Growing up in Stockton, California, in the ’70s, my earliest memories of wet burritos were at the few (abuelo-approved) Mexican American restaurants like Mi Ranchito, Xochimilco, and Arroyo’s Cafe, the last of which was owned by my godfather’s family. Burritos were filled with one of the holy trinity of meaty Chicano stews — chile verde, chile colorado, or chile chicana — then stuffed with rice, beans, and shredded iceberg lettuce before being drowned in a gravy-like “special sauce.” Those wet burritos, or burritos mojados, were fit for royalty.
Over the years, white cookbook authors who essentially stole recipes from traditional Mexican cooks dismissed flour tortillas as inauthentic, but later tried to co-opt my beloved wet burritos. But at Mexican American diners in communities like Denver, Texas, and Los Angeles, burritos mojados never went out of fashion. For José de Jesús Bañuelos, the founder of Burritos La Palma, these Pocho dishes made an impression while he was living in Southern California in the ‘70s.
In 1980, Bañuelos returned to his hometown of Jerez in the central Mexican state of Zacatecas and opened the first tortillería to sell flour tortillas. Previously the northern Mexican flatbread was unknown in the area. Later he moved into selling burritos, filling them with northern Mexican guisados, like birria de res, chicharrón (pork crackling in green salsa), deshebrada (shredded beef), and beans and cheese.
By 1990, Burritos La Palmas was a growing chain in the Mexican state of Zacatecas. Bañuelos, inspired by the wet burritos of Pocho cooking, added to the menu the platillo especial, building it with a pair of slender northern Mexican-style burritos filled with beef birria and smothered in chile verde. He then topped it with melted cheese and served it with undressed salad, lardy refried beans, and tortilla chips. It’s a lighter version of the burrito dinner of my youth.
To build the platillo especial, two flour tortillas are placed on a comal, before being filled with tangy beef birria. They’re then rolled and browned on the comal. At tacos de guisado stands, it’s common practice to order a pair of stews, which is why the platillo especial explodes with meaty flavors. José de Jesús’s wife, Elena Lugo de Bañuelos, designed the chile verde recipe, made with fruity, dried chiles as well as pork stewed in tart green chiles. It gets spooned atop the two birria-filled burritos. Cheese is sprinkled amid the stew, melting gently from the residual heat of the chile verde. Crunchy undressed lettuce, a raw tomato slice, refried beans, and an occasional chile serrano comes on the side. There’s no wet burrito quite like this one, a cross-border variation on the genre that’s a little Zacatecas, a little East LA, and a heaping mouthful of deep Chicano flavor.
Burritos La Palma’s wet burrito, or platillo especial, honors the culture of Mexican American combination burritos, which come with everything: stewed meat, salsa, cheese, rice, and beans. Bañuelos first introduced the platillo especial in Jerez in the ’90s, and the plate has undergone few changes at the restaurant’s locations north of the border, all of which are owned by José de Jesús’s son, Alberto Bañuelos. One slight change was to the flour tortilla recipe that’s now produced in Boyle Heights — instead of asadero cheese, which wasn’t available in 2012 when Alberto opened the first US-based BLP in El Monte, they use Monterey Jack, one of the go-to melting cheeses used by Mexicans in the United States. “We’ve modernized but kept the craft,” says Alberto.
For the tortillas, the dough is hand-cut, weighed, and divided, before being rounded and left to proof for 20 minutes. The tortillas are then pressed with a machine, par-cooked, and delivered to Burrito La Palma locations in El Monte, Santa Ana, Highland Park, and Boyle Heights.
Elena Lugo de Bañuelos created the closely-guarded recipes for Burritos La Palma’s guisados (except for the birria, which José de Jesús developed). For years, Alberto prepared the seasoning in his garage to obscure proprietary ingredients from employees assembling these famous guisados. But in 2018, as Burritos La Palma began to expand into Orange County, a team was entrusted with the secret recipes so that each outlet would have consistent-tasting chicken tinga, beans, chicharrones, deshebrada, and beef birria.
Sitting down at a two-top cafe table as I wait for my platillo especial at Burritos La Palma in El Monte, I ponder how it has all come full circle. How an immigrant from Jerez, Zacatecas was moved to introduce flour tortillas, and the iconic Chicano special, the wet burrito, to a small town in North-Central Mexico before reintroducing its novel construction back to Los Angeles. It’s part northern Mexican, a pair of slender burritos de guisado, but with a Zacatecan zest, and a Mexican American finish of tart, spicy pork with a side of beans. Now and forever, if anyone might doubt the wet burrito is Mexican, we can just send them down to Zacatecas to have a look for themselves.