It’s Bean Awhile

By Kevin Alexander / Illustration by Daniel Inskeep

Ask any real San Diegan how the burrito came about, and they will, without fail, ignore you and go surfing, or whatever.

But the truth is, the history of that choice late-night meal, like your vision while eating it, is pretty damn blurry. The name itself, which means “little donkey,” is often linked to one of two stories.

The first, more exciting story is that, during the Mexican Revolution (in 1910), a taco peddler named Juan Mendez, used a donkey as transportation to and from work in ciudad Juarez, Mexico. To keep his fillings warm, he began wrapping them with large flour tortillas and wrapping those in napkins. The people immediately took a liking to these napkin-covered huge-tacos and started calling them the “food of the burrito,” and, as it got more popular, just “burritos.” (As online marketing classes often point out, trendsetters shorten words.)

The second idea is that the rolled-up deliciousness vaguely resembles the ear of its namesake animal, or the bedrolls and packs that donkeys carried. The second idea sucks.

Either way, an academic named Andrew Smith, in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, says that the first documented burrito action in the u.S. came from an L.A. restaurant called El Cholo Spanish café, which started serving them in the 1930s. Smith also says burritos appeared in Erna Fergusson’s Mexican Cookbook in 1934. What he does not say is that “el cholo” means a lot of not-very-nice things on Urban Dictionary.

Though burritos may have been introduced to L.A. in the ‘30s, the general California public apparently kept eating deviled ham salad and chewing tobacco until the 1960s, when the little donkeys turned up in two other Cali locations. In San Francisco, Febronio Ontiveros was peddling Super-style burritos (with rice, sour cream and guacamole) at his El faro grocery store on Folsom Street in the Mission District. In San Diego, at chula vista’s La Lomita, Roberto Robledo began slinging them No frills-style: meat, cheese, salsa.

And though the Internet’s blog river runs red with bloody comment battles as to which style is superior, we leave
you with these simple facts: Roberto Robledo’s shop did well enough that he now has 65 restaurants, 32 of which are in the city of Las Vegas alone, and the “berto” in his name has spawned more than 500 copycats.

In the 1980s, Robledo had the genius idea of putting fries and cheese in the burrito and calling it the “California.” Poor Febronio never stood a chance.