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The Perfect Burrito is a Thin, Foil-Wrapped Treasure

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One bite of a chile verde con papas burrito at Burritos Sarita in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, has the power to shatter whatever preconceived notions you have about burritos. In it, a pillowy-soft flour tortilla, with hints of smoke from the griddle, swaddles a fragrant mix of tender potatoes, caramelized onions and fire-roasted chile verde that is coated in a salty and tangy thick crema.

From start to finish, the tin-foiled treasure is delicate and neat. Burrito renditions far from this border city tend to be overstuffed, oversized, overdressed and overblown. But here, a purist burrito, as locals call it, has only what it needs: one tortilla, one filling.

“It is our hallmark,” said Paty Covarrubias, the food truck’s general manager, of burritos’ importance to the city. She has been working for her aunt Sarita Alfaro’s business since she was 14.

“My tía taught me you have to know how to make every part of the burrito yourself,” she said. Ms. Covarrubias had been up since 3:50 a.m. preparing daily guisados, or stews, and kneading flour tortillas before opening at 8:30 a.m.

Just across the Rio Grande, this quintessential comida fronteriza — border food — is just as integral to the cultural identity of El Paso, Juárez’s sister city in the United States.

“You can count on someone eating a burrito every second of every hour of every day here,” said Steve Vasquez, the owner and burrito maker at La Colonial Tortilla Factory in El Paso. The tortillería sells as many as 800 burritos on any given morning.

No one questions that Juárez is the birthplace of burritos, though there are competing origin stories. Some attribute their creation to Juan Mendez, who sold guisados wrapped in flour tortillas from a donkey-pulled buggy — a burrito — during the Mexican Revolution. Others say they were born of the workers who took these wraps on the go and then called them burritos because they resembled the rolled blankets that sat atop donkeys in the fields. Some say they were named after children who helped women carry their shopping — endearingly nicknamed burritos — and paid with these wraps.

Both cities strive to maintain and preserve a purist burrito tradition while defining a fine burrito experience. Yet it is hard to deny that there is a friendly but deep rivalry.

Mr. Vasquez said La Colonial has throngs of customers from Juárez who cross the border primarily for his burrito de chile relleno with chile con queso. And Ms. Covarrubias said she has regulars from El Paso who seek out her burrito de chile verde con papas.

“I have always been scared to try the burritos from somewhere else because it is just not the same,” Mr. Vasquez said. “People brought us some from Juárez, and they are OK, but nothing like ours.”

Ms. Covarrubias once caught her daughters bringing home some burritos from El Paso. “You can imagine the scolding I gave them!” she said, laughing.

Despite that competitiveness, both cities can agree that the same essential elements produce a burrito worth bragging about: It must be made with a flour tortilla and an emphasis on one filling, with no gratuitous toppings, and eaten on the go.

Here’s more on the three essentials:

It is no coincidence that one of the most popular burrerías in El Paso is also a tortilla factory. At La Colonial, burritos are rolled to order with hot tortillas straight from the pressing machine. “My grandparents started making tortillas by hand,” Mr. Vasquez said, “but they couldn’t keep up with the demand, so they installed a machine a few years later.”

At Burritos Sarita, they refuse to change their artisanal process. Each morning, fresh masa, or dough, is kneaded and rolled by hand with a palote, a heavy rolling pin, and cooked in a hot griddle in the back of the open truck.

The dough ingredients are the same on both sides of the border: flour, salt, water, baking powder and fat. The water should be “as hot as your body can tolerate, so the masa won’t harden,” Ms. Covarrubias said. The baking powder ensures that the tortillas puff with a smooth texture. Without it, the tortillas can have a crinkly texture; but too much, and they become as stiff as crackers, she said.

Finally, you need some fat. In the region, the most popular options are lard, vegetable shortening and butter. Ms. Covarrubias and Mr. Vasquez opt for lard, though vegetable shortening produces great results for truly meatless burritos.

Customers know good flour tortillas, Ms. Covarrubias said. “They can taste the difference so well that even other Juárez burrería owners come to ours. I won’t out them, but they don’t mind standing in line for a burrito that is en su punto,” she said. That is, on point.

Purist burritos tend to have a single extraordinary filling, with maybe an addition of cheese or avocado at most. A key difference between El Paso and Juárez is that north of the border you’ll find evidence of American influence with ingredients like chile con queso sauce, brisket or sausage scrambled with eggs instead of machaca or chorizo.

Still, those elements are transformed into home-style fillings that are strong in their own right. Brisket at La Colonial is cooked from scratch in an almost guisado-like fashion. Their chile con queso is spooned over a traditionally made chile relleno or onto boldly seasoned refried beans. Chicharrón en salsa, picadillo, frijoles con queso, chile relleno, chile verde con papas, chile verde and chile Colorado are all classics on both sides of the border.

Put your thumb and your middle finger together in a circle — that’s how slim purist burritos should be. If there is salsa, it is incorporated into a guisado or filling, not served over the top.

Simplicity is crucial: no mess, no dress, no fuss and no platter. Purist burritos are light and neat and convenient to the extreme.

“I have offered electricians and plumbers, if I can make a platter for them and add more things,” Mr. Vasquez said. “But they say they love eating them on the way to work and how easy and convenient they are.” Oscar Herrera, a chef who splits time between the two cities, said the region is a key market for aluminum-foil companies thanks to the popularity of burritos on the go.

Ms. Covarrubias worries about the future of the kind of burrito she wakes up so early to make. Her adult children have said they’d consider working in a burrito truck, “but they are unwilling to dedicate the time to learn guisados right or make flour tortillas, as they can now be found in stores,” she said.

Maybe she can find some hope across the river. Mr. Vasquez’s 11-year-old daughter, Mia, has said she wants to continue her father’s work. “We’ll see,” he said with a sigh.

On both sides of the Rio Grande, the love for and dedication to the craft of making what they consider true burritos are perhaps what define the style most. Making them, Mr. Vasquez said, “has to come from the heart.”

Ms. Covarrubias echoed that sentiment. “The main ingredient is mucho amor.”

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