate about what it should or should not contain that they’ll go to war for it — well, a war of words, anyway.

On a few ingredients we can agree: a California burrito includes carne asada, made with beef skirt or flank, potatoes — usually in the form of French fries but as you’ll see below, even that isn’t a “rule” — cheese, sour cream and pico de gallo. Many restaurants don’t include guacamole in the standard California burrito, so unless diners ask for it, it ends up being sour cream that provides silky texture. One thing’s for certain; no one likes a dry burrito.

Sauces are another distinguishing aspect. Diners come for the burritos but might return based on the the quality of the salsa bar. And while a California burrito can be ordered “wet,” or enchilada-style, all in this survey were ordered as-is with no other customizations. We went on a crawl through six eateries across San Diego known for their California burritos; see which burrito scored top marks.

Humberto’s Taco Shop
1015 25th St, San Diego, CA 92102
Price: $6.75
Ranking: 1 out of 4 tortillas

California burrito at Humberto’s
California burrito at Humberto’s
Phaedra Cook

This was the first California burrito tried for this list — and the most disappointing. As mentioned earlier, no one likes a dry burrito and that was the sin of this one. Some can get by without sour cream or guacamole if there’s enough pico de gallo, but that wasn’t the case at this Golden Hill spot.

In addition, parking is a chore both in the tiny lot and on the nearby streets. Still, Humberto’s has plenty of fans, as evidenced by the crowd in line and the 20-minute wait on a Sunday night. The reason for that may be because Humberto’s does a much better job on other Cali-Mex standards, like the beef and cheese enchiladas, for example. These are topped with plenty of enchilada sauce and a nice heap of lettuce and chopped tomatoes.

Humberto’s also deserves credit for being open 24-hours. So, do visit — but maybe not for the California burrito.

Lolita’s Mexican Food
4516 Bonita Rd, Bonita, CA 91902
Price: $7.90 (before tax)
Ranking: 2 out of 4 tortillas

California burrito at Lolita’s Mexican Food in Bonita
California burrito at Lolita’s Mexican Food in Bonita
Phaedra Cook

For many, Lolita’s is considered the gold standard of California burritos. The first location in Chula Vista was founded in 1984 by Joaquin and Delores (Lolita) Farfan. Casual Mexican fare runs in the family as Delores’ grandfather, Roberto Robledo, founded Roberto’s Taco Shop.

These days, there are six locations and there are no complaints about the sunset views on the patio at the one in Bonita. As far as the California burrito goes, this one could be considered a baseline against which to measure others. There are lots of thin French fries — too many, perhaps — with a good amount of crunch at first, although these will inevitably soften thanks to a generous but not sloppy amount of sour cream.

It’s a competent example but not an outstanding one. The meat is rather bland and not particularly tender. The sauces help (the green is particularly flavorful and allows serrano peppers to dominate rather than other ingredients) but no burrito should depend on hot sauce for flavor.

Don Carlos Taco Shop
737 Pearl St #113, La Jolla, CA 92037
Price: $7.75 (before tax)
Ranking: 2 out of 4 tortillas

California burrito at Don Carlos Taco Shop
California burrito at Don Carlos Taco Shop
Chuck Cook Photography

The California burrito at Don Carlos Taco Shop looks like it should be amazing, but looks aren’t everything. To its credit, it’s one of the most meaty of the bunch. The problem is that neither the French fries nor the meat carry much flavor. The meat is tender but if it spent much time in a marinade, it wasn’t apparent. A good dose of pico kept it sufficiently moist, and the homemade tortilla is notable unto itself. This is a guac-free rendition but of course it can be added upon request.

Still, it seems almost miraculous that this tiny mom and pop shop, with its small, spare dining room and functional patio with about a dozen seats, is able to still exist in a section of La Jolla that’s been a little overrun by chains. That in and of itself is worth treasuring, so we’d visit again for a different dish. Service couldn’t be sweeter and the thick, smoky red sauce — essentially a ground pepper paste — was among the best in the survey. It alone is worth coming back for a pint to-go.

La Puerta
560 Fourth Ave, San Diego, CA 92101
Price: $15 (before tax)
Ranking: 2 out of 4 tortillas

California burrito at La Puerta
California burrito at La Puerta
Phaedra Cook

Though locals lament that there’s no great food to be found in the Gaslamp, that’s just not true. La Puerta is one of the more worthy spots, featuring long, frequent happy hours and reverse happy hours and one of San Diego’s largest collection of small batch tequila and mezcal.

Unfortunately, the California burrito is not its forte and at $15, it carries Gaslamp-style pricing. It’s almost twice the price of others in the list and also not nearly as meaty. At least guacamole comes on it without having to ask. In fact, this rendition is defined more by the creaminess of the guacamole and sour cream than anything else. The exterior of the tortilla also gets significant toasting on a flat top, which gives it nicely crisped sides.

Juanita’s Taco Shop
290 North Coast Hwy 101, Encinitas, CA 92024
Price: $6.30 (before tax)
Ranking: 2 out of 4 tortillas

California burrito at Juanita’s
California burrito at Juanita’s
Chuck Cook Photography

Juanita’s has a special place in the hearts of many San Diegans. A humble shop just off of North Coast Highway in Encinitas, it’s a sparse place, save for the charming ocean-themed mural painted on every wall of the side dining room. Service is usually nice but no-nonsense. In other words, it’s a quintessential no-frills San Diego taco shop.

On this particular visit, though, the name of the game was Sour Cream Overkill. There was lots of cheese, too. Fortunately, there was also lots of meat (especially considering this is one of the most reasonably priced on the list) but it had to fight for attention through the other ingredients. Actually, other than the obscene amounts of sour cream, Juanita’s California burrito otherwise demonstrated good balance of proportions.

El Puerto Taco Shop
2836 Bancroft Dr, Spring Valley, CA 91977
Price: $6.59 (before tax)
Ranking: 3 out of 4 tortillas

California burrito at El Puerto in Spring Valley
California burrito at El Puerto in Spring Valley
Chuck Cook Photography

There’s not much better than the feeling of finding a true hidden gem. Located next to a Spring Valley 7-Eleven, El Puerto serves a California burrito without sour cream or guacamole unless requested, but it gets by just fine without either. Besides sporting hunks of some of the most tender, flavorful carne asada of the survey, it’s infused with enough tangy pico de gallo for just the right amount of moisture.

El Puerto’ uses hash browns instead of French fries to fulfill the potato requirement. Hash browns have even more surface area, so a good sear on a flattop can lead to more crunchy texture. The California burrito here is so good on its own that adding hot sauce seems like gilding the lily — but it’s an irresistible delight. One point got docked only because the asada wasn’t hot enough to melt the shredded cheese. The horchata is pretty good, too.

Mike’s Taco Club
5060 Newport Ave., San Diego, CA 92107
Price: $8.99 (before tax)
Ranking: 4 out of 4 tortillas

California burrito at Mike’s Taco Club
California burrito at Mike’s Taco Club
Chuck Cook Photography

The beach towns of San Diego are the spiritual homes of the California burrito. The massive rolls of meat, French fries and accouterments are capable of assuaging the hungry appetites of surfers looking to replace the zillion calories burned paddling and catching waves. So, it’s no surprise that some of the best examples of California burritos are found near the beach.

Of all the California burritos on this survey, this was the best rendition by far. It’s a little pricier than most, but worth it and comes with guacamole. What really set this one apart from the others, though was the attention paid to every component. Mike’s uses seasoned fries and the carne asada clearly spent a good, long time in a spiced marinade for maximum beefiness and flavor. We also saw some big, fine tortas sailing out of the pickup window.

Bonus: Mike’s also serves cocktails, including a worthy margarita and an excellent rum-spiked horchata.

Did we miss your favorite California burrito? Let us know in the comments!

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