My relationship with Mexican food developed like many who grew up in California: shortly after I could walk. For me, it came in the form of the “backdoor special”—a Styrofoam plate of beans, rice, guacamole and soft corn tortillas from a Laguna Beach Mexican restaurant called La Paz. Situated on the corner of the Pacific Coast Highway and Oak Street, La Paz opened up a side door for easy beach access, to keep their dining room floors safe from the sandy feet of surfers and beachgoers. My father and I would take the walk down from our small apartment, order from the side window, and then continue down to the public gazebo that overlooked the Pacific Ocean, where we would watch the surfers and eat as the sun set.
Years later, when I became a surfer, California-fied Mexican food became an essential part of my weekly diet. Like so many California surfers, I consumed no other menu item more than breakfast burritos.
My conversion was easy. I learned to surf before I could drive on the north side of the Newport Pier—a rickety-old wooden structure built in 1940. While the waves that break near the pier are perfect for beginners, the surrounding area was more back alley beach strip than a surfer’s paradise then. Dimly lit bars, tattoo parlors, and tourist shops full of tchotchkes dotted the immediate vicinity around the beach. A Burger King and a derelict donut shop stood as the only nearby food options before noon.
This usually meant that my friends and I were quickly shuttled out by our parents after surfing, having to wait until we got back home for grub. Then one overcast and chilly October morning, a few of us hitched a ride to the beach with Dave, the older brother of a friend. After surfing, he took us in his used minivan filled with boards and bros to a taqueria in nearby Costa Mesa with a sign that said only “Tacos Tacos.” Dave ordered first—a breakfast burrito, of course—and we all followed suit and ordered the same (after all, he was the elder of the group and the best surfer). I don’t remember much about the details of the burrito, but I know that after that I was hooked. Like broken boards, bad sunburns and first-time barrels, it became an essential part of the surfer lifestyle. I never questioned it.
The origins of the breakfast burrito are debated, but it’s largely believed that it originated not in California but in New Mexico, when it emerged as a menu item in 1975 at Tia Sophia’s—a small unassuming diner that still sits in downtown Santa Fe. It was only a matter of time before this innovation made its way west to California, where the modern burrito had already been prevalent for decades thanks to the state’s large Hispanic population. The burrito first appeared on a menu in the United States in the 1930s at the El Cholo Spanish Café in Los Angeles. By the 1980s, it was fast becoming a regular menu item at Mexican restaurants and diners throughout the Golden State. In 1991, it had officially gone national: McDonald’s introduced it as part of their breakfast menu.
Now breakfast burritos are as common to California as smog and gridlocked freeways at rush hour. And some of the most devoted fans of these delicious calorie bombs are surfers. On a near daily basis, they can be found in line, oftentimes still dripping wet, at one of the countless beachside taquerias, coastal cafes, and seaside diners that serve up these cheap eats, waiting to receive and devour the tortilla-wrapped communion of eggs, cheese, salsa, choice of meat and avocado that many of them worship.
My conversion to the breakfast burrito proved to be vital after moving to Santa Barbara at age 18. Living on my own, my schedule swelled. During the day, I sat through courses at the local community college, while in the evening I spent six hours a day taking tickets in a booth at a local parking lot to make rent. On the weekends, I stocked CDs at a local record store and later picked up a third gig delivering pizzas at night. Time for surfing began to feel the pinch. So did eating.
The conditions for surf are often best in the morning, but it also turned out to often be the only part of the day I was free. If the surf was good, I’d try and peel myself out of bed before daybreak when the fog had yet to burn off the coast, and put in a session at a nearby surf spot before Spanish 101 or Intro to Marine Biology—both with early start times. I’d almost always surf too long, and in my rush to make it to class, I’d swing by Rudy’s, a local Mexican restaurant chain that opened curiously early and had breakfast burritos so large I could skip a meal—always a plus for a dude on a budget. I’d order one to go wrapped in tin foil, and munch on it while juggling the steering wheel and the stick of my pickup truck on my way to class.
Admittedly, I failed Spanish and squeezed by Marine Biology on a low C that semester, but I never arrived hungry. Just wet with some sand in my shoes and a half-eaten burrito in my hand.
The greater history of how this spin on a Mexican-American food became a favorite of surfers from San Diego County to the Bay Area is largely speculative. But a case of good timing may have also put breakfast burritos hand in hand with surfing culture. During the same time breakfast burritos were becoming ubiquitous in California, surfing was simultaneously undergoing a transformative evolution from a hobbyist sport to an athletic and competitive endeavor. By the 1970s, boards had started to become shorter and lighter. Australian surfer Mark Richards added a second fin to the surfboards tail, which allowed him greater speed and maneuverability, an innovation which caught the surfing world’s attention when he used it to win four straight world titles between 1979 and 1983. During this time, another Australian surfer named Simon Anderson began to toy with a tri-fin set up that would quickly become the standard on all shortboards.
These changes in board design help surfers take on breaks that would’ve never been possible with the previous designs. It also allowed surfers to do much more on the wave, from carving turns to skyrocketing aerials. In California, this evolution was felt acutely, and transformed surfing from a leisure activity to a sport. These changes also helped surfing’s popularity grow, introducing the sport to more Californians, while also helping them to work up a bigger appetite. Two hours of surfing will burn around 500-600 calories. Is it any coincidence that is the same amount of calories an average breakfast burrito usually holds?
I have since migrated to the East Coast, where the breakfast burrito is mostly absent. I have replaced my post-surf morning meal with whatever is filling and transportable like bagels or burgers. But I have first-hand confirmation that the bond continues to live on in California.This past spring I took a trip out to San Diego. After a few hours of surfing one morning with an old high school friend, we ended up at a small, unnamed taqueria with only outdoor seating, two blocks from the beach, where for five dollars I got a breakfast burrito the size of my face. When were drove off after our meal, a line had formed at the window. It was made up of a handful of shirtless men, in board shorts and sandals, their hair still dripping wet.