An eternal debate rages on between burrito snobs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego centering on three points: who invented which style, rice versus no rice, and whose local burrito is more “Mexican.” The greatest work on the subject (after he eviscerated the Mission burrito) is a 2009 primer by late LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold, who wrote, “tell me what kind of burrito you like, and I’ll tell you who you are.” When it comes to burritos in California we are blind loyalists to our cities.
Despite those inter-city burrito battles, there is little argument that San Diego, with its countless taco shops (the term “taco shop” is exclusive to San Diego-style taquerias), expansive selection of original burrito styles, and a California burrito on every menu, has the state’s most prolific burrito culture. From breakfast burritos to carne asada to seafood bombs, this city has what you’re looking for, and no two people can agree which spot is the best.
The famed burrito claimed to have been invented by Roberto’s and their related family of taco shop chains in the ’80s is the breakout star of the San Diego taco shop. Its basic form: Mexican American carne asada cooked on a flat top, melted cheddar cheese, lots of French fries, and salsa Mexicana, is unmistakable. When halved, the California burrito exposes a cluster of squared, white nubs poking out of the inside where the fries were split. Guacamole and sour cream are typical accompaniments, as are plastic cups of salsa on the side.
There’s no vibe inside Ortiz’s Taco Shop in Point Loma Heights. Located in a strip mall, its seating consists of a handful of laminated worn contoured booths, and the walls resemble an aging hospital break room. But for longtime regulars who have been coming here for California burritos since 2004, it’s a shrine. The staff greets customers by name, and catches up with them on the phone if they’re placing an order for pickup. Here, the classic San Diego burrito comes loaded with lots of carne asada, gooey melted cheese, French fries, guacamole, sour cream, and ample salsa to help you eat your way to the last bite.
Barrio Logan’s !Salud! celebrates the Pocho roots of the California burrito with their Califas, a burro filled with your choice of meat, fries, and cheddar cheese dressed with pico de gallo, guacamole, and sour cream in a flour tortilla. At Lucha Libre Gourmet Taco Shop there’s a whole French fry-loaded section of the menu dedicated to the California burrito, featuring the Tijuana-inspired Ado-Haba Piña with adobada and pineapple, a surf and turf called Surfin’ California, and a beef Birria California.
San Diego has perfected the breakfast burrito. Its own unique local twist puts less emphasis on eggs and more on juicy Chicano-style pork machaca (and also beef machaca), a stewed, shredded meat. There are also scrambled egg and cheese breakfast burritos in combinations that include chorizo and steak, plus breakfast staples ham, bacon, sausage, and hash browns, sometimes with rice and beans. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, menus list a breakfast burrito or two, but only in the taco shop will you see a half-dozen types of breakfast burritos on the wall.
Located in the heart of Barrio Logan, El Carrito is styled to look like an olive green trolley cart from the ‘40s. Its breakfast burrito, called El Chingon, is so juicy you could slurp broth from each halved portion. Pork machaca is the main ingredient here, with a little Mexican rice, scrambled eggs, guacamole, melted Monterey Jack, and a fatty smear of refried beans folded into a large, toasted flour tortilla. Each element melts into the tender pork, making for a burrito that lives up to its bad-ass name.
Ham, eggs, beans, rice, and cheese at La Playa Taco Shop is a dream Chicano breakfast combo in a flour tortilla modeled after a typical plate served at Mexican-American restaurants. While the steak and eggs, melted cheese, and fried potatoes at El Charro Taco Shop has a touch of California burrito in the fries. In San Diego, the breakfast burrito stays firmly grounded in the regional Mexican American flavors of the taco shop, and its array of hearty fillings.
Surf & Turf
For a few dollars more, San Diegans get conspicuous consumption in a flour tortilla. Grilled shrimp and steak is the gold standard, then rice, melted cheese, salsa fresca (pico de gallo), and sometimes guacamole are added to this luxurious burrito that is as much a symbol of the San Diego lifestyle as the California burrito. Taco shops tend to add something for moisture, too, whether sauteed vegetables or tartar sauce. Or, of course, a little sour cream always does the trick.
The worn, oversized white menu hanging behind the counter at JV’s Mexican Food lists about a dozen burritos, including the massive surf and turf burrito with a list of ingredients: sauteed onions, peppers, and tomatoes. The sauteed mixture of vegetables, along with carne asada, cooked shrimp, Mexican rice, and guacamole, make for a beachy stew bound by a billowing pair of flour tortillas. The succulent surf and turf is just one example of the way owner Jesse Verduzco takes license with the traditional taco shop recipes, separating the burritos here from the competitors, whose surf and turf offerings can sometimes be a tad dry when pieces of steak and shrimp are engulfed by rice.
Otay Ranch’s El Pollo Grill puts tartar sauce and melted cheese in its surf and turf, which is also available with grilled chicken, and at Los Pinos Taco Shop no rice is the key to a delicious burrito filled with shrimp, melted cheese, fries, guacamole, and chipotle mayo.
Carne Asada Burrito
Although you wouldn’t know it from the media attention paid to California burritos, the preferred choice among San Diego’s Mexican American population is an OG carne asada burrito jam-packed with grilled steak, guacamole, and salsa. Another variation on taco shop menus is the conga, a carne asada burrito with rice and beans (eat your heart out, San Francisco). The carne asada burrito is a Mexican American primo to the Sonoran burro percherón clásico, a carne asada burrito in a sobaquera tortilla, as well as other northern Mexican traditions.
Over the past decade, Guillermo Rodriguez’s La Perla has expanded to two branches, but it’s his Point Loma location, a take-out window inside an enclosed patio, that consistently cranks out simple cylinders filled with well seasoned tender steak.
Founded in 1984 by Joaquín and Dolores “Lolita” Farfan, Lolita’s Mexican Food’s carne asada burrito made with choice Angus beef remains a sentimental favorite for San Diego Chicanos. In Clairemont, Maritza’s Mexican Food, a cash only business, is often labeled a hidden gem on their Facebook page for having flavorful salsa, affordable combo plates, and their beef burrito with extra spicy salsa.
There’s no hiding from the truth, San Diego: The chimichanga, or deep fried burrito, is all yours, a staple of your taco shops that isn’t found in LA’s Chicano restaurants or SF’s taquerias.
This impressive plate consists of a deep fried burrito filled with beans, cheese, and chicken or beef buried under a covering of grated yellow cheese and a cool dressing of guacamole and sour cream. A side of iceberg lettuce and salsa fresca complete this Pocho fiesta plate.
To Raymundo and Laticia Garcia, owners of the fashionable Raymundo’s Taco Shop, the chimichanga is no punchline, but an honored dish. The well-seasoned shredded chicken chimichanga is blanketed in a powdery mix of yellow cheese and crumbled queso fresco that gets into every bite.
Fish and shrimp chimichangas are on the menu at El Zarape Restaurant, and Yesenia’s Mexican Food makes a large, mouthwatering bean and cheese chimichanga, fried golden brown with an assortment of salsas that towers above the competition.
No burrito better represents the crossborder culture between San Diego and Tijuana than the adobada. The burrito features an all-meat package of pork marinated in adobo, a similar recipe to Tijuana’s version of al pastor, sliced off a vertical spit. Like the construction of the carne asada burrito, the adobada is simply meat, guacamole, and salsa fresca in a flour tortilla.
Chuy’s Taco Shop, located in Rolando Village, has a mind blowing menu of close to 40 different burritos, and cooks up a fine adobada burrito. Pork is marinated in a blend of ground chiles, herbs, spices, and citrus, and then grilled on a flat top before being rolled into a flour tortilla along with guacamole and salsa. It’s a nod to Tijuana, but unique to the San Diego taco shop.
In the tradition of a Mexican-American lonchera (food truck), El Rey Moro Taco Shop offers an al pastor burrito (regional name of adobada) seasoned with guacamole, chopped onions, and cilantro. Founded in 1998, Humberto’s Taco Shop, one of the multitude of ‘bertos that popularized the San Diego taco shop, still prepares a classic adobada burrito.