A San Diego native who grew up eating French fry-filled California burritos recently launched a burrito-centric eatery in New York City and the menu – in all of its SoCal glory – is a bit of a jolt to the palates of non-Californians.
“Wait, fries are in the burrito?”
That’s the most common question Alex Thaboua gets these days while at his new restaurant, the Electric Burrito NYC, which he launched in mid-May with his friend and business partner Will Wyatt.
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The tiny burrito shop – it’s a burrito shop, not a taco shop – is located at 81 St. Marks Pl. in New York City’s East Village. It’s already generating some buzz, so much so that Thaboua said they ran out of carne asada their first day in business and had to close on day two to catch up.
Thaboua thinks the buzz has to do with what’s inside the burritos.
When the business partners were first pitching their idea to their friends, Thaboua said they would hear the same reaction, every time. Well, at least from non-San Diegans.
“Every single person – I’m not joking – I thought it was a joke at first. It was crazy,” Thaboua told NBC 7. "Every time we were explaining this project to somebody, everyone’s like, ‘Well what’s the difference between a California burrito and a regular burrito?’ And I was like, ‘Well, an actual California burrito has fries inside.’”
“Verbatim, everybody’s reaction – every single person’s reaction – with this exact tone of voice goes, ‘Wait, fries in the burrito?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, what? You think you get them on the side? I said they have fries in it.’” he added.
But Thaboua placed his trust in the humble California burrito and the idea that he could bring the item – deeply regionally-tied to San Diego and beloved by San Diegans – to New York City.
He said that in NYC, there are just no good, authentic California burritos, at least none that he’s found in the last decade. And word gets around among California and San Diego transplants.
“Every single Californian out here – north, south, whatever – wherever you’re from in California, anytime you meet someone from California out here, one of the first things you say is that there’s no good Mexican food,” Thaboua told NBC 7.
“There’s really good Mexican cuisine – amazing, proper Mexican food – but every Californian that says that is saying there’s no good burrito. There’s just no burrito culture,” he added.
But now, he said, there is.
Thaboua was born and raised in Clairemont in San Diego County.
He grew up like a lot of native San Diegans: skateboarding with his buddies, spending lots of time at local beaches, and eating great burritos. He worked in restaurants as a teen and was drawn to the hospitality industry.
When Thaboua was around 21 years old, he left San Diego to travel around.
In 2012, he ended up in New York City, got into working in the bar and hospitality scene and made the city his second home. Thaboau got deeper into bar managing and cocktail programs and that’s how he met Wyatt.
The duo bartended together at the NoMad New York hotel. When Wyatt co-founded the NYC East Village bar, Mister Paradise, the duo worked together again, finding success in that project.
And then the coronavirus pandemic came.
“We were spending the whole year figuring out how to get things done, how to operate,” Thaboua recalled.
COVID restrictions were tight for bars and restaurants in NYC and, so, Thaboua set out to accomplish something that had long been on his mind: he wanted to recreate a special “salsa roja” that he used to eat at his favorite burrito spot back in Clairemont.
He missed the taste of home.
He had also been talking about burritos for a while with friends and the idea of bringing the SoCal staple to NYC.
Thaboua said it’s been about two years since he’s been able to fly home to San Diego. Each time he goes home, the first place he goes is his favorite local taco shop – Cotixan Mexican Food on Genesee Avenue – even if it’s a red-eye flight, because like many taco shops, it’s open 24 hours.
“That’s my spot,” he said. “Everybody misses that – every Californian misses that (favorite taco shop).”
Using his home kitchen as his creative space, Thaboua got to work on the red salsa. He made so much of it, he would share it with his neighbors and ask for feedback.
It took a while but one day, he got it just right.
He shared his salsa with his friends at Mister Paradise – inside homemade burritos made on some authentic flour tortillas he bought in Montauk – and he said his friends were floored.
That was it. He was bringing California burritos – and breakfast burritos – to NYC.
“I remember biting one and it actually, genuinely, brought me back home,” Thaboua said.“We did it. This is authentic. It’s a burrito that took me back home.”
Taking the Spotlight: Electric Burrito NYC
Thaboua and Wyatt opened Electric Burrito NYC on May 17.
On the menu – right at the top – the San Diego-style California burrito stands tall, stuffed with fries, cheese, pico de gallo and a choice of carne asada, pollo asado or carnitas.
The menu also features several variations on the breakfast burrito – with refried beans – another thing that non-Californians just aren’t always used to experiencing inside a burrito.
The Lunch Burrito – bacon, eggs, cheese, beans and fries – is Thaboua’s take on his favorite burrito from his spot back in San Diego.
“I’m so happy it’s in my life again. It’s so good,” he said.
Thaboua told NBC 7 his eatery has only a handful of stools and standing rails and is mostly built for counter service and takeout. On the first day it was open, he said it was so busy, they ran out of carne asada and had to close down on day two to reorder and prep for the rest of the week.
It has stayed busy ever since.
“It’s been crazy; it’s been so strange,” he said.“It feels like everybody from California has come out.”
Thaboua and Wyatt have had to hire a small staff to keep up with the demand. The owners are there every day, too, making burritos and chatting with customers.
Thaboua said he’s overheard customers saying how excited they are to bite into a burrito and San Diegans who visit will sometimes leave little notes of gratitude.
“They’ll say, ‘From a native San Diegan, we appreciate you,’ and stuff like that,” he said. “And I was just like, ‘Wow, this was really missing for a lot of people.’”
Thaboua said Electric Burrito NYC is committed to making authentic California burritos – with the proper ratio of fries (a "handful") and other ingredients. He just wants to get it right, every time.
He hopes the taste of the San Diego staple comes through and people walk away feeling satisfied.
Thaboua said the shop already has some regular customers – both Californians and non-Californians – and added that it’s cool seeing people eating burritos in the streets of NYC.
He said someone walked in the other day after seeing a customer eating a burrito from Thaboua’s shop at a park.
“It’s kind of cool, that floating around – all of these yellow, wax paper-wrapped burritos,” he said with a chuckle.
Although Thaboua said he’s always pictured himself owning a bar, not a burrito shop, he’s excited to see where Electric Burrito NYC goes from here.
He knows one thing: the power of the California burrito is strong.
“I guess I just didn’t realize how novel of a concept it would be out here. I genuinely feel like people are figuring out that a burrito can be good,” he added.
San Diegans, California burrito for lunch (and what's inside your favorite burrito)?