Ventura’s Love Affair with Corn Burritos

WARNING: The pictures in this story might make you drool!

Photo Courtesy of Ross Taylor

Few things bring people together like food. Especially if you’ve been displaced from your hometown, certain foods evoke strong memories of your childhood. Aromas alone can take you back to that happy place. Don’t ever underestimate that sense of smell!

Ventura County, California is just one county northwest of Los Angeles, but worlds apart. Thankfully, a mountain range has kept the two counties very separate.

Most every part of the country has a dish that they call their own. Consider these:

  • Texas: Chicken Fried Steak
  • Nebraska: Runza (“It’s a meal in a Bunza”)
  • Boston: Fish and Chips, Clam Chowder
  • Seattle: Fish. Fish. And more fish.
  • Chicago: Pizza (not the deep dish kind that tourists equate with Chicago, but thin crust from a neighborhood pizzeria).
  • Indiana and Iowa: Pork Tenderloin Sandwiches
  • Kentucky: Fried Chicken?

Ventura is not that big (population was estimated to be about 109,000 in 2018). Still, there is ONE thing that binds Venturans, past and present: the ubiquitous corn burrito. It’s as if there is only one political party — the only difference being, who has the best? See below for a few suggestions.

Photo courtesy of Cindy Day

According to Jolene Van Pelt, a native of Ojai, California, corn burritos were created in Ojai by either Ojai “Frostie’s” or “Jolly Cone”. Another contributor, Lynn Thomas, says they started at a drive-in called “Happy Jack” in Ventura. Some say they started at a drive-in on “The Avenue” (aka Ventura Avenue). I cannot confirm any of this, nor a year. Van Pelt states that “they are not a traditional Mexican dish, and did not come from any region of Mexico”.

Recently, I conducted an unscientific survey on the Facebook page, “I Grew Up in Ventura, California”, asking readers their opinions of corn burritos. The response indicates just how passionate Venturans are about them. Between two posts I’ve received 336 responses (likes, loves, laughs, wows), 264 comments, and 11 shares in less than three days.

My other test audience was conducted on my own page, the readers of which are nationwide. In that scenario, I only garnered 10 responses: 1 laugh, 2 cares, 3 loves, and 6 likes. There were 6 comments, three of which were from Venturans. The prevailing question from those outside of Ventura County was:

“What is a corn burrito?”

Fancy Schmanzy Corn Burritos! Photo courtesy of Jay Skousen

It is a simple thing: refried beans rolled up into a corn tortilla, deep fried, then served with a special red sauce (either on top of or on the side), and shredded cheese (this is debatable as you will see).

At the end of this story, you will be able to make your own corn burritos at home. To know more about them (although you will learn no more than what you are reading here), they have an entry in Wikipedia. There is also a Facebook page, “I Love Corn Burritos”, to which you may want to refer.

Many took offense at Wikipedia’s explanation: “…a corn burrito is essentially the same as a taquito…” which caused quite a dissent. However, the entry all but admits that they are a product of Ventura County, to which we can all attest!

Foster’s Freeze on Main St., Ventura. Phot courtesy of Ross Taylor

“Where in Ventura may I get these exotic finger foods”, you may ask? The consensus seemed to be that the best are found at Foster’s Freeze on Main Street. Tony’s Burrito Hut was also highly regarded. On the Facebook page, dozens of restaurants in Ventura County that serve corn burritos are listed. Unfortunately, HiHo Drive In on Thompson Blvd. in Ventura is history, and many remember having their first there.

While I did not take note of today’s cost, when I was in high school (mid 1970s), they were usually about a dime a piece. You could save half of your lunch money just by eating corn burritos!

Photo courtesy of John Richards

Making corn burritos at home is not for the faint of heart. You’ll want to wear a full-sized apron, have an oil splatter screen, and perhaps cover up the part of the range you’re not using with aluminum foil to help prevent a real mess.

  1. Using a wok or a wok-like skillet with high-topped sides, put enough vegetable oil (I use canola oil) so that the burritos will be entirely submerged in the oil. Heat to a high setting (like 8 of 10).
  2. Dip a corn tortilla into the oil, once hot, for just a few seconds, then take out and drain on paper towels. This makes the tortillas more pliable since you’ll have to roll them.
  3. Once you’ve pre-fried enough tortillas to give you as many burritos as you want to have, put a smattering of refried beans — your choice, in the middle of each tortilla and roll up like a flute. (I put a toothpick through them before frying so that they don’t come undone in the cooking process.)
  4. Fry baby! Don’t fry very many at one time, it’ll cool down the oil. Roll ’em around until they’re crispy critters. (CAUTION: This is the most volatile part of the cooking process because of the beans that will splatter hot oil. Just be careful, use plastic gloves if you wish not to get burned.)
  5. Drain on paper towels.
  6. (Are we done yet?)
  7. Prepare to eat as per the following: if you don’t mind your corn burritos getting a bit soggy, you can top them with red sauce at this time and add the shredded cheese on top. Finely grated sharp cheddar is preferred.
  8. If you like ’em stiff and crispy to the last bite, dip them “naked” directly into the sauce. How you do the cheese in this instance is up to you!
  9. Red Sauce Tips:
  • The HiHo Drive In, which no longer exists, still sells their red corn burrito sauce online at Amazon. An 18 oz. jar will set you back just $9.95 plus shipping.
  • In lieu of the real thing, one respondent suggested Ortega’s Thick Taco Sauce (medium) as a reasonable facsimile.
  • Generally, experimentation is not welcome! But since I live in New Mexico, I’m going to see how they pair with Chimayo Red Chile Sauce.
  • Google “Sauce for Corn Burritos”, and there are several recipes to be found.
  • Or, “Just put some Windex!” — My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Memories fade, but I don’t recall them being served with sauce and cheese on the top. As I said, putting the sauce on all of them at this time will just make them go soft, and no one wants a soft, limp corn burrito. NO ONE!

If you don’t want to do this time and again (and who would?!), just make a whole bunch more than you plan on eating and freeze them. Reheat them in a hot oven for a few minutes until they become crunchy again. NEVER try to make anything crunchy in a microwave oven because it won’t work. EVER!

Corn Burritos by Foster’s Freeze. Photo courtesy of Valerie Bullock.

Venturans are proud of their hometown dish, and I caught the fever after moving there from Texas. Still, don’t mess around with my chicken fried steak. You can ask me for the BEST recipe I use (the one in my head). And no, it’s not chicken! Just…try it!

My life in the context of 20th-century history and pop culture — infused with a dose of fun (where appropriate!) More to come when I get my sea legs on here.

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