Burritos: The Early Years

Back in the ’80s, the burrito made a pretty good hook for a fundraising event. Especially in Watsonville, a Latinx community with a interest in the dish. 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.

In those days, the burrito had only recently come into its own in Northern California. It was new, a fad, a sensation.

Oh, there had been burritos. But the burrito as produced by bad California-style Mexican restaurants in the ‘60s and early ‘70s was pretty inferior: a small, bland tube of shredded meat inside a small flour tortilla. It was an option on the standard “combination plate” of the time. I always passed it by for the enchilada; with an enchilada at least you got sauce and melted cheese.

But by the ‘70s, taquerias in San Francisco’s Mission District had 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. They also invented the “super burrito” option: a standard burrito plus guacamole, sour cream, and cheese.

At the Mission taquerias, an assembly line of workers passed your burrito down the line, one operation at a time, as if they were putting together a car. If that sounds like a Chipotle’s to you, that’s no coincidence.

The Mission burrito was (and is) good and drippy and huge; it was cheap for what you got, and you could eat it standing up or sitting at a stool at old-school taquerias like La Cumbre and El Farolito. I discovered the Mission burrito upon moving to San Francisco in ’79. I was a skinny young man with a bottomless stomach, 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 began to spring up everywhere and do battle with the Taco Bells.

The wife and I attended a Burrito Bash in the early ‘90s. Once was fun; there certainly were a lot of burritos to choose from. But we really could only eat one or two of them, and it wasn’t really worth a 15-mile trip to go again. The burrito’s novelty had faded by the ’90s, and this is why:

When I got to Santa Cruz, in ’88, there were maybe two taquerias in town. Neither of them served Mission style burritos. More came quickly, and now there are 13 or 14 taquerias inside the city limits. Most of them are independent, and most serve some variant on Mission burritos plus other specialties. Watsonville is even more fortunate.

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

Here’s a modern day t-shirt from Taqueria Vallarta, the taqueria that brought the Mission burrito to Santa Cruz in the early ‘90s. The Mission burrito, and Taqueria Vallarta, achieved instant success. The line stretched to the door every evening. The burritos were huge by local standards, and flavorful.

Taqueria Vallarta was also the first taqueria in town to offer a salsa bar with tubs of jalapenos and hot pickled vegetables. It boasted reasonable places to sit, plus cool wall murals by Alvaro Fuenzalides.

Sure, most of that Vallarta burrito hugeness came from cheap beans and rice, but the juices from the carne asada or al pastor pork infused the rice with a wondrous meaty flavor. Good meats and good meat juices are the heart of a Mission burrito.

Tacos Morenos, a Santa Cruz institution that has been around even longer than Taqueria Vallarta, does not serve a Mission burrito, now or ever: their burritos are decently sized but not overstuffed, and contain no rice. They also don’t steam the finished product.

But Tacos Morenos survived the Mission burrito invasion by being good in its own right, especially in its meats and spicy, vinegary sauce. I like their burritos a lot, though I’m often there for the “corn quesadilla:” a corn tortilla fried in oil and stuffed with taco ingredients and melted cheese.

To me, a corn quesadilla is really an old-school street taco like Mom used to make. Mom knew her tacos. And so does Tacos Morenos. They even offer a t-shirt these days. I’ll have to get one.

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