El Burro Picante Builds a Better Burrito With its Gringo Burrito

A Southern California—or is that Albuquerque?—fantastic food find meanders north, marrying burritos with french fries.


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The origins may be hazy, but the California burrito, aka the gringo burrito, is something to behold, fries and all. Find these at El Burro Picante in Berkeley.

Photo by Lori Eanes

OK, here’s a pop quiz. Or maybe it’s a Zen koan: Could burritos be improved upon in any possible way?

That’s a hard question, borderline imponderable, given that burritos are already, arguably, the world’s most welcoming, inclusive, complete, equalizing, all-moods, all-hours, flexible, and filling food.

But it’s a testament to North American ingenuity and the pioneering spirit that, wherever and whenever a dish originated, and however resplendent it already is, we’ll improve it through a process that, depending on your perspective, boils down to either bastardization or optimization. Or both.

That’s what explains the kimchi burritos at Henry’s Gallery Cafe in Oakland. That’s what explains the tempura burritos at Belly and sushi burritos at Torpedo Sushi, both of those also in Oakland. And that’s what explains the creamy, crunchy, french-fry-stuffed California burritos at Berkeley’s El Burro Picante.

Open since 2013, this friendly-staffed slip of a University Avenue space—its front door guarded by a doleful-eyed donkey statue, international sports perennially blaring from its flat-screen TV—packs into these hefty wraps a generous helping of golden fries alongside cheese, chopped onions, fresh guacamole, and your choice of meats or tender, tomatoey Mexican-spiced tofu.

And this might be the sole Bay Area burrito shop serving this shamelessly starch-tastic sumptuosity whose name should ring bells with all Californians, yet does not. As its name implies—and as its nickname, the “gringo burrito,” really implies—the California burrito isn’t from south of the border. According to fledgling culinary legend, it was created around the turn of the millennium just barely north of the border, by and/or for San Diego surfers, promptly monetized by that region’s fast-casual Fresh MXN Food restaurant group and now ubiquitous at taquerias south of Los Angeles. Even down there, faint but persistent rumors hold that this multiculti, roly-poly wrap was actually invented in an Albuquerque restaurant, then traveled stalwartly westward as if to legitimize its name.

Hot-meets-cool in more ways than one, might this boldly bastardized joy-bringer be the next ramenburgers, cronuts, or nachos?

El Burro Picante, 2021 University Ave., Berkeley, 510-984-0309, www.elburropicanteberkeley.com.

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