Welcome back to Highly Opinionated, an ongoing series where Eater’s editors delve into one specific, oft-debated food favorite in Los Angeles. Previously, we discussed the city’s best New York-style pizza, Italian deli sandwiches, Korean barbecue, breakfast burritos, beef phở, and bánh mì đặc biệt. This edition takes a closer look at Los Angeles’s best burritos.
While tacos are without a doubt LA’s most iconic food, the humble burrito is no slouch. The city’s burrito culture emerged in the early 1900s in Los Angeles’s Eastside in neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and East LA. These hefty Mexican American parcels, which borrow from traditional Mexican fare and local Chicano culture, were popularized in the midcentury and eventually took over the world thanks to fast-food giants like Taco Bell, Del Taco, and the fast-casual likes of Chipotle.
A great burrito shows balance and restraint, resulting in harmony between an abundance of flavors, textures, and ingredients. My ideal burrito has an incredible sense of proportion between the meat, rice, beans, cheese, and salsa (mostly meat, a bit less cheese and beans, and enough sauce to help season and flavor every bite). I want a burrito that allows the primary protein to shine like a lead singer, while still leaving room for the other ingredients to assist, like the rhythm section of a rock band. And that protein should be as delicious on its own as it is in the burrito, which means I’m more likely to favor mesquite-grilled carne asada over gas-grilled or plancha-griddled meat, as it offers the added complexity of smoke and char. Or if the meat is stewed, it should be juicy and tender enough to meld into the other ingredients.
With that in mind, here now are my personal favorite burritos in Los Angeles.
The overall favorite: Mar y tierra burrito at Sonoritas Prime
Go to Sonoritas Prime in Sawtelle Japantown or Downtown LA on any weekend to find a buzzing patio filled with taco and burrito fiends biting into some of the best carne asada in town. Owner Daniel Healy Loera, who comes from the northern Mexican state of Sonora, says that he grills meat over mesquite to impart the proteins with a strong char and gentle smokiness. This dedication and technique separate great carne asada from merely good carne asada. Loera uses chuck roll, also called diezmillo, which offers a more beefy flavor than filet or ribeye. Ribeye is available upon request for a higher price.
The mar y tierra incorporates the diezmillo with chile powder-dusted shrimp for a portable take on surf and turf. Cooks carefully build the burrito using locally sourced flour tortillas starting with chopped beef and six shrimp. Then come spoonfuls of stewed pinto beans, seasoned rice, pico de gallo, and chipotle mayonnaise. Loera says chipotle mayonnaise is common in Sonoran dishes, but combining steak with shrimp isn’t something you would normally see in his home state. A generous smear of guacamole adds the final touch before the burrito is sliced in half and served.
Each bite boasts a salty, sweet hit of shrimp contrasted by juicy, beefy, mesquite-scented chunks. The rush of avocado and chipotle mayo teeters on the brink of too much, but splashes of tomatillo and roja salsas keep each bite balanced. Priced at $22 before tax or tip, this is easily one of the most expensive burritos in town, but worth the splurge given the quality of the meat and the generous shrimp.
The runner-up: Burrito 2.0 at Sonoratown
The Burrito 2.0 at Sonoratown is marvelous, thanks to a wide tortilla blistered on the outside. Like Sonaritas Prime, Sonoratown grills its meat over mesquite, imparting a distinct smokiness to the costillas (grilled steak). Sonoratown uses a blend of chuck roll and short rib, both offering intense beefy flavor with decent tenderness.
Every burrito begins with a grilled tortilla piled with stewed beans and shredded cheese. Requests for adding smoky poblano chiles are honored at Sonoratown, giving the burritos an earthy and mildly sweet element. Next, cooks add in a heap of chopped beef glistening from fat followed by guacamole and the shop’s signature chiltepin salsa; the salsa adds a tangy, fiery heat that seeps into every corner of the burrito. Roja and verde salsas are served on the side.
A number of factors kept the Burrito 2.0 from the top spot. Firstly, its shape leans floppy given the moisture of the meat and beans and the absence of rice to soak it up. The meat quality can also be a little less even, sometimes fattier or tougher, without the appealing smoky char that Sonoritas pulls off. The lack of shrimp is a major factor as well, as I just love surf and turf. And finally, the burrito’s Monterey Jack cheese isn’t necessary. I almost wish the burrito had crema like many of the excellent Sonoran-style tacos I’ve had in Mexico. But that’s just splitting hairs because this is a truly phenomenal burrito. And the $11 price, half of the mar y tierra’s at Sonoritas Prime, definitely helps its appeal.
The old-school pick: Combination burrito at Lupe’s #2
Lupe’s #2 is so popular that it creates small traffic jams along Third Street in East LA. While L Line trains rumble by, patrons wait for their numbers to be called as others sit on red picnic tables and dive into their white paper bags for one of the best bean-and-cheese burritos in LA. Lupe’s was founded in 1972 by Manuel and Adeline Portillo, and the family continues to operate the bustling operation.
The combination burrito at Lupe’s defines the Chicano style. Oozy, refried beans with melted cheddar form the base, and from there combinations come filled with stewed beef and a choice of either green or red salsa. Anthony, who often works the register, recommends the red for its spiciness, while the green is gently tangy.
There’s a good chance that the burrito’s hefty filling will prove too much for the barely-griddled tortilla to contain, which means it’s best to eat it right away. Slip the burrito gently out of the paper, but don’t squeeze or else it’ll be a mess. The beans are still screaming hot, which only amplifies the intense spiciness and tanginess of the red salsa, making the experience like trying to eat lava. The resulting adrenaline rush of heat and spice, checked by the comforting melty cheese and juicy chunks of beef, affirms the gloriousness of the Chicano burritos at Lupe’s.