We looked up 100 Chicago burritos to find the most popular fillings

Chicken burrito with onion and cilantro from Carbon Live Fire Mexican Grill. (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Chicken burrito with onion and cilantro from Carbon Live Fire Mexican Grill. (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

CHICAGO -- Since opening in 2017, Mi Tocaya Antojeria has become one of Chicago's most acclaimed Mexican restaurants, picking up a Bib Gourmand from Michelin and earning chef Diana Dávila a couple of James Beard Award nominations for Best Chef: Great Lakes.

If anything, I think the restaurant is still underrated. Here you'll find food like nowhere else in the country, as Dávila draws inspiration from traditional Mexican dishes while incorporating Midwestern ingredients and a sprinkling of fine-dining finesse. So it might surprise you to learn that one dish that has been a fixture since the beginning is a straightforward-sounding steak burrito.

The burrito in question even has lettuce in it, which is apparently a very contentious addition. Any time I post a photo of a burrito containing lettuce on social media, I receive messages from concerned commenters across this fair country, including an astonishing number from California. Didn't I realize that lettuce wilts into mush inside a hot burrito? What kind of criminal would do such a thing?

When I asked Dávila about lettuce possibly being a contentious burrito addition, she not only disagreed but doubled down. "Actually, I'm an extra lettuce person," Dávila said. "I like the crunch, and I think it tastes really good." Her only caveat is that burritos with lettuce should be eaten immediately. Never get one delivered.

The lettuce-loaded burrito on Mi Tocaya's menu also has a special significance for Dávila because it's a nod to the one served at her parents' south suburban taqueria. She lavished special attention on Mi Tocaya's version, marinating the meat in beer and crafting her own umami-packed seasoning blend. "I also added double steak because I remember these guys who would always come in and order extra meat," Dávila said. This also helps explain why the steak burrito at Mi Tocaya costs $25.60; it can feed two exceptionally hungry people.

But she also wanted it to look and taste like burritos usually do in Chicago, which meant keeping the standard fillings. "I feel like a Chicago burrito pretty much always has beans, lettuce, cheese and tomato," Dávila said. "I took out the tomato, but the rest is there."

The burrito breakdown

Beans, lettuce, cheese and tomato are the most common burrito fillings in Chicago, and I have the data to back it up.

I did what any rational person would do and created a spreadsheet, looked up 100 Mexican restaurants known for their burritos and cataloged all the fillings that came standard with an order. (Obviously, you can personalize your burrito order, discarding the beans and adding triple lettuce if you so desire, but I was interested in what came automatically.)

The majority of burritos I examined featured refried beans (69/100), lettuce (75/100), cheese (75/100) and tomato (69/100), with sour cream (55/100) slightly behind. One finding that particularly jumped out to me was that only 12 of the 100 restaurants automatically include rice.

So why were all the Californians irate about lettuce if it's such a common component? After all, you'll find romaine lettuce at national burrito chains like Chipotle and Qdoba.

What was left to do but create another absurdly long spreadsheet? This time I logged the standard burrito fillings across the country by picking five to 10 of the most popular burrito restaurants in the largest cities in the United States. Since I couldn't eat in all of these places, I relied on a mix of recommendations from local newspaper articles, Eater lists and social media sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor. (In a dream world, someone would pay me to eat burritos across the country, but until that magical day, this will have to do.)

The results were surprising. Standard burrito fillings change dramatically across the country. While there are exceptions everywhere, in general, the farther north one moves from our southern border, the more ingredients join the party. Both El Paso, Texas, and Phoenix contain numerous burrito spots where fillings are mostly shunned in favor of saucy stewed dishes like chicharron en salsa verde and chile Colorado. (For the record, I adore this stripped-down style.)

Perhaps no state showcases how much standard burrito fillings can vary than California. Down in San Diego many of the burritos lack both rice and beans, favoring cheese, sour cream and, perhaps most surprising to outsiders, french fries. (This is often called a California burrito.) Head north to Los Angeles, and beans now seem to be a requirement, though rice isn't. By the time you reach San Francisco, the burritos almost always have beans and rice, with many restaurants layering on cheese, sour cream, avocado, cilantro and onion.

But one ingredient that is tough to find in all three cities is lettuce. This is true for other West Coast cities like Seattle and Portland. Lettuce shows up very occasionally in Texas' two largest cities, Houston and Dallas. The only other places where lettuce popped up semi-regularly were Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, D.C., cities not exactly known for their burrito-making prowess. (Oddly, if you keep moving up the East Coast, lettuce seems to disappear in Boston.)

I should stop here to relate that there are so many exceptions that I could spend all day pointing them out. La Taqueria, the most acclaimed burrito spot in San Francisco, doesn't add rice, and in Phoenix, you can find burritos stuffed with rice and beans.

Even in Chicago, there's a surprising amount of variety. Both La Pasadita and Carbon Live Fire Mexican Grill's steak burrito comes with nothing else but onions and cilantro. There's not even a smear of refried beans. It's also getting extremely easy to find California burritos, the french-fry-stuffed style most popular in San Diego, thanks to places like Diego, Jarabe, Cruz Blanca and Invicto. It was even the October special at Big Star.

Plus, while Chicago isn't anywhere near the Mexican border, some of my favorite burritos come from restaurants that are looking to the cuisine of Northern Mexican states like Sonora and Durango. Visit Gorditas La Tia Susy, Gordillas and Taqueria El Duranguito and you'll find flour tortillas smeared with maybe a bit of refried beans but that's it. (These three places also make their flour tortillas from scratch, which is another reason why I prefer this style.) Even if you hate lettuce, there's a burrito in Chicago for you.

But is lettuce really that bad? I used to be 100 percent against the inclusion, agreeing that lettuce wilts into mush next to hot carne asada or carnitas. After chatting with Dávila, I've had a change of heart. One peculiarity is that there does seem to be a minimum amount of lettuce required. If only a small handful is added, the lettuce is no match for the hot meat. But if added in the right quantity, lettuce adds an undeniable cooling crunch.

Visit a burrito institution like El Faro in suburban Summit, and you'll find a constant stream of people pouring in to grab a bulging burrito that costs less than $10. It looks comically oversize, but instead of an overwhelming heap of beef, there's a balance of beans, lettuce, tomato and cheese. Each bite is creamy, juicy, salty, cooling, savory and, thanks to some potent salsa, very spicy.

The Chicago-style burrito may not be particularly trendy at the moment, and as other styles of burritos gain traction, it might wane even more. It certainly isn't my preferred style (do I have to explain again how much I love the Northern Mexican style?) but for many people who were raised in Chicagoland, a burrito stuffed to the breaking point with meat, beans, lettuce, tomato and cheese will always hold a special significance.

photo Diana D·vila, executive chef and owner at Mi Tocaya AntojerÌa. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
photo The steak burrito at Mi Tocaya Antojeria in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
photo California burrito from Taqueria Invicto in Naperville, Illinois. (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
photo A Chicago style burrito from El Taco Feliz. (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
photo Northern Mexican style burritos from Gordillas in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood. (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
photo Steak burrito from El Faro in Summit, Illinois. (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

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