Chimichangas are a popular Tex-Mex dish consisting of a fried burrito or rolled tortilla filled with meat, cheese, beans, and other ingredients. They are often served with sides like rice, lettuce, sour cream, and guacamole. While chimichangas are commonly found on Mexican restaurant menus in the United States, their origins are actually more complex. So are chimichangas really Mexican, or did they originate elsewhere? Let’s take a closer look at the history and cultural context of this famous dish.
What are chimichangas?
Chimichangas are made by wrapping any combination of fillings into a flour tortilla, folding it into a rectangular package, and then deep frying it until the exterior is crispy and golden brown. Typical fillings include shredded chicken, beef, pork, or machaca (dried meat), along with cheese, beans, rice, and salsa. The chimichanga is sometimes topped with condiments like guacamole, sour cream, lettuce, and salsa after being cooked.
This dish has a similar appearance to a burrito, but the key difference is that chimichangas are always fried, while burritos are not. The frying process gives the tortilla exterior a unique crunchy texture, while the fillings inside remain soft and warm. Chimichangas are most often served as an entree, while burritos can be entree or appetizer sized.
Origins and history
There are several competing stories about the origins of chimichangas. Some say the dish was actually invented in Tucson, Arizona, while others claim it originated across the border in the Mexican state of Sonora.
According to Tucson legend, the chimichanga was created by Monica Flin at her Tuscon restaurant, El Charro Cafe, in 1922. The story goes that Monica accidentally dropped a burrito into a deep fryer, and after taking it out she realized the mistake had created a delicious new dish. She named it “chimi-changa,” a Spanish slang term meaning “thingamajig.”
However, many historians believe chimichangas most likely originated in the Mexican state of Sonora, especially in the capital city of Hermosillo. Sonoran cuisine is known for its flour tortillas and cattle ranching, which would provide key ingredients for chimichangas. Residents of Sonora point out their region had established cattle ranching, flour tortilla, and deep frying traditions long before the dish appeared in Arizona.
Another important piece of chimichanga history comes from the city of Reynosa, Mexico, just across the border from McAllen, Texas. This area claims to have invented the “precursor” to the chimichanga, a dish called the “chivichanga.” Local restaurants supposedly served these deep-fried burritos as early as the 1960s.
So while the exact geographical origins are uncertain, food historians believe chimichangas emerged somewhere along the Mexico-US border region in the early 20th century. On both sides of the border, the local cuisine was already combining Spanish, Mexican, and Tex-Mex culinary traditions. The chimichanga’s evolution reflects this blended cultural history.
Popularity in the United States
Although chimichangas may have Mexican roots, this dish achieved newfound popularity in the United States during the mid to late 20th century.
Chef Woody Johnson is credited with bringing chimichangas into the mainstream American palate when he put them on the menu at his Phoenix restaurant, Woody’s El Nido, in the late 1940’s. The dish gained more widespread fame when Macayo’s Mexican Kitchen started selling “Chimi-Changas” at their restaurants in Phoenix in 1952. Soon the chimichanga became a signature menu item at Mexican restaurants throughout the Southwest.
Part of the appeal was the novelty and indulgence of a fried burrito, which seemed like an inventive and exotic dish to many Americans at the time. The chimichanga was able to gain a foothold on American menus because it was born out of the border region’s cultural intermixing and willingness to experiment with cuisine.
Today the chimichanga remains a classic Mexican-American menu item, popular at restaurants across the country. Major fast food chains like Taco Bell have even launched their own chimichanga products to cater to consumer demand. The chimichangas’ popularity in the US has also led to its adoption back into the cuisine of Mexico and other Latin American countries.
One of the interesting legacies of chimichangas is their cultural symbolism representing the Mexican-American experience. Chimichangas are considered one of the early examples of Tex-Mex cuisine, which blends food traditions from the Southwestern US with those from Northern Mexico.
This fusion cuisine arose in Texas border towns as Mexican cooks improvised ways to feed American tastes using ingredients available in the US. The chimichanga exemplifies these culinary crossroads because it combines a Mexican tortilla with an American predilection for fried foods. Even the name “chimichanga” bears the mark of Spanglish.
Food historians point out that chimichangas also represent the broader history of exchange and adaptation between Latino and Anglo cultures along the border. They demonstrate that cultural intermixing is often revealed through what and how people eat. The chimichanga’s popularity is a story of transnational community as much as it is a story of delicious fried dough.
This complex cultural symbolism helps explain why chimichangas are such a point of pride and identity for Mexican-Americans in the Southwestern states where they originated. Eating chimichangas represents celebrating a distinct regional food tradition born out of cross-cultural exchange.
Chimichangas come in several popular regional varieties:
Tex-Mex chimichangas – The classic recipe found across Texas and the Southwest consisting of a flour tortilla stuffed with meat, beans, cheese, then fried. Common fillings include shredded beef, chicken, or machaca.
Sonoran-style chimichangas – Originating from Sonora, Mexico, these specialize in beef fillings since the region is known for cattle ranching. Fillings like carne seca (dried beef) or machaca (shredded salted beef) are common.
Sinaloan-style chimichangas – In the Mexican state of Sinaloa, chimichangas are made with fresh, unmilled corn tortillas rather than flour. Fillings often include marinated pork instead of beef.
New Mexican chimichangas – Made with New Mexico’s signature carne adovada (marinated pork in red chile sauce). Other common fillings include chicken, potato, papas, and bean varieties.
Breakfast chimichangas – These contain breakfast fillings like scrambled eggs with ham, bacon, chorizo, potatoes, or machaca. May be topped with chile sauce and cotija cheese.
Seafood chimichangas – Popular in coastal regions of Mexico and Baja California, these are filled with shrimp, fish, crab, lobster, or other local seafood.
Vegetarian chimichangas – Substitute meat with sautéed vegetables, cheese, beans, rice, and chiles. Popular veggie fillings include mushrooms, spinach, and potatoes.
So while the basic premise is the same, chimichangas take on distinct regional flavors based on local tastes and ingredients. Their adaptability is part of the reason chimichangas have become so popular across Mexico and the American Southwest.
How to make chimichangas
Making chimichangas at home allows you to customize them just the way you like. Here is a basic recipe:
– 8 small (6 inch) flour tortillas
– 1 cup cooked meat, such as shredded chicken, beef, or pork carnitas
– 1 cup refried beans
– 1 cup Mexican cheese blend, like queso fresco or cojita
– Toppings like lettuce, tomatoes, guacamole, etc.
– Oil for frying
1. Lay tortillas flat and add about 2-3 tablespoons of meat, beans, and cheese into the center of each. Adjust amounts based on size of tortilla.
2. Fold sides of tortilla over filling, then fold one end over to form a rectangular package. Secure sealed with toothpicks.
3. Heat 1-2 inches of oil in skillet over medium high heat. Test temperature by adding a small piece of tortilla to oil. It should sizzle immediately.
4. Working in batches, add chimichangas to oil seam side down. Fry 2-3 minutes per side until golden brown.
5. Drain on paper towel lined plate. Remove toothpicks before serving.
6. Top with your choice of toppings like lettuce, tomato, guacamole, and sour cream. Enjoy!
Get creative with fillings like potato, bacon, jalapeños, or peppers. The great thing about chimichangas is you can fully customize them to satisfy your tastes. Now that you know the history and culture of this dish, enjoy making some chimichangas at home!
Where to find the best chimichangas
If you don’t want the hassle of frying at home, you can find some of the best chimichangas at these restaurants throughout the Southwest:
– Macayo’s (Phoenix, AZ) – The original chimichanga creators back in 1952. Their classic chimis are stuffed with beef machaca, beans, and cheese.
– Casa Molina’s (Tucson, AZ) – Serves up amazing Sonoran-style chimichangas with carne seca and cheese in fresh, housemade flour tortillas.
– Juanita’s (Galveston, TX) – Offers Tex-Mex style chimis filled with your choice of meat, beans, and cheese. Their beef and chicken are standouts.
– Gabriel’s (Santa Fe, NM) – Known for their chimichangas smothered New Mexican-style in Hatch green chile and melted cheese.
– Rubio’s Coastal Grill (California chain) – Offers Baja-style chimichangas filled with fish or shrimp. Fried or grilled to order.
– Chela’s (Chicago, IL) – Beloved hometown restaurant serving authentic Sinaloan-style chimichangas with handmade tortillas.
– Chicos Tacos (El Paso, TX) – Texas border fast food chain featuring classic El Paso-style beef or chicken chimichangas.
From old-school establishments to modern chains, great chimichangas can be found all over the US Southwest. Part of the experience is trying this regional specialty in its homeland!
While chimichangas have an irresistible taste and texture, their deep-fried nature does make them a higher calorie dish. A large chimichanga can contain 500 calories or more, especially when served with high-calorie sauces and toppings. The frying technique also adds more unhealthy saturated fat compared to other Mexican dishes.
Those looking for a healthier take can try oven-baked chimichangas, which skip the oil frying. Another option is grilled chimichangas, where the tortilla is lightly charred on a grill or comal instead of submerged in oil. Choosing chimichangas made with corn tortillas adds more fiber compared to flour. Picking lower-fat fillings like chicken or shrimp over red meat can also reduce calories. Finally, go easy on high-fat sauces and condiments to keep the meal more balanced.
Moderation is key when indulging in rich, fried foods like chimichangas. But the occasional chimichanga can absolutely be part of an overall healthy diet. Just be mindful of portion size, ingredients, and accompaniments to keep your meal from going overboard.
Chimichangas have a long, multi-cultural history spanning the US-Mexico border. While their exact origin is debated, chimichangas represent a true cross-pollination of Latino and Anglo food traditions. This unique fusion cuisine has made chimichangas beloved in both Mexico and the American Southwest. With a nearly endless variety of fillings and regional twists, chimichangas have evolved over decades but remain a hearty, satisfying meal. Moderating portion sizes and toppings allows you to enjoy these crispy, meat-filled treats as part of an overall healthy lifestyle. The next time you see chimichangas on a menu, appreciate the decades of cultural intermixing that brought this crave-worthy dish to your table.