BROWNSVILLE, Texas (ValleyCentral) — Both tacos and burritos have been a staple of breakfasts in Texas as long as there have been mornings with flour tortillas.
But is there a difference? It all depends on who you ask and where you live.
Ask a West Texan, and you will be told it’s an established fact that an oversized flour tortilla packed with eggs and fillers is a breakfast burrito. Elsewhere in Texas, you’re certain to be informed it’s a breakfast taco.
Texans started referring to both as “breakfast burritos” or “breakfast tacos” in the 1970s, according to searches through newspaper archives and Google’s Ngram Viewer, a project that tracks word frequencies in published books since 1800.
Before the fashionable “breakfast” prefix took hold, restaurants and school menus had already been serving up tacos (and burritos) with fillers such as egg, bacon, potato, chorizo, or barbacoa. The oldest known print advertisement in Texas for tacos served for breakfast can be found in a 1973 edition of the Del Rio News Herald.
Since 2004, the term “breakfast burrito” appears to have outpaced “breakfast taco” in online searches, according to Google Trends — at least in West Texas and the remainder of the United States outside of Texas.
In Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio down to the Rio Grande Valley, people instead ask for a “breakfast taco,” and they use the term with pride and conviction.
“It’s a regional thing,” said South Texas chef Melissa Guerra, author and host of the PBS series The Texas Provincial Kitchen. “I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, and we never had burritos.”
When in Roma, do as Rosie does
In Roma, Texas, the Rancho Cafe serves only tacos, and restaurant owner Rosie Munoz will educate anyone who orders a burrito about the differences.
“If they try to order a burrito, I will tell them we have tacos only, and explain to them what they are,” said Munoz, who has owned the Rancho Cafe for 46 years and said people from the north tend to say “burrito” but sometimes people from Mexico try to order a “mariachi,” which is another term for a taco.
“For me, a burrito is more like for the fast-food establishment, and it is fried,” Munoz said. “A taco is grilled. You fix a taco on the grill, we grill the tortilla, and we grill the [filling]. That would be a taco.”
Of course, Texans are always willing to adapt when they’re hungry and needing to order.
For example, Julio’s Burritos in San Angelo serves up breakfast burritos daily to diners and people hurrying past the drive-thru windows. The restaurant’s office manager Veronica Trejo lives in burrito territory but travels enough into taco terrain to know customs change with the scenery across Texas.
“I go to San Antonio, and I just know that what we call burritos here I just go and ask for a taco,” Trejo said. “They’re the same thing.”
They aren’t always the same thing
In some cases, a taco is easy to spot and agree upon. When kept small, tacos can be ordered and eaten in multiples, and their fillings can be kept in check with a single fold of a tortilla.
Traditionally tacos were prepared using corn or wheat tortillas. However, many people —especially children who tend to prefer the taste of flour tortillas — started demanding them in tortillas de harina.
In some places, the demand moved toward larger and larger tortillas, encroaching into burrito-sized traditions and complicating the distinction between the two. In comparison, burritos have always been about that large, delicious, flour tortilla.
“You never have a breakfast burrito made out of a corn tortilla, ever,” Guerra said.
Therefore, anything served in wheat or corn is clearly a taco, but if it’s in a flour tortilla you can have a debate — and it’s often that size matters.
“The popular delineation of the two requires that a burrito be made of flour [tortilla], that it be rolled and wrapped, and that it’d be large,” said José R. Ralat, author and the official taco editor for Texas Monthly. “Here’s the thing: ‘ito,’ as we both know, is a Spanish suffix for ‘small.’ So we run into our first problem there.”
Across Texas, the sizes of what constitute a burrito or a tacos frequently overlap, and there’s no clear cut-off point of when a taco transforms into a burrito.
“In the Valley, and in Brownsville specifically, breakfast tacos are listed as tortilla de harina on menus and are very large,” Ralat said. “They are a plate wide, and you’ll see Californians and West Texans come down and say, ‘No, that’s a burrito.'”
An open-and-shut case
Many Texans adhere to this distinction: Tacos are open on the ends but burritos are closed.
“Now, that’s point two that makes things tricky,” Ralat said, “because there are restaurants across Texas that list burritos and they will serve you a large folded, tortilla taco. If you go to El Paso or a lot of places in West Texas, burritos are not closed at the ends, and they usually have one guiso, one filling with beans. It’s a regional thing.”
Guerra confirmed that some burritos are open, such as with chilorios.
Hernandez agreed with other experts that closing in the fillings from all sides isn’t a true distinction.
“I do think that more and more because people want to make a clear distinction, I think more and more people would probably accept [a burrito] as a closed tortilla with stuffing inside and a taco just a little more open. I don’t think it’s a very clear distinction, but I can see why some people want to look at these two foods this way.”
Without the distinction, though, what is the difference?
“The difference, unfortunately, is in the gaze of the consumer,” Ralat suggested.
A burrito is a more American concept, the food experts said.
“Burritos tend to be more associated with American culture, and tacos are a little bit more authentic — quote-unquote authentic — in terms of Mexican food,” said Rafael Hernandez, author of Food Cultures of Mexico: Recipes, Customs and Issues. “But I can see how two different regions can refer to the same food by different names.”
Hernandez said the burrito is much bigger and can be a meal in itself.
Ralat agreed that burritos should be large: “Now, you can usually put more into a breakfast burrito because [the tortilla is] bigger, and the more of a meal it becomes.”
Tortillas don’t always get large enough to warrant a taco-burrito debate, but you should probably ask about sizes before ordering.
“I was at the 77 Flea Market [in Brownsville] several years back, walking through one of the food pavilions and came across this place that sells ‘super tacos,'” Ralat said. “And I ordered one with barbacoa, as one would do in Brownsville, and it was so big that it was rolled, and it was bigger than my arm. It was longer than my arm. And it didn’t cost that much, it cost like three and a quarter.
“Was it a taco? Absolutely! Was it a burrito? Probably too! But I’m not going to argue with the guy who’s making me good food.”
To-may-to, to-mah-to, burrito, taquito
Insignificant differences appear in other forms of food, and Melissa Guerra compared the taco versus burrito differences to those among various forms of sandwiches.
“A taco is a taco,” Guerra said. “I always compare it to a sandwich. I guess the comparison is a taco is like a sandwich and a burrito is like a hoagie. Not every sandwich is a hoagie.”
However, every hoagie is a sandwich.
Likewise, not every taco is a burrito but every burrito is a taco, according to Ralat.
“It’s nuanced, one might say,” Ralat said. “I would say a burrito is a type of taco.
If he’s correct and a burrito is a form of a taco, then using the word “burrito” as a modifier to “taco” should sound correct — and in fact “burrito-taco” rings true to the ear while “taco-burrito” does not.
“Absolutely,” Ralat agreed. “And there is scholarship arguing that burritos are tacos, and the scholarship is in Spanish in Mexico. You kind of can’t argue with that, if it comes from the motherland.”