The origins of the burrito are not entirely clear, but most evidence points to burritos being invented in Mexico. The word “burrito” means “little donkey” in Spanish, referring to a stuffed flour or corn tortilla that resembles a full donkey pack. Burritos likely originated in northern Mexico sometime in the late 19th century. The earliest references to burritos appear around the time of the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s. Food historians trace the burrito’s roots to the wheat flour tortilla, which became popular in northern Mexico as wheat farming spread via new railroads. Street vendors in cities like Ciudad Juárez and Guanajuato sold early versions of burritos filled with machaca (dried meat), beans, potatoes, chilies, and other inexpensive ingredients. These mobile food stands helped popularize burritos as a cheap, filling, and portable meal for workers and travelers. From northern Mexican states, burrito culture spread to Mexico City, the rest of the country, and eventually north to what is now the Southwestern United States. While the origins of the burrito are Mexican, the modern burrito was likely perfected as a dish in America, with the addition of ingredients like rice, lettuce, cheese, and sour cream. However, the burrito’s genesis as a food invented in Mexico seems clear.
Etymology and early history of the burrito
The word “burrito” comes from the Mexican Spanish diminutive of burro, meaning “little donkey.” This refers to how a full burrito swaddled in a flour tortilla might resemble the packed goods carried by a little donkey. Burritos were likely invented sometime in the late 19th century, perhaps around 1880-1890. The dish arose in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, and early burritos were often called “burros” or “burritas” in local dialect. At the time, wheat flour tortillas were gaining popularity in northern Mexico due to an influx of European immigrants and improved railroad transportation from the United States. Wheat tortillas were easier to make than traditional corn tortillas and allowed for large burritos filled with machaca, chilies, beans, potatoes, and other inexpensive ingredients. Street vendors in the northern cities of Ciudad Juárez, Guanajuato, and elsewhere sold these early burritos from baskets or wheeled carts to workers and travelers for a few coins. The reputation of burritos as a cheap, filling, and portable meal quickly spread across Mexico.
Popularity of burritos in Mexico City and beyond
From northern Mexico, burrito culture traveled south to Mexico City in the early 20th century. Well-known Mexico City restaurants like CafĂ© El Greco helped popularize burritos by the 1920s. In the capital, burritos were traditionally smaller with a greater variety of fillings, including minced meat, cheese, beans, chili, and more. Mexico City’s style of smaller, filled burritos influenced the dish’s spread across the rest of the country. By the 1930s and 40s, burritos were well established in Mexican restaurants and street food stalls across Mexico. They gained fame as a national specialty and everyday comfort food. The dissemination of burritos across Mexico also likely happened through immigration to other parts of the country from the north. Northern Mexican miners, railroad workers, and emigrants helped bring burrito culture to central and southern Mexico.
Burritos in the United States
While burritos originated in Mexico, the modern burrito was likely perfected as a dish in the United States. Refugees fleeing the Mexican Revolution in the 1910s brought their burrito recipes north to the Southwestern US. Cities like Los Angeles, home to a huge Mexican immigrant community, helped popularize burritos around the country by the 1930s. In LA, burrito vendors customized the dish to American tastes by adding ingredients like cheese, lettuce, and sour cream. These “gringo burritos” eventually overshadowed the smaller, simpler Mexican versions. The enormous “Mission-style burrito” stuffed with rice, beans, meat, guacamole, and veggies became associated with California culture. Chains like Taco Bell and Chipotle brought these Americanized burritos to the masses nationally. So while burritos first emerged in Mexico, much of their development as a world-famous food occurred in the US.
Evidence that burritos originated in Mexico
There are several pieces of evidence that point to burritos being invented as a dish in Mexico, not elsewhere:
- The word “burrito” is Mexican Spanish, meaning “little donkey.” This suggests the dish arose in a Spanish-speaking region like northern Mexico.
- The earliest written references to burritos appear in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Mexican literature. In the 1895 book “EtimologĂas nahuas,” the burrito is described as a tortilla filled with chili and meat from Ciudad JuĂĄrez.
- Northern Mexican states like Chihuahua have the earliest oral histories and local traditions associating burritos with street vendors of the late 19th century.
- Archaeology indicates wheat tortillas were first adopted in the north and spread south, matching the known spread of burritos from northern Mexico to Mexico City.
- Mexican immigrants were responsible for popularizing burritos in America in the early 20th century, illustrating the dish already existed in Mexico.
Taken together, this evidence strongly suggests burritos originated as a regional food in northern Mexico sometime in the late 1800s before gaining national popularity across Mexico and spreading abroad.
Origins of the flour tortilla
The origins of the flour tortilla in northern Mexico provides a clue to the burrito’s birthplace. Wheat was not traditionally grown in Mexico prior to the late 1800s. The arrival of American and European immigrants, coupled with new railroad links to the United States, led to increased wheat farming in northern Mexican states like Chihuahua, Sonora, Nuevo LeĂłn, and Coahuila by the late 1800s. Wheat tortillas are much easier to make than traditional corn tortillas. Street vendors in cities like Monterrey, Hermosillo, and Ciudad JuĂĄrez took advantage of the proliferation of wheat tortillas to create large burritos filled with meats, vegetables, and chilies. Fresh, hot wheat tortillas allowed burritos to achieve their large, packed size. Archaeologists have traced the spread of wheat farming and Spanish-style wheat tortilla making from northern Mexico southward to Mexico City. This matches the known spread of burrito culture from the northern border region to the rest of Mexico.
Early burrito recipes and terminology
The earliest known written mentions of burritos similarly point to their Mexican origins. In the 1895 book “EtimologĂas nahuas,” writer Luis GonzĂĄlez ObregĂłn described tacos and enchiladas in Mexico City as being filled with chickpeas, chili, and shredded meat, similar to burritos still popular at the time in Ciudad JuĂĄrez along the US border. In the 1907 novel “Los parecidos de la vida,” author Institoris wrote of burritos being sold in the city of Guanajuato filled with beef, chili peppers, and herbsâ€”very similar to modern ground beef burritos. These early references to burritos in Mexican literature reveal they already existed as a food item regionally before spreading more widely across Mexico.
The evolution of burritos in America
While burritos first emerged in Mexico, the modern burrito was likely perfected as a dish in America thanks to several key innovations:
- Large, Mission-style burritos were popularized in California, wrapping rice, beans, meat, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and more in a huge wheat tortilla.
- Fast food chains like Taco Bell introduced Americanized burritos filled with beef, sour cream, and cheese to the mainstream.
- The frozen burrito allowed microwavable burritos with longer shelf life to be mass distributed across the US.
- Chipotle and other fast-casual restaurants made gourmet burritos with higher quality ingredients mainstream.
While burritos originated in Mexico, America played a crucial role in turning burritos into a global phenomenon and adding innovations that now dominate around the world.
Burritos in California
Mexican immigrants fleeing the Mexican Revolution likely brought burrito recipes north to California as early as the 1910s. Cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, with large Mexican populations, helped popularize burritos beyond the Southwest. LA’s street food vendors and restaurants customized burritos to local tastes by adding fillings like rice, beans, lettuce, cheese and sour cream. These “gringo burritos” later became known as the “California burrito” or “Mission-style burrito.” The oversized Mission burrito stuffed with multiple fillings became popular across America and globally thanks to its association with California food culture.
Fast food burritos
National fast food chains helped introduce burritos filled with cheese, beef and sour cream to mainstream America starting in the 1960s and 70s. Taco Bell debuted in 1962 serving Americanized burritos and burrito variations like the toasted Crunchwrap Supreme. Other chains like Del Taco, Taco Bueno, and Taco Cabana helped popularize burritos as fast food across the country. Menu items like bean burritos and breakfast burritos entered the mainstream thanks to fast food. Later came fusion burritos like the Korean BBQ burrito. Fast food demonstrated burritos could contain endless fillings beyond traditional Mexican ingredients.
The frozen burrito
The invention of frozen burrito technology allowed burritos to be mass-produced and distributed across America on a wider scale. The Becker family claims to have pioneered frozen burrito manufacturing in 1975 under the label of Tio Santi. By providing longer shelf life, frozen burritos offered greater flexibility for retailers to stock burritos nationally. Brands like Amy’s Kitchen, El Monterey, and Jose Ole helped make frozen burritos stuffed with rice, beans and salsa common grocery store items, including microwavable breakfast burritos.
A newer wave of gourmet burrito chains like Chipotle, Qdoba, Baja Fresh, and Freebirds helped drive burrito innovation after 2000. These fast-casual restaurants use higher-quality ingredients and customizable ordering that allows customers to craft burritos with salsas, fillings and toppings to their liking. The build-your-own model sparked burrito creativity, such as burrito bowls without the tortilla shell. Gourmet chains helped make burritos mainstream lunch and dinner options for white-collar workers while spreading burrito culture globally. High-end burritos may come full circle by using authentic Mexican ingredients and recipes re-imported from south of the border.
Burritos become an American tradition
Over the course of the 20th century, burritos evolved from a regional Mexican food to a mainstream American tradition thanks to chains like Taco Bell, immigrant culture in cities like Los Angeles, and novel innovations like the frozen burrito. Americans personalized burritos by incorporating cheese, rice, beans and extra fillings while applying burritos to dishes like breakfast sandwiches. Across the Southwest and California, burritos became associated with local culture. Today burritos are enjoyed across America as comfort food, festival food, tailgate food, and more. While Mexico invented the burrito, America played a crucial role in transforming it into a ubiquitous all-American snack.
In summary, while the burrito was likely invented in northern Mexico sometime in the late 19th century, it was perfected into its modern incarnation largely through American innovations in the 20th century. Northern Mexico deserves credit for developing the concept of a large wheat flour tortilla stuffed with machaca, chilies, beans and other fillings. But the oversized and customizable Mission-style burritos of California, along with frozen and fast food burritos, helped the dish explode in popularity across America and worldwide. Mexico may have invented the burrito, but America made it iconic.