The burrito is a popular food item that originated in Mexico. It consists of a flour tortilla wrapped around a filling, which is often beans, rice, meat, cheese, and other ingredients. While burritos are beloved in Mexico, they have evolved and changed significantly from the original Mexican version since becoming popular in the United States and around the world. So what exactly is the authentic Mexican version of a burrito?
The History of the Burrito
The burrito dates back to at least the 19th century in Mexico. The word “burrito” means “little donkey” in Spanish, likely referring to a food item that could be carried and eaten “on the go”, as if on the back of a donkey. Burritos were commonly sold as street food by street vendors in Mexico. The early burritos were smaller and simpler than modern burritos, containing just a couple ingredients like chorizo, beans, cheese, or potatoes loosely rolled up in a wheat flour tortilla. They were made with whatever ingredients the vendor had on hand or were affordable. The burrito was considered peasant or “lower class” food in Mexico at the time.
The burrito became popular in Ciudad Juarez and El Paso in the 1890s and 1900s. Located along the Mexico-U.S. border, vendors sold burritos to Mexican laborers working in the U.S. who needed a portable meal. From here, burritos spread to other parts of the U.S. Southwest. As burritos adapted to American tastes, they grew larger and more elaborate. New fillings like rice, lettuce, sour cream and guacamole were added. The modern American-style burrito emerged, becoming especially popular in California in the 1960s and 1970s.
Meanwhile, burritos retained their simplicity in Mexico. The original Mexican-style burrito has remained largely unchanged for over a century.
Characteristics of Authentic Mexican Burritos
So what distinguishes an authentic Mexican burrito from an American version? Here are some key qualities:
Mexican burritos are typically smaller, with a thin, compact tortilla. They are meant to be eaten with your hands in just a few bites. American-style burritos are huge in comparison, with larger and thicker tortillas stuffed full of ingredients that require utensils to eat.
Traditional Mexican burritos contain just a couple simple fillings like meat, beans, potatoes, chorizo, cheese or eggs. American versions are packed with a variety of fillings.
Choice of fillings
Popular fillings in Mexican burritos include:
- Shredded chicken or beef
American-style burritos often contain rice, lettuce, sour cream, guacamole and other fillings not traditionally used.
Use of wheat tortillas
Mexican burritos use wheat flour tortillas. Corn tortillas are not traditionally used, as they are too brittle and break when rolled up. American burritos sometimes use corn tortillas or even spinach or whole wheat tortillas.
Mexican burritos have an uncomplicated flavor and ingredient profile. American versions often have complex combinations of ingredients and flavors.
Mexican burritos are served as-is, not topped with extra sauces or ingredients. Common American additions like cheese, guacamole, salsa and sour cream are not typical.
Eaten as street food
Mexican burritos are considered street food, sold by vendors and meant to be eaten outside or on-the-go. American burritos are most often ordered at restaurants and intended for sit-down dining.
Popular Types of Mexican Burritos
While burrito fillings vary across regions of Mexico, here are some of the most common types:
These classic burritos contain refried or whole beans, shredded cheese like queso fresco, and sometimes rice. They are especially popular for breakfast.
Spicy chorizo sausage and scrambled eggs are stuffed in a tortilla for this protein-packed burrito. Onions, peppers, potatoes or cheese may be added too.
Carne asada burritos
Carne asada refers to grilled, marinated beef. Strips are rolled up with guacamole, onions and cilantro.
Eggs, cheese, beans and Mexican chorizo or other meat are standard fillings for breakfast burritos, which are eaten in the morning.
Al pastor burritos
Al pastor is a shawarma-style pork filling that evolved from Middle Eastern influence in Mexico. It is combined with pineapple, onion and cilantro.
One Mexican-American cross-over burrito is the California burrito filled with carne asada, cheese, guacamole, pico de gallo and French fries.
Where to Find Authentic Mexican Burritos
Want to get a taste for true Mexican burritos? Here are some tips for finding the real deal:
- Look for street food stands and small restaurants and taquerias run by Mexican families in the U.S. Southwest
- In Mexico, try local street vendors, taco stands and small “hole-in-the-wall” establishments
- Search for burritos that contain limited, traditional ingredients
- Avoid Tex-Mex chains and Americanized Mexican restaurants
- Ask a Mexican friend where they recommend going for simple, homemade burritos
With an abundance of modern burrito options, it can take some effort to find old-fashioned, original Mexican burritos. But seeking out authentic establishments is worth it for the chance to bite into a true piece of Mexican history and culture.
How Burritos are Made in Mexico
The burrito may seem simple, but there is an art to properly assembling and preparing an authentic Mexican burrito.
Selecting the tortilla
A good tortilla is key to any burrito. Small street vendors in Mexico typically purchase tortillas from local shops that make tortillas by hand each day. Look for pliable wheat flour tortillas about 6-8 inches across.
Heating the tortilla
Vendors lightly toast tortillas over a hot griddle called a comal to soften them and make them more flexible, taking care not to let them get crispy. You can do this at home in a hot skillet.
Choosing the fillings
Keep it minimal with just 2-3 complementary fillings, like chorizo and eggs, carne asada and onions, or beans and cheese. Place fillings in a line down the middle of the tortilla.
Rolling the burrito
Pull the bottom of the tortilla over the fillings and fold in the sides before rolling up tightly into a cylindrical shape. Be sure the tortilla is compactly wrapped around the filling.
Toasting the burrito
Place assembled burritos back on the hot comal and toast lightly on each side to meld the ingredients together. Melting cheese in the burrito provides delicious binding.
Unlike American burritos, Mexican ones are served on their own without toppings or sides. Enjoy the unadulterated flavors of the tortilla, meat and fillings.
How Mexican and American Burritos Differ
While the American burrito was inspired by Mexico, it has evolved into something distinct from the original. Here’s how the two burrito styles differ:
Mexican burritos use smaller 6-8 inch wheat flour tortillas. American burritos feature 10-12 inch flour or corn tortillas.
Mexicans use limited meat, beans, potato or egg fillings. Americans pack burritos with rice, cheese, guacamole, lettuce and more.
Mexican vendors freshly make tortillas and fillings from scratch. American restaurants reheat pre-made ingredients.
Mexican burritos highlight simple, authentic flavors. American burritos have complex layers of flavors.
Mexicans eat burritos on-the-go from street stalls. Americans sit down for meal-sized burritos.
Mexicans order pre-determined burrito types from vendors. Americans select ingredients to customize each burrito.
While both tasty in their own way, only the Mexican version offers that truly authentic burrito experience!
The Future of the Burrito
The burrito has already evolved significantly from its humble origins and continues to change. Here are some possible burrito trends to look out for:
- Gourmet burritos – More upscale restaurants offering burritos with elevated, specialized ingredients
- Burrito mashups – Blending burritos with other cultures’ dishes like sushi burritos, Korean burritos, etc.
- Fast casual burrito chains – New build-your-own burrito franchise concepts
- Vegetarian/vegan burritos – Plant-based and meat substitute fillings
- Breakfast burrito boom – More all-day breakfast burritos as they grow in popularity
- Better burrito rolling technology – Potentially machines that can roll burritos perfectly and consistently
- Mexican burrito renaissance – A return to simple, traditional fillings and smaller sizes
It will be interesting to see what innovations may lie ahead for one of the world’s most cherished hand-held meals.
While the Mexican-style burrito has largely remained the same home-cooked street food for over a century, the American version has become a ubiquitous crossover sensation with near endless interpretations. But by going back to the origins of the burrito in Mexico, one can experience the traditional flavors, textures and culture that made the burrito beloved in the first place. Getting an authentic taste of this simple yet satisfying staple in restaurants in Mexico or from vendors in the U.S. Southwest brings you close to the roots of one of Mexico’s gifts to the world.