“We’re going to Super Sergio’s!” exclaimed my friend Vivian as we drove down from a campus ministry gathering in the mountains above San Diego. The year was 2004, and I was a sophomore at USC about to experience for the first time the pure bliss of a near-perfect California burrito. Of course, growing up in LA I’d had my fair share of delicious taco truck burritos and wet burritos from places like El Cholo, but Super Sergio’s was the first time I had crisp french fries tucked into a fast-food burrito filled with carne asada, melty cheese, and pico de gallo.
Biting into my first California burrito was a revelation of tender carne asada surrounded by shredded cheddar melting slowly from hot, crisp golden brown fries. I was reminded of a good breakfast burrito with hash browns, but the fries were less greasy and more crunchy. I learned that the beef, often the focus of a meaty burrito, plays second fiddle to the fries here, likely a kind of flank or flap cut that balanced chewiness with a savory juiciness that helped amplify the potatoes. A tangy, spicy red salsa acted as a binder, moistening the crunchy, salty spuds bunched like matchsticks, waiting to be ignited by the chile-infused tomato sauce. The fries themselves were sublime, no wider than a pencil, and cooked with a surprising level of finesse for a fast food joint.
Buzzing from the glorious burrito, I was slightly annoyed I’d have to drive down south to eat something so satisfying again.
It would take nearly two decades before I returned to Super Sergio’s for this story. Driving into the lot, the triangular patio was empty save for a solo diner watching videos on his phone. It felt almost the same as in the early aughts, with spartan tables and benches, weathered red paint, and plexiglass windows to shield the wind. The sign features a spiffy sombrero-wearing caricature that might reasonably be considered a poor stereotype, and still reads “Drive Thru Open 21 Hours.” Oh, to have been a college student in San Diego, getting California burritos in the dead of night after studying for finals.
Roberto’s and its offshoots are credited with creating and helping to proliferate the California burrito that Super Sergio’s has perfected. By the ’80s, the burritos were everywhere in San Diego. “The story I heard was that for reasons unknown, a worker put it on the menu, and then relatives would splinter off to other taco shops,” says burrito expert and San Francisco Chronicle reporter Mario A. Cortez. He continued: “It just came out of Roberto’s, but no one knows which one or which cook [invented it]. It just kind of happened. The patient zero of the California burrito is unknown,” he says.
I asked Cortez, who is also a former Eater contributor who put Super Sergio’s on Eater San Diego’s essential list last year, which California burrito is his favorite. He said he likes Humberto’s, which perfectly melds the cold and hot ingredients. “The french fries are the definitive piece of this dish. You don’t want them soggy, you want them to be crispy. And the meat has to be soft and juicy. It’s a balancing act.”
A small step down from Humberto’s, at least for Cortez, is Adalberto’s (there are a lot of -berto’s), which also sports a drive-thru. “Super Sergio’s absolutely ranks,” he says, “Probably closer to Adalberto’s.” While Super Sergio’s doesn’t have the history of, say, Roberto’s, or the excellence of Humberto’s or Adalberto’s, it’s as good as I can imagine a California burrito to be. Tasting through a number of competitors recently, from Lolita’s to Ortiz’s, Super Sergio’s remained my favorite, even if it doesn’t have -berto’s in its name. And it has a drive-thru open for when the late-night munchies hit.
“It’s the one truly reliable option in an area that’s mostly known for Asian food,” says Cortez. So while my favorite spot isn’t quite top-tier in Cortez’s opinion, it’s a worthy contender. To me, California burritos are a lot like iconic dishes of other cities, like pizza in New York, hot dogs in Chicago, or tacos in LA — so much of what one prefers is about convenience and location. And this Angeleno would kill for something as good as Super Sergio’s closer to home.