Bob Pitcock had had enough. The sales associate at the Allsup’s convenience store and gas station in Clovis, New Mexico, was tired of customers not buying the baked burritos sitting in the countertop warming box. The sales of doughnuts—fried fresh daily in the store—were steady. So, on September 7, 1974, in a moment of desperation—one that would nearly get him fired—Pitcock dropped the burritos into the fryer. The tortilla-wrapped parcels of ground beef and refried beans came out golden brown and sold out immediately. The inside of the shop, which didn’t have a vent, smelled like a grease trap.
Later that afternoon—as Brian Ashburn, chief retail operations officer of Yesway (the parent company of Allsup’s), tells it—Lonnie Allsup, founder of the chain, walked from the company headquarters across the street and berated Pitcock for stinking up his store. When Pitcock told his boss that all the burritos were gone, Allsup was temporarily dumbfounded. Then he chuckled. “Well, hell, let me get you a [vent] hood,” he told Pitcock.
The dish, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary next September, has become a cultural icon of West Texas and New Mexico. The burrito’s sister product, the shredded beef or chicken chimichanga, released in 1976, is nearly as popular, but “the chimi” hasn’t stolen hearts, minds, and stomachs like the burrito has.
The nomenclature is confusing, though. A fried burrito isn’t a burrito at all, but a chimichanga. “It was an accident, truthfully, and I think we just stuck with it,” Derek Gaskins, chief marketing officer for Yesway, explains about the names. “Even now, a lot of customers play off of that, and they say, ‘You understand that a chimichanga is a fried burrito? And that’s what your whole program is.’ ” It seems everyone is in on the joke.
But the burrito is no joke to its ardent fans. San Angelo native and helicopter pilot Cameron McSpadden buys at least one each time he comes across an Allsup’s. “I’ll go out of my way for an Allsup’s,” he says. For McSpadden, the burrito is as much a taste of nostalgia as it is an integral component of West Texas identity. It’s hometown flavor.
Allsup’s has long been the primary convenience store throughout rural communities in West Texas and New Mexico. “In many of those towns, like Stamford, Texas, Allsup’s would be the only place open twenty-four seven,” says James M. Decker, mayor of Stamford, a town of about three thousand residents north of Abilene. “In even smaller towns, tiny hamlets like Rule, Hermleigh, and the like, Allsup’s may well be the only retail store at all, and likely the only retailer open outside the eight-to-five window,” he told me. In these places, the shining Allsup’s sign is a North Star, something one can always reach no matter the circumstances.
The head honchos at Yesway are well aware of this. Small-town folk are the reason for the chain’s longevity. “We made a deliberate decision to not go urban,” Tom Trkla, chairman and CEO of Yesway, told me. Before Yesway purchased Allsup’s in 2019 and moved the chain’s headquarters to Fort Worth in 2020, the company sold 22 million burritos annually. This year that number is up to 27 million.
The success is due to the reputation of Allsup’s as a hometown business. “It’s the kind of place high school kids visit after prom,” Trkla says. It’s also the kind of company for which people pine. Americana singer-songwriter Aaron LaCombe even wrote an ode to the Allsup’s burrito. “I’m not proud to need you,” he twangs midway through the tune.
Folks like LaCombe and Decker know there isn’t a secret to the burrito’s popularity. There isn’t a guarded recipe: it is a simple, deep-fried beef-and-bean burrito. But it is a burrito that is always available. “When you are hungry, it hits special,” Decker says. “When you’ve had a hard, hot day of manual labor, when you’re coming in on a late night after social activities, or a variety of other circumstances, that burrito is always there. It always works.”
Even after moving to Texas more than a decade ago, and after years of visiting family in West Texas and summering in eastern New Mexico, I had never tried an Allsup’s burrito. The desiccated fried dough in faded pouches freaked me out. Then, shortly after I began my tenure as Texas Monthly’s taco editor, my esteemed colleague, Texanist columnist David Courtney, learned of this oversight. His directive was clear: eating an Allsup’s burrito is a rite of passage. I reckoned that was true, but I was more focused on telling stories of independently owned restaurants than consuming a flaky brick crammed with meat of suspicious provenance. I soon forgot the Texanist’s words.
In a follow-up email, he further stressed the importance of the little bagged burritos. “Like sweet Fredericksburg peaches, Pecos cantaloupes, and Ruby Red grapefruits from the Rio Grande Valley, Allsup’s world-famous burritos are one of Texas’s beloved regional [delicacies],” Courtney wrote with his signature bluebonnet eloquence. He always stops for one while traveling through the western stretches of the state.
Even Texans who aren’t fond of the convenience store snack can acknowledge its significance. Sarah Self-Walbrick’s family called Allsup’s burritos “gut bombs” when she was growing up. “I lived in Amherst [with a current population of less than seven hundred] for ten years and Allsup’s was the only place to get food for miles,” says Self-Walbrick, news director for NPR affiliate Texas Tech Public Media, in Lubbock. “It’s not the best fried food you’ll ever have. But it’s reliable, always there, always tastes the same. For me, it’s something you only eat out of true hunger or nostalgia.” Opinions like that are partially what have kept me from trying the burrito—until now.
It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. In early July, my friend Rodrigo Bravo, a San Antonian and one of my taco buddies, and I were traveling from El Paso to Austin. We stopped for gas at the Allsup’s in the tiny town of Menard. I entered the store and walked past the warming tray with the bagged burritos and chimichangas. As I got back into the car, I mentioned to my friend that I’d seen those famous “gut bombs.” Bravo didn’t hesitate. “That’s it. We’re doing it,” he exclaimed, before hurrying into the store.
He returned to the car beaming with mischief. This burrito could have me running for the bathroom or turn me into a convert, or I could simply come away saying I tried one. My friend was no fan. “When it comes to the world-famous Allsup’s burrito, it’s all downhill,” Bravo declared. We both agreed the burrito was stale and slightly sweet. I did not need to use the facilities.
While we don’t understand the allure, we know it’s not for us to comprehend such matters. Bravo and I hail from the Interstate 35 corridor, hundreds of miles from the nearest Allsup’s: we aren’t the target demographic. We live in two of Texas’s largest cities, in proximity to several big restaurants and neighborhood mercados. We have plenty of greasy gas station tacos to choose from if hunger or necessity strikes. All that being said, I’m happy I can put a notch in my belt for having tried an Allsup’s burrito.
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