Today’s Los Angeles burrito culture continues a long heritage of saucy, stew-filled bean-and-cheese creations that originated at restaurants like El Tepeyac and Al & Bea’s in Boyle Heights. A tradition immortalized by Jonathan Gold, who once wrote that “a burrito is a Chicano thing, a Los Angeles thing, proudly Mexican American,” this city has expressed its love of burritos through a number of typical styles. Those styles, which might include the charred meat-filled burritos of taco trucks, crisp potato-and-egg-filled breakfast burritos, and blistered handmade flour tortillas of Sonoran-style restaurants, emerged from creative cooks aiming to make the best versions of burritos using various cooking techniques and ingredients. Below, Eater explores and defines the five essential burrito styles of Los Angeles.
LA’s rich burrito history starts with the Chicano restaurants of the early ’60s opened by Angelenos of Mexican descent living in neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and East LA. Due to racist restrictive covenants meant to cordon immigrants to specific neighborhoods, Mexican Americans, or pochos (originally a pejorative term now embraced by those who speak “broken Spanish”), began cooking a new kind of food. There had long been “Spanish” eateries, such as El Cholo, that specialized in more traditional Mexican food, but these new restaurants were trying something different.
According to Bill Esparza’s history of Mexican cuisine in Los Angeles, L.A. Mexicano, the oversized Chicano burrito trend started at Ramon Manuel “Manny” Rojas’s El Tepeyac. The restaurant was first established by his father in 1942 and relocated to its current location in 1952, where the elder Rojas served burritos so large they required two hands to eat.
Originally called the Hollenbeck after police officers from the Hollenbeck station in Boyle Heights who frequented the restaurant, Rojas immortalized the overloaded burrito with the five-pound Manuel’s Special, big enough to feed an entire crew. (It was originally intended to serve the ’60s Chicano band Cannibal and the Headhunters, according to Esparza.) These outsized burritos came filled with rice, beans, guacamole, cheese, pico de gallo, and chile rojo (a spicy pork stew made of ripened tomatoes). Another ladleful of chile rojo atop the burrito made for a drippy, savory, gluttonous masterpiece. Reflecting the flavors and sensibilities of their blue-collar communities, this burrito style became prevalent at restaurants around the city, including El Arco Iris in Highland Park (which closed in 2017), Al & Bea’s in Boyle Heights, and Lupe’s No. 2 in East LA.
Chicano, or pocho, burritos became famous for their alchemic fusion of refried beans and cheese. But in reality it was those two ingredients combined with the holy trinity of Mexican stews: chile verde, chile colorado, and steak picado, along with rice, beans, sour cream, pico de gallo, and guacamole, that set them apart. Some restaurants, such as the famed La Azteca Tortilleria and Al & Bea’s, even include deep-fried, cheese-filled chile rellenos inside their burritos for a tremendous celebration of Mexican American food. —Matthew Kang
There are by some estimates as many as 12,500 street food vendors in greater Los Angeles. They don’t all serve tacos and burritos, but taken collectively these often unheralded vendors comprise the majority of LA’s dynamic Mexican food scene. Often the best taco truck or burrito stand is the one that sits within someone’s neighborhood, though invariably arguments erupt over who serves the best carne asada or al pastor in a particular pocket of the city. (Is El Flamin’ Taco the place to beat in Echo Park? Or is it Taco Zone?) There will never be total agreement, and that’s part of the fun.
In LA, the neighborhood taco truck doesn’t even have to be mobile. La Estrella, for instance, parks its truck full-time on the same stretch of sidewalk in Highland Park. It’s about a certain style of Mexican food that’s centered on a griddled roster of proteins (carne asada, chorizo, al pastor, and pollo) and available as burritos, tacos, quesadillas, or tortas. Many trucks, stands, or takeaway menus appear similar, but individuality can come through in location or the care a particular outfit takes with its technique. A special condiment, like the earthy, smoky salsa at the El Chato truck at Olympic and La Brea, is a good example of differentiation, as is the wedge of pineapple that gets flicked on top of wide slices of spit-cooked al pastor at Leo’s on Venice.
There are taco specialists like Carnitas El Momo for pork, Birrieria Gonzalez for birria, and Tacos Los Palomos for al pastor. But for most of LA, a sturdy, usually inexpensive burrito filled with griddled meat and an array of fillings and toppings can be found everywhere at all hours of the day. Often, making friends with the folks at your local spot is the surest way to get the “best” burrito in town — plus, it’s a great way to get to know a community even more deeply. —Farley Elliott
Breakfast burritos are perhaps the single most unique aspect of the city’s larger burrito culture. Whereas lonchera- and fusion-style burritos are found in other cities, LA is unrivaled in its breakfast burrito construction and consumption. The best-in-class breakfast burrito offers some kind of textural crunch — usually by way of potatoes, fried or crisped on a griddle — to go along with scrambled or soft-fried eggs and a protein of choice, be it bacon, pastrami, or chorizo. Salsa is a must, though of late aiolis and other creamier sauces have made their way into gourmet breakfast burritos at places like the Rooster, where the Rico Suave comes with cilantro crema and plenty of avocado.
For an early-morning breakfast burrito that appeals to surfers and swimmers, try Phanny’s in Redondo Beach. Further north there’s Lucky Boy in Pasadena, a behemoth of a burrito with loads of bacon and potato inside. Cofax on Fairfax is equally legendary thanks to its soft and slow-smoked potatoes, while Silver Lake’s All Day Baby offers refried beans and longganisa. The best part of LA’s breakfast burrito culture is that every neighborhood has a jewel of a specimen, the kind that leads to weekend lines and draws in curious travelers from across the region. And while filling preferences are deeply personal, there is one thing that is not up for debate: A great breakfast burrito makes every morning better. —Farley Elliott
Though Los Angeles is known for its massive and delicious Chicano, or pocho, burrito, its more modestly sized cousin, the burrito norteño, has experienced a surge in popularity over the last decade. Comprising a thin flour tortilla filled with a guiso (stew) made with ingredients like shredded chicken, chicharron, and even grilled meats, they’re simplicity at its finest, and are typically small enough to be eaten with one hand.
Burritos norteño lean on pliant, tender tortillas made with lard that are often as compelling as the burrito’s contents. The more recent arrival of Frogtown’s Salazar in 2015 and Downtown’s Sonoratown in 2016 helped further integrate this regional burrito into the daily lives of Angelenos. At Salazar, burritos are filled with flavorful meats prepared on a Santa Maria-style grill and cradled in flour tortillas.
Sonoratown brought Downtown workers and residents the Northern Mexico-style stewed chicken and Anaheim chile-stuffed chivichangas, plus an outstanding pinto bean and Monterey Jack cheese burrito. They’re all made with Sonoratown’s thin-pressed flour tortillas. Sonoratown was even highlighted on Netflix’s Taco Chronicles, bringing an entirely new audience to this burrito style and adding more than a few bodies to the lines already snaking out the door. —Mona Holmes
Fusion burritos, at their most basic, combine cultures inside a flour tortilla. And the fusion burritos found in LA are no exception, reflecting the diversity of the city’s people and their experiences. At local chain Fatima’s Grill, the signature Burrito Pollo is a monster-sized California and Mexico hybrid filled with rice, beans, onions, cilantro, sour cream, nacho cheese, and Hot Cheetos, while the Lebanese Trio is packed with chicken shawarma, beef shawarma, and gyro meat along with turnips, pickles, hummus, onions, parsley, rice, and the popular chile-lime seasoning Tajín. Both burritos embrace Mexican and Chicano cultures along with owner Ali Elreda’s Lebanese roots.
Though many credit chef Roy Choi for bringing a spotlight to the fusion burrito sphere in the late 2000s with Kogi’s Korean Mexican menu, one can track LA’s fusion burrito roots back even further to operators like Sky’s Gourmet Tacos. Barbara “Sky” Burrell opened her Mid-City restaurant in 1992 and continues to serve a crawfish burrito inspired by the local Black community’s Southern start.
In addition to capturing a slice of life inside a flour tortilla, there’s an inherent playfulness with fusion burritos, whether it’s a sushi burrito wrapped in nori, a chicken tikka burrito from 23rd Street Cafe Indian Restaurant, or the Judge Ito burrito from the 45-year-old Pasadena restaurant Burrito Express, with extra rice, minimal beans, sour cream, guacamole, and cheese. The ultimate way to celebrate Los Angeles is by taking a bite of the many cultures that define the vibrant city. —Mona Holmes