Burritos: The Early Years

Back in the ’80s, burritos were hot. They made a pretty good hook for a fundraising event. Especially in Watsonville, a Latinx community that was (and is) the mecca for good Mexican food in this county. The once-a-year Burrito Bash (this tee is from the 1986 event) raised money for worthy causes from the ’80s into the ‘90s. Dozens of vendors put their personal spin on the noble food log that is a burrito.

The burrito had just recently come into its own in Northern California. It was new, a fad, a sensation. Sure, burritos been around for years: but as a small, bland tube of blah meat inside a small flour tortilla. You’d find it on your “combination plate” at a bad Mexican restaurant next to the enchilada and taco.

But in the ’70s, taquerias in San Francisco’s Mission District reinvented the burrito as a massively fat loaf of beans, rice, juicy carne asada (or chicken, or pork, or tongue), salsa, and cilantro, all wrapped in a super-sized flour tortilla, wrapped again in paper and foil, and then heated for you in a hissing steamer. Juices from the meat merged with the mundane rice and beans and brought a wondrous flavor to the whole assemblage.

The Mission taqueria also invented the “super burrito” option: a standard burrito plus guacamole, sour cream, and cheese. Some people can’t live without their cheese and sour cream; but I say, a truly good burrito doesn’t need those frills. Guacamole, though….

All that aside, the Mission Burrito was cheap for what you got, and you could eat it standing up or sitting at a stool at old-school taquerias like El Faro or Taqueria La Cumbre. After moving to San Francisco in ’79; my first was at La Cumbre on Valencia Street. (By the way, they had a t-shirt. I bought one at once. It looked like this:)

I was a skinny young man with a bottomless stomach. I took one look at the monstrous burritos they were serving , cheaply, and I asked myself, “Why have I not heard of this marvel before?”

Soon everybody had heard, and Mission-style burritos became a hot trend around the bay. They moved from the inner cities into the ‘burbs and beyond. Real taquerias sprang up everywhere and did battle with the Taco Bells.

I moved to Santa Cruz in the late ’80s. The wife and I attended a Watsonville Burrito Bash around 1990, in part because Santa Cruz itself still had few taquerias. And no Mission-style burritos.

They had Mission burritos at the burrito bash, though. We dug in. There was insane variety. But when you can only eat one or two of them, it’s not really worth a 15-mile trip. Once was enough.

Besides, in a year or two the Mission burrito finally reached Santa Cruz. Here’s a modern-day t-shirt from Taqueria Vallarta, the newcomer that brought the first Mission burritos to Santa Cruz in the early ‘90s.

Vallarta achieved instant success. The line stretched to the door every evening. Mission burritos were huge by Santa Cruz standards, and flavorful. Cruzados like a bargain.

Eventually more than a dozen new taquerias arose all around town, all serving the Mission burrito in their own way and style. Aficionados endlessly argue over which is best.

So in the end, every day’s a Burrito Bash anymore if you want it to be. You don’t even need a ticket.

One final note: One or two pre-Mission taquerias still exist in Santa Cruz. Tacos Morenos, which has been around since the ’80s, does not serve a Mission burrito, now or ever. Their burritos are smaller, not overstuffed; there’s no rice at all. But their meats are good, and people swear by their spicy, vinegary salsa. They even have a t-shirt these days.

Doesn’t everybody? Well, no. But they should.

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