Author’s note: I have written 2,200 words about burritos. My only regret is that it could not be 22,000.
Let’s make one thing clear from the start: this article is not a hit piece on tacos. I love tacos. I love all Mexican food. I have loved Mexican food since I was a chubby six-year-old with a mullet and I still love it today (as a chubby thirty four-year-old who wishes his scalp could still produce such a glorious cascade of hair). But as much as I love tacos, I have one major and unavoidable problem with the dish: tacos should not be the flag-bearer of Mexican food. Not when there’s already something far more worthy of that mantle.
The ‘96 Bulls were not Bill Wennington’s team. Julia Sweeney did not headline Pulp Fiction. And the Beatles were not called Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band (that happened much later and it was pretty great).
Bill Wennington, Julia Sweeney, and Ringo Starr were all important parts of a greater whole, but they were not the undeniable forces pushing the greater whole toward perfection. Similarly, conversion vans that sell Mexican food should not be known as “taco trucks” and fast food restaurants that provide enchiritos to the high, and bathrooms to the desperate, should not be known as “Taco Bell.” Not when the burrito is around.
Because the burrito is superior to the taco in almost every way.
Let’s extend the Beatles analogy: Ringo Starr is an amazing musician in his own right (and a terrible painter), but he neverquite stacked up to the geniuses that surrounded him. In the same way, the taco (though undeniably delicious), is clearly the weakest of the Fab Four of taco truck cuisine — tacos are the Ringo, John is the mulita (for his contrived air of mystery), Paul is the quesadilla (for his mass appeal), and George, clearly, is the burrito.
George is the burrito because of his quiet dignity. George is the burrito because of the joy he has brought the world. George is the burrito because he has been under-appreciated for too long. George is the burrito because he is the best.
Have we lost you already? Full disclosure, I was introduced to both burritos and George Harrison at an impressionable age, and while I am far too ignorant of music to explain my stance on George Harrison beyond “Got My Mind Set On You is f*cking fire,” I am fully prepared to defend my opinion on the inherent superiority of the burrito over the taco.
I hereby, humbly and respectfully, submit six reasons why burritos are better than tacos:
The burrito is one of the few foods that can be eaten every meal of the day — from breakfast burrito to a fortifying post-bar, pre-hangover 3 AM snack. Some say there are no dessert burritos. I say crepes are Nutella burritos made by the French. In fact, if you ever find yourself wondering: “is now a good time to eat a burrito?” There is only one answer.
The taco, while a serviceable option for lunch and dinner, and a respectable choice for “drunkard’s delight” after the bar closes, rarely works as a breakfast food. Yes, I am aware that “tacos mañaneros” are regularly eaten for breakfast in Mexico, but tacos that are eaten in the morning are not breakfast food, they are simply tacos that are eaten in the morning. Along similar lines, I enjoy a filet mignon and a sassy merlot, I certainly enjoy that meal more than waffles (and — as my Body Mass Index can attest — I love the hell out of waffles) but steak and wine isn’t breakfast food, no matter how much I long for them to be.
And before the Texas contingent lashes out, yes, I am aware of your special brand of breakfast tacos. Yes, I have eaten them, and yes, they are delightful. However, are they even properly tacos? I submit that breakfast tacos are much closer to miniature, improperly folded breakfast burritos than any taco. And who wants a miniature, improperly-folded breakfast burrito, when there are so many delicious, regularly-sized, properly folded breakfast burritos that could be eaten instead?
The fillings in a burrito are only limited by the creativity of the filler and the tensile strength of the tortilla. There are “Mission” burritos. There are California burritos with french fries tucked inside. There are fusion burritos stuffed with Korean BBQ. There are burritos the size of a yeti leg. There are burritos that are deep-fried. And sometimes burritos can even be sushi. Not every burrito combination is great, some of them are even downright disgusting, but the dish provides limitless opportunities for the chef to express herself on a tortilla canvas.
The taco, by design, is the epitome of simplicity: tortilla, meat, toppings (salsa, onion, cilantro, etc.), squirt of lime, and done. The tacos may be traditional. The tacos may be dolled up with nopalitos and guacamole. The tacos may be inexplicably delicious. But, despite these superficial changes, the taco remains a taco. And while some may appreciate the taco for its commitment to simplicity, I celebrate the burrito for showing us we can dream of something grander.
The taco (in a theme that will be revisited often in this article) is fundamentally limited by the corn tortilla. Before we go any further, a few words should probably be said about the corn tortilla:
I actually think corn tortillas are better than flour tortillas. To clarify, corn tortillas are better than flour tortillas for precisely three minutes. That’s how long it takes for that perfectly crisp, perfectly chewy, perfectly warm, perfectly perfect disc of masa to shrivel into a cold, stiff, inflexible, and very much dead puck. The corn tortilla, like butterflies, wildflowers, and Princess Diana, are blessed (and cursed) with too much fragile beauty to survive in this cruel world for long.
Sure, there are some places like Los Cinco Puntos in Boyle Heights, that sell tacos with corn tortillas that have been hand-rolled, pressed, and griddled seconds before the meat and salsa layers are assembled. But this is a rare exception (and their burritos are even better than the tacos, anyway).
Unlike the corn tortilla, the flour tortilla is a star from cradle to grave. They are delicious when they are first made. They taste almost exactly as delicious an hour later. They taste great the next day, and they taste even better after thirty seconds on the griddle. I have even made perfectly serviceable microwave quesadillas with tortillas that had been forgotten in the back of my refrigerator for months.
While I still feel shame for the microwave quesadilla — I can only blame youth and intoxication (mostly intoxication) — the old flour tortillas were perfectly resurrected by sixty seconds of radiation, and were the most delicious component of the dish. Because outside of those magical three minutes after the corn tortilla is pulled off the stove top, the flour tortilla is definitively better.
And yes, I am aware that certain tacos are made with flour tortillas. And yes, in my experience, those tacos were amazing. In fact, they are some of the finest tacos I have ever eaten in my life. There is only one way those flour tortilla tacos could have been made better: a small scoop of beans, a smaller scoop of rice, a dollop of sour cream, and the expert fold that would turn them into the burritos they were always meant to be.
Some of the happiest moments of my life have been spent eating tacos over a car-table. But like rollercoasters, sex, and the beauty of youth, the joy of eating tacos is over far too soon. For reasons of sogginess and aforementioned tortilla death, tacos need to be eaten quickly. And as exciting as the frenzied race against salsa saturation and tortilla mortality may be, it does not allow the eater to fully savor the experience of the meal.
The burrito, on the other hand, actually tastes better the longer that eating is delayed. Because inside that burrito, the meat and the beans and the rice and cheese and salsa are rubbing against each other like a Zion sex rave, imparting flavor notes and spice until the disparate elements merge into one delicious whole. And, unlike the corn tortilla, the burrito’s inherently superior flour tortilla foundation not only prevents leakage, but sponges up the magical juices (something they needed at the Zion sex rave, too).
5. ABILITY TO GO HIGH- OR LOW-BROW
I consulted with my dear friend, talented musician, and noted taco expert Aaron Gershman (he even taught a seminar on taco truck cuisine at USC) while writing this article, and he defended the superiority of the taco (and especially the LA version of the street taco) over the burrito with this, admittedly compelling argument:
What we in LA think of as a taco is a magical thing and wildly different than the gringo tacos found elsewhere. In LA, tacos are served on soft corn tortillas with meat, onions, cilantro and a hit of salsa. Nothing else. The LA taco has no cheese, no lettuce, no tomatoes and most certainly no ground beef. The meats are marinated and slow-cooked and full of flavor (not flavor packets). If you’re a fan of Mexican food, this is it at its purest. The ingredients are so simple that the taco lives or dies on the strength of the meat alone; not so with the burrito. You wrap something up in a pile of cheddar cheese, sour cream and guacamole, it will taste passable regardless of how bland the meat inside is (see also Taco Bell). It’s the classic battle of simplicity vs. excess; the taco is the haiku to the burrito’s 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.
Intelligent words from an intelligent man, and I completely agree with his thesis: the taco completely depends on the quality of the meat, tortilla, and salsas. There is no gooey, wonderful, refried beans, or guacamole, or sour cream, or even french fries to elevate even the most mediocre of carne asada into a passable, occasionally exquisite burrito feast. But, if you will allow me the indulgence, let me Shyamalan you with this: Mr. Gershman’s argument was proving the superiority of burritos the entire time!
I know that if I am ever stranded at a gas station in Topeka, Kansas, or Nome, Alaska, or Stent, California, I can pick out any frozen burrito from the display case and have a “passable” meal. Will it be a good burrito? No. Will the beef taste like (and most likely be) raccoon meat? Of course. Will I immediately regret every life decision that led me to be holed up in a Kansas gas station? Most assuredly. But no matter how bad that burrito will be for a burrito, the “pile” of beans, cheddar cheese, and mediocre meat will still be the best food available at that gas station. And in this cruel, unpredictable world, sometimes “pretty good” is the best we can ever hope for.
Also, it is important to remember that almost every taco truck that Mr. Gershman speaks so fondly of with their “marinated,” “slow-cooked,” and “full of flavor” meats, also sell burritos. So you can still have that transcendent carnitas and al pastor, but with essential sour cream, guacamole, and shredded cheese and a superior tortilla, as well. The meat remains the star, but every star — even George Harrison — was made better with some help from a strong supporting cast.
I have saved this point for last, not because it is the most persuasive, but because I believe it is the most important: in my opinion, the burrito is the most American food that has ever existed.
It is more American than fried chicken (which was brought to America from Scotland and West Africa). It is more American than the hamburger (a version of which was made in ancient Rome). It is even more American than the Double Down (which was invented in America, but really should not have been invented anywhere).
The burrito is the most American food, not because it was born here (burritos have been in Mexico for as long as there has been meat and foldable tortillas), but because when it crossed the border the exchange of Mexican and American cultures birthed something far greater than could have been produced by any one country alone.
In the 1960s, Mexican-American chefs in San Francisco took the concept of the traditional burrito and used American innovation and Mexican ingredients to create something magical: The Mission burrito. And while America’s meddling with foreign nations has led to some “less-than-ideal” outcomes in the past, this burrito shows us the wonderful possibilities that the exchange of ideas, food, and culture between two countries can bring. Because the Mission burrito (subsequently known as a “burrito” in the rest of the United States) is a thoroughly American creation that still retains the essential spirit and ingredients of its Mexican heritage.
This burrito is the best of the United States and the best of Mexico, all rolled up in one zesty package. And now more than ever, it is important we realize the necessary and wonderful benefits that can come from the cultural exchange of these two great nations. And, as my final point, whereas the American influence on the burrito was wildly positive, this is what we did to the taco:
The defense rests.