Burritos in San Diego
I knew it would be shitty but I went anyway. The online surf forecast called for a massive, rising tide; all of the local breaks would be swamped out—that is to say, the sheer volume of incoming tidal water would overwhelm whatever swell happened to be working—and there would be no waves, or none that could be enjoyed. But I went anyway.
I paddled around for an hour or so, enough to get a bit of exercise and work up an appetite. Most of surfing is not surfing, I’ve found. I emerged hungry and in a foul mood. There was only one thing for it, and I hadn’t eaten that thing in… Jesus, at least 15 years. Ten a.m., and the local Roberto’s, San Diego county’s ubiquitous taco shop (with at least 64 locations), would be open.
San Diegans are insufferable snobs when it comes to Mexican food. We (justifiably) stake our claim on the fish taco, our bars make the best margaritas, and we will simply not discuss the matter with anyone who feels that beans or rice or (gag) lettuce belong in a burrito. Taquerias are for San Francisco and New York poseurs; we have Taco Shops. But San Diego bears a secret shame. The city is home to the terrible, beautiful California Burrito.
Most San Diegans credit Santana’s, a small taco-shop chain that later rebranded itself as something called “Fresh MXN,” as the first place to put the California Burrito on the menu, sometime back in the 80s. Nearly every taco shop in the county serves them. The thing starts off with promise: the base components are a flour tortilla, with carne asada (basically, grilled steak). And then things go terribly wrong. Shredded cheddar is added. Then comes a dollop of sour cream. And then the final outrage: French fries. No salsa; you need to add your own, and Cholula is the only choice. And “need” is very literal; the California Burrito is a throat-clogging, dry, starchy, lactose-laden horror that wouldn’t be out of place on an Applebee’s menu.
And yet. There’s a reason why the California Burrito reigns supreme. It’s the perfect post-surf meal, precisely because it’s so bad. There are few things more exhausting than a great surf session. Your back, arms, and chest are constantly working; the cold water only causes you to burn more calories. Come out of the ocean after spending a few hours fighting everything that Neptune throws at you and you need a serious recovery meal. Protein for your shredded muscles and fat for depleted energy. In my 20s, when (thanks to youth and hours spent in the ocean) I had the metabolism to do so, I practically lived on California Burritos.
And there are few things more depressing than a terrible surf session; the older I get, the fewer opportunities for good surf I’ll find, and there the value of the Cali Burrito as comfort food cannot be understated. Eating it reminded me of the days when I couldn’t give less of a rat’s ass about my own mortality.
I sat on the hood of my car, making my way through the soggy potatoes and the greasy cheese and the carne asada as chewy as a huarache sandal, watching the surfboard-strapped cars zipping up and down the Pacific Coast Highway, all looking for waves that weren’t there today. Well. I’d need to work off the burrito. I now had an excuse to paddle out tomorrow.