The Flamin' Hot Cheeto burrito is by far the most popular item at Taqueria El Mezcal, which has locations in San Pablo, Hayward and San Lorenzo. (Alan Chazaro)
hen it comes to Mexican American junk foods—those hybridized flavors that aren’t fully Mexican or American, but exist somewhere in a middling borderland—nothing is more representative than an iconic bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
With its artificial red 40 food coloring, monosodium glutamate and other ingredients I can’t confidently pronounce, the enriched cornmeal munchie has become the embodiment of a fuego emoji—not only for Latinx teenagers and food vloggers, but for American pop culture at large. From Flamin’ Hot Mountain Dew to Katy Perry donning an adult-sized Flamin’ Hot Cheetos outfit, the years-long craze has totally consumed the mainstream.
Nowadays, you can find Hot Cheetos just about anywhere. In fact, they’re so prevalent that I can even get them by rolling past the drive-through window at my neighborhood taqueria, where the workers serve them in a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, with said Cheetos stuffed inside a carne asada burrito.
Most recently, the product appears in a new ad campaign with Bad Bunny, where the Puerto Rican reggaeton sensation coolly struts down city streets while transforming any surface he touches into a bursting combustion of red. (Bad Bunny’s co-star, Chester Cheetah, uses the cameo as an opportunity to change his social media name to Bad Cheetah. Nicely played, animal kingdom).
The commercial is a tantalizing promise that Frito-Lay has been enticing customers with since first launching their brand in the summer of 1990: that Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are more than a red-fingered trend; they’re a lifestyle.
Yet when the rest of us not named Bad Bunny touch anything with our red hands, we don’t change the world; instead, we just leave hard-to-remove splotches. Over my lifetime, I’ve accidentally stained countless white tees and fitted caps with red powder—or worse, I’ve mistakenly rubbed my eyes with the spicy residue that lingers uncomfortably long, like too much chile on an unprepared tongue. But even then, I always go back for the sting.
So how did this junk food with dubious origins reach the top of our cultural food pyramid? You can thank Richard Montañez. He’s the man who famously claims to have invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
A former janitor whose parents worked in a migrant labor camp, Montañez has authored two books, including his latest memoir, Flamin' Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man's Rise from Janitor to Top Executive. He documents how he went on to become the Vice President of Multicultural Sales and Community Promotions for PepsiCo, with a net worth of $10 million.
I’m not here to defend, deny or corroborate any of Montañez’s spicy revelations. All I know is that Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are devoutly beloved and have been a legitimate source of sustenance at any house party or after-school hangout, especially for Mexican Americans like me.
Maybe that's why Jesús Sepulvera, the owner of Taqueria El Mezcal, recited Montañez’s story to me when we met. As I sat inside the San Pablo location of the taco chain—which Sepulvera originally opened in San Lorenzo in 2008—I ate a Hot Cheetos burrito and listened to him tell me about the inspiration for his own creation.
Similar to Montañez, Sepulvera is of Mexican heritage, with roots in Jalisco, and has worked his way into a successful position after an entry-level start. In Sepulvera’s case, he needed a menu item to attract more customers to his business during the pandemic slowdown.
That’s when Sepulvera decided to access the bursting mine of Flamin' Hot Cheetos. Sepulvera started pouring bags of the neon snacks inside burritos, along with carne asada, gooey nacho cheese and french fries. As I munched on one of these burritos, the trademark taste of the Hot Cheetos was overpowered by the meat and nacho cheese, but I was left with a satisfyingly soft crunch in between each bite. The teenager in me could've eaten a few—they’re smaller than you might expect—but my adult stomach reached capacity after one order with a side of tortilla chips and a Jarritos.
Sepulvera is not the original Da Vinci of this masterpiece, though. He credits a trip to San Diego as his muse and is happy that the Hot Cheetos burrito has brought in new waves of customers—most of them between the ages of 12 to 35, he says—to consume what is now the most popular dish on the menu.
With the help of Instagram and TikTok, the Hot Cheetos burrito has helped the neighborhood taqueria stay afloat amid a series of nearby closures. It’s especially popular with youth from schools in the surrounding area, whom Sepulvera acknowledges as being largely responsible for his business’s success.
During my visit, high schoolers were lined up at the register, jostling with excitement over a Hot Cheetos calorie bomb with a side of extra sugar—such as one of the taqueria’s attention-grabbing flan, churro, or mazapan (Mexican peanut candy) milkshakes.
“You can find regular burritos and tacos anywhere, but this is something different,” Sepulvera tells me in Spanish. “The young people love sweets, food that is a little more greasy. [This burrito] has more calories, but they seem to love it.”
As a Flamin’ Hot Cheetos loyalist and burrito lover myself, I’m forever thankful I found El Mezcal’s Monday burrito specials, when you can get this divine item for just $7. Those who like variety can also order a “Hot Cheetos Crunchwrap” off the taqueria's secret menu or a classic Mexican food item like a shrimp cocktail from its mariscos (seafood) selection.
Whatever you do, make sure to indulge while there, since indulgence is the truest indicator of any taqueria worth its spice—no matter how red or artificial it may seem.