The wrap that ate L.A.

Special to The Times

Armchair authorities on Mexican cuisine are fond of saying that burritos aren't really Mexican. It means "little donkey," they argue. It's not little, it's not a donkey -- so it couldn't possibly be autentico. As if we care.

Like pizza, which supposedly comes from Naples, or that all-American phenomenon, the hamburger, invented, so they say, by some fancy-pants in Germany, burritos have transcended their roots, real or supposed. And unlike the chile relleno, the enchilada, or even the soft taco, which, if made "correctly" should be pretty much the same wherever you go, burritos, regardless of their origin, are not mired in tradition. The burrito as we know it is puro Californiano and, like all things Californian, a product of innovation and reinvention.

San Francisco's whopping Mission-style burritos are legendary, of course, giant packages of saucy meat, beans and rice. For San Diegans, carne asada burritos are as integral to the experience of the place as a slice of pie is to a New Yorker -- what you grab when you want something cheap, easy to eat, and in the wee morning hours, allegedly capable of reversing the effects of alcohol (and even of curing them the next day).

But though the taco has long eclipsed the burrito's fame in Los Angeles, we do in fact have a burrito culture, and then some. You've always been able to find great burritos here in town -- at least as long as burritos have been around. But sometime in the last decade, burritos evolved into something so varied, so delicious and so ubiquitous that it would seem as though the burrito might one day replace the hamburger as L.A.'s signature bite.

Generally speaking, the little donkey we Angelenos know and love is a big, messy, hand-held monster. You find it in every neighborhood, from Boyle Heights to Northridge to Beverly Hills-adjacent; it emerges from colorful, corner burrito joints, from stalwart taco stands, from the trucks that pull up in front of construction sites or pull up in front of parks -- even from sit-down restaurants.

What gets handed over the counter at these places is a warm (steamed or quickly grilled) 12-inch flour tortilla, into which any variety and combination of Mexican culinary components -- meat, rice, beans, cilantro, onions, sour cream, guacamole, pico de gallo and hot sauce -- might be layered. (Order it con todo, and you'll get the works.) The sides of the tender, pliable tortilla are folded over the filling and the whole shebang is then rolled in the other direction, creating a nicely sealed, neat and clean log: a self-contained Mexican meal.

That is, except when it's a burrito mojado, a "wet burrito" that comes on a plate, drenched in sauce. While there are some who insist that a burrito isn't a burrito unless they can hold it in their hands, these less common hybrids have their fans (the author of this story being one).

A great burrito, as opposed to a merely good one, has a certain gestalt, in which every element adds up to something so delicious it can't exactly be explained, except to say you know it like you know a good PB & J.

The quality of the ingredients is important, of course, especially for the tortilla. It should be tender, floury and redolent of the salty, almost meaty scent of lard. But even more, a great burrito depends on striking just the right contrast of flavors and textures: spicy meat set off by cool crema or guacamole, the perfect proportion of filling to tortilla, and of rice and beans to the primary ingredient.

But when it comes to burritos, any aficionado knows that god is in the filling, be it the most delicious carnitas, moist chunks of beef in a red chili sauce, or juicy, smoky carne asada.

The classic carne asada burrito is a rare find these days, as the moist chunks of grilled meat are usually replaced with what seems to be stew meat, cut before it's marinated within an inch of its life, and cooked. But you can still find the real deal in a few taquerias and restaurants, among them El Parian in Pico-Union, which has one of the best carne asada burritos in town. There, the high-quality meat is cooked on the grill.

Creative stuffings

Carnitas, those delicious little morsels of long-cooked pork, also make a mean burrito. Those that fill the burritos at El Diablo and Benito's Taco Shop are moist and tender with crispy edges, just the way they should be. Slathered with extra shots of salsa verde, there's nothing like them.

And machaca, a traditional Sonoran specialty of dried, shredded beef that is stewed to make it juicy and flavorful is a draw at Burrito King, the Silver Lake stand that's been making them since 1969. They're as compelling as ever.

But more and more, L.A.'s burrito makers have started thinking outside of box. If chicken mole poblano or albondigas are delicious on a plate, why not roll them up in a flour tortilla?

Yuca's, the ever-popular Los Feliz spot -- a tiny free-standing box in which as many as five cooks cram to meet the lunchtime rush -- is one of them. Among popular choices is cochinita pibil, a traditional preparation from the Yucatan, where chunks of pork are seasoned, wrapped in banana leaves and roasted for hours until succulent and tender. Here, the tortillas are velvety soft; the burritos folded over only once, so they lie flat on the plate and require a knife and fork to dig in.

At ¡Loteria! Grill in the Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax, you'll find some of the most adventurous -- and delicious -- burritos around. Some are filled with traditional regional dishes, like chicharrones (fried pig skin) in salsa verde, or tinga (chicken stewed with chipotle peppers and chorizo).

Others are more modern takes on classic dishes, like albondigas (meatballs) in chipotle sauce or corn and squash succotash. In any case, the burritos are large, and come with a corner of them "wet" -- just enough sauce to require a knife and fork, but not so much as to be considered a hybrid.

Lately the most popular kid on the block is the chile relleno burrito. Although it sounds somewhat redundant -- something stuffed inside a wrap -- the flour tortilla blanket is actually a nice way to eat a chile relleno. Because it doesn't have the customary tomato sauce, you can really taste the relleno's roasted poblano and gooey melted cheese inside the burrito. Tere's Mexican Grill in Los Angeles makes a great one, but you can find them in taquerias all over town.

For some burrito fans, a transcendent burrito experience is as much about what's on top of the burrito as what's inside it. If you're a fan of the wet burrito, you can ask for one served mojado just about anywhere. Depending on what's inside, you might find your burrito drenched with enchilada sauce, salsa verde (tomatillo sauce), mole, chile colorado, or chile verde sauce.

But certain burritos mojados stand out. At El Nopal, a popular hole-in-the-wall in West L.A. known as "the home of the pregnant burrito," the name that drew the moniker is a heifer of a creation, a whole plateful, filled with shredded chicken, sliced avocado and minced white onion, all smothered in enchilada sauce and melted cheese.

Casa Diaz, a cheerful, bright red and yellow spot in Hollywood, is known for its chicken mole loco burrito. Filled with shredded chicken, smothered in rich mole poblano sauce, topped with slices of avocado and giant scoops of sour cream, this rich mountain redefines the burrito altogether.

Is this a good thing?

So is it possible for the burrito to go too far? Since the fish taco craze, which traveled north from Baja California via surfers and Rubio's, seafood is now fair game in Burritoville. But is it right? Do we really want shrimp in there with our beans and rice?

The answer is, it depends. The whole point of fish tacos is fish that's battered and deep-fried. Thus, in the burrito tradition of using the flour tortilla to fold up traditional Mexican ingredients, the fish for fish burritos must be batter-fried. Lobster burritos? Think Puerto Nuevo, to go. It could be great.

This may sound overly radical even to an Angeleno, but hey -- so did the albondigas burrito until, er, 10 minutes ago. In San Diego, the guacamole gateway to the U.S., these are just a part of breezy, laid-back, burrito-eating life. San Diegans have lately moved on from carne asada to Philly Cheesesteak burritos and "California burritos" -- carne asada, guacamole, sour cream and, you guessed it, French fries. Maybe they should have dubbed it a steak-frites burrito.

¡Ay, caramba!

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Winners of the burrito marathon

From Boyle Heights to Northridge, from Pico-Union to Santa Monica, we clocked hundreds of miles in search of the best burritos Los Angeles has to offer. They were so deliciously satisfying that we still could eat 40 more. Here are our absolute favorites:

THE CLASSIC

Antojitos Denise's burrito al pastor ($3.25) Modest, slender, filled with spicy spit-roasted pork and the right amount of pinto beans and Mexican rice; the vivid flavors, set off by cilantro and raw onion, make it a winner. The unassuming little Hollywood taqueria, decorated with white Christmas lights, has refreshing iced horchata to wash it down with.

4930 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 661-8230

THE BULLFIGHTER

Barragan's chile verde burrito ($6.50). Tender chunks of pork long-stewed in green chile sauce, wrapped in a huge tortilla, are smothered with the same savory, spicy sauce and drizzled with melted Jack cheese. It's as appealingly Spanish retro as the dark and cozy old-fashioned restaurant.

1538 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 250-4256

THE UNDERCOVER

Benito's Taco Shop's carnitas burrito ($3.24). It's not on the menu, but ask nicely and you'll get a terrific hand-held model, filled with juicy, flavorful chopped roasted pork, beans, rice and pico de gallo. Slather every third bite with salsa verde, and it can be heavenly.

6751 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 466-9333; 1544 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 360-7386; 11614 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 442-9924; 7912 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 938-7427

EL REY

Burrito King's machaca burrito ($4.50). The house specialty is filled with juicy, flavorful stewed shredded beef. Although it's huge, it doesn't fall apart in its wrapper, and it never disappoints. The chain, which was founded in 1969 on the corner of Sunset and Alvarado, may have been L.A.'s first stand dedicated to the burrito. For breakfast, try the burrito version of a Mexican classic: machaca con huevos (scrambled with eggs).

2109 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 484-9859; 2827 Hyperion Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 667-0020; 3989 Sepulveda Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 385-1739

CRAZY WRAP

Casa Diaz's chicken mole loco burrito ($6.50). Regulars come for this one, chock-full of flavorful shredded chicken and topped with mole poblano, sliced avocado, sour cream and cheese, served on a paper plate. Order at the window at the bright red and yellow, cheerful little spot, then take a table and enjoy.

4666 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 661-0523

BATHING BEAUTY

La Cita's burrito banado ($5.50). Filled with chunks of chile colorado, Mexican rice, refried beans and lettuce, and topped with the same sauce and melted cheese, it is like a cross between chili, a burrito and an enchilada -- and it works, gloriously.

4608 San Fernando Road, Glendale, (818) 242-6423

LA BOMBA

El Diablo's carnitas burrito ($4). It's gigantic, positively stuffed with rice, beans and pork that's especially delicious, crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside, just as it should be. Located in a large indoor-outdoor market selling Mexican imports as well as goods aimed at a Mexican American clientele, El Diablo also has terrific chicharrones en salsa verde (green sauce), birria (stewed goat), carne asada and pollo asado. Brush up on your Spanish; even a Chicana who thought she could speak it had trouble making herself understood here.

Alameda Swap Meet, 4501 S. Alameda St., Los Angeles, (323) 233-3015

THE TEXAN

Gallegos Mexican Deli's house burrito ($5.35). Filled with juicy chunks of marinated steak that's been cooked with onions, peppers and tomatoes, plus refried beans and Mexican rice, it's sort of a fajita burrito. This Mexican grocery cum takeout shop is known for its tamales, made fresh daily on the premises.

12470 Venice Blvd., Mar Vista, (310) 391-2587

THE BIG WINNER

¡Loteria! Grill's albondigas en chipotle burrito ($7.55). Tender little meatballs are generously sauced with super-smoky, earthy chipotle sauce; white rice and black beans complete the picture. The burritos aren't exactly wet at this little gem of a taco stand in the Farmers Market, but one corner is covered in just enough sauce (different for each burrito) to render it a knife-and-fork proposition. Tinga de pollo, mole poblano and carne deshebrada versions are almost as delicious. Farmers Market, 6333 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, (323) 930-2211

THE MAMACITA

El Nopal's "pregnant burrito" ($8.95). It's stuffed with close to a pound of shredded chicken, sliced avocado and onion, then doused with enchilada sauce and topped with cheese. We sometimes find ourselves craving this outstanding enchilada hybrid.

10426 National Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 559-4732

THE PURIST

El Parian's carne asada burrito ($3.90). The quality of the carne asada -- juicy and with the taste of the grill -- sets the burrito in this East L.A./Pico-Union restaurant apart from others. Neat and not too large, the hand roll is sauced with vibrant pico de gallo and just enough rice and beans. The flavor of real steak comes through loud, clear and delicious, especially with a Dos Equis. The birria (goat) is also excellent.

1528 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 386-7361

SPICE BOY

Taqueria La Estrella's carne asada burrito ($3). Very saucy, with lots of salsa picante, this one has tasty refried beans and Mexican rice. It's a classic, the real barrio deal. At this East L.A. neighborhood institution, you can also get burritos filled with tongue, cabeza, chorizo, carne al pastor, chicken and birria. Order it wet if you want yours drenched in enchilada sauce.

940 S. Lorena St., Los Angeles, (323) 266-4349

THE LEGEND

El Tepeyac Cafe's Hollenbeck burrito ($6.95). This gargantuan creation of carnitas, green chile, Mexican rice, refried beans and guacamole, named for the Hollenbeck police precinct nearby, is large enough for a family of four. It's been a favorite in Boyle Heights since 1958; the cafe that it made famous opened in 1953.

812 N. Evergreen Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 268-1960

THE TRENDSETTER

Tere's Mexican Grill's chile relleno burrito ($5.95). The spectacular egg-batter-fried, queso fresco-filled relleno wrapped inside a flour tortilla with Mexican rice, pinto beans, lettuce, guacamole, sour cream, onions, cilantro and pico de gallo offers evidence of the burrito's continuing evolution. It's a keeper.

5870 W. Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 468-9345

THE RED MUSTANG

Tito's Tacos' chile con carne burrito ($3.35). This modestly sized treat is the vintage car of burritos. Chile con carne is the only choice of filling at this beloved Westside institution; beans and shredded cheese are options. It offers kind of a stripped-down comfort quotient, like peanut butter and jelly on white, no crust.

11222 Washington Place, Culver City, (310) 391-5780

THE PEARL

Yuca's cochinita pibil burrito ($3.15). Cochinita pibil (pork wrapped in banana leaves and cooked for hours until tender)is what this tiny, chocolate brown free-standing shack in Los Feliz is known for. Order it in a burrito and it comes, with pinto beans only (no rice), in a tortilla as tender and velvety as any you'll find. Folded over only once, it lies flat on the plate, requiring a knife and fork. Outrageously good.

2056 Hillhurst Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 662-1214

-- Carolynn Carreno

and Barbara Hansen

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