4538 1/2 Cesar Chavez Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90022
As I, Don Miguel de Los Angeles no McDonalds, transition from the statewide documentation of my extraordinary Quest for The Perfect Burrito (as related by my Sancha no Panza Maria de Guadalupe Sanchez in the book advertised to your right) to less grandiose but, I hope, more regular posts regarding that most noble example of casual Mexican cuisine, the burrito, you will find that my focus will shift from statewide surveys of the notable entrants in the quest for perfection to a more local milieu, primarily (and quite naturally) featuring burritos from establishments in and around my beloved hometown of Los Angeles.
You will not, however, see my sentences become any shorter.
I am pleased to report that after some questing about the environs of Los Angeles, I have sampled a worthy contender for the title of The Perfect Burrito within the very limits of the City of Angels. Having seen it mentioned a couple of times in threads about carne asada on my favorite interwebs foodie search site, and having a Saturday with little else to do, your humble knight made the long journey from Hollywood to the Barrio to sample their offerings.
On a sleepy block of Cesar E. Chavez blvd in East L.A., in the crook of the 5 and 710 freeways, there are two side-by-side establishments that share signs of identical style and font. To the left is La Carreta, which if Yelpers are to be believed (and they are not) has much to recommend it as a sit-down eatery. To the right is La Azteca Tortilleria.
The space is spartan; a tortilla factory, not a kitchen. There is a counter, and two small tables for those few who choose to dine in.
The girl behind the counter is notably kind and chatty. On my first visit, I wander in at nearly four pm and ask for a carne asada burrito. The girl says, “Oh, I’m sorry! We close at three-thirty!”
“...Usually,” she continues. “Let me ask.” She goes back into the massive kitchen, and emerges with two men, one younger, one older (father and brother?) who without complaint turn on the griddle and refire the pot of beans just to make me, a humble seeker, a burrito!
It takes a few minutes because everything has to heat up, and I fear that the food will be not quite fully cooked. The fear proves unfounded.
The burrito is hot and delicious.
The moniker of the restaurant betrays the secret weapon of this establishment: it is in fact primarily a purveyor of fresh, hand made tortillas and masa for tamales, but also features a small menu of tacos, burritos, quesadillas and tamales. As my readers well know, my default behavior when encountering a new burrito purveyor is to sample their carne asada. Not just because me gusta carne asada, but because it is in my humble opinion the most difficult to execute well. A cheap cut of meat or too long a wait in a steam tray will give itself away immediately in the form of toughness, gristliness, or dry-and-grayness. No such disappointment here. The asada is chopped larger rather than smaller (it retains more juice that way), is tender with a nice crisp around the edges and perfectly seasoned. The beans, too, are nice. Although technically “refried” they are mostly whole beans with a satisfying texture. And the pico de gallo is exceptional, with unusually large chunks of ripe tomatoes adding a cooling sweetness to what is a fiery, jalapeño based salsa fresca. But it is the tortilla that is the star here, and it shines; firm yet giving like a good ramen noodle, it lends what is otherwise a robust and savory burrito an almost pastry-like consistency, especially on those last two bites that are mostly tortilla, infused with delicious meat and bean juices. The only lack for both me and mi esposa is that because this is not a fully formed taqueria, there are few extras to be had: no guacamole, no cheese, and only one variety of salsa: a fine and moderately picante smoky red.
On a return visit, having Googled and discovered this notice, I commanded a chile relleno burrito be brought forth.
As you know from my previous post, a chile relleno burrito nearly claimed the title of The Perfect Burrito upon my original Quest. And La Azteca’s is nearly as good. The chile is of the poblano variety, tangier and infinitesimally spicier than Anaheim used at Johnny’s. The white cheese inside the relleno is light but flavorful, the egg thinly cooked, like an unstirred omelet, and the tortilla…ah, the tortilla is the gold leaf de haring that enfolds the whole. This is an incredibly good burrito, in the top two I’ve had the pleasure to sample in Los Angeles.
But the ace in the hole of the mighty Johnny’s relleno burrito is that it contains pork chile verde as well; baroque, perhaps, compared to the more Bauhaus construction of the simple Azteca burrito, but Johnny’s porcine siren song is hard to resist.
I hope that you have enjoyed this post. And I also hope that you, dear reader, will suggest further burritos for me to sample during my ongoing Quest.
JOHNNY’S FINE MEXICAN FOOD
176 N Ventura Avenue
Ventura, CA 93001
CLICK HERE FOR THE GOOGLE MAP
As you know, if the burrito is a religion, I belong to the sect of carne asada. When faced with an unfamiliar town, amid a plethora of taqueria tabernacles at which to worship, offering a diverse array of liturgy and service (interesting, is it not, that “service” is what you receive at both church and restaurant?), carne asada is what I order. But I launched this Quest with no prejudice that when I found The Perfect Burrito, it would necessarily be of that noble variety. And I, Don Miguel de los Angeles de Masiado Cervezas, have just been repaid for my tolerance and open-mindedness with tender chunks of grace; a blessing, a miracle, the first legitimate contender for the prize, the moniker of “The Perfect Burrito.” Finding it here, on a humble street in a humble county seat with the uplifting name of San Buenaventura, gives me hope that we will yet turn this into a Good Venture: that we will fulfill the Quest.
A humble hut—aren’t all the best burritos born of humble huts?—on a nondescript strip of Ventura Avenue, Johnny’s (not Juan’s, or Juanito’s, or even Juanny’s) claims to have been run as a family business since 1962. One stands on the sidewalk to order from a tiny window, bending at the waist to bring one’s eyes to the height of, presumably, the average face-level of mid-twentieth-century Venturans. While waiting for their orders, patrons hover and queue like Catholics awaiting Communion around the service window. Solemn acolytes behind the counter set out, like holy wafers, a blue plastic bowl filled with fresh, hot, flaky, flour tortilla chips. Outside, a single, long picnic table huddles under a small shaded overhang adjacent to the sidewalk; inside, behind a rickety screen door, five or six yellowing Naugahyde booths un-invite you from a dingy interior. Hanging on the wall is a framed cover of the very same Sunset magazine under which mi hija Maria made her first apparition at El Tepeyac: The Ultimate Burrito. It both comforts and intimidates me, to know that others before have trodden Serra’s path in the pursuit of the oblong godhead.
On to the flesh itself. My secret sources had informed me that, while the carne asada at Johnny’s is good-to-excellent, the noteworthy filling here is the chile verde. Chile verde, mind you, is no slouch as a burrito filling, and is worthy of a bit of historical and linguistic discourse.
To wit: while any Texan will claim all manner of “chili” as their own (Texans are fond of claiming things, yet of their worthy exports I can think of…exactly none), my research suggests that chile verde, a thinner stew, is of New Mexican origin (ah, New Mexico! The land of the Pueblo, ancient cliff dwellings, the golden Seven Cities of Cíbola, and Aztlán, the mythical homeland of all things bueno.) Hence, while you will see it variously spelled “chili verde” and “chile verde,” or even, by blasphemers in the United Kingdom (where “tortilla” rhymes with “Godzilla&rdquo, “chilli verde,” I spell it as the Spanish would and do: “chile verde,” and thus liberate it from any Texan taint. In New Mexico it’s known as “green chile,” and is served atop all manner of foods, Mexican and American, from enchiladas and huevos rancheros to hamburgers and cheese fries. It has a cousin, “red chile;” you will be offered both with nearly every meal. “Red or green chile? Or would you like Christmas?” Christmas, in New Mexican waitress parlance, charmingly means a yin/yang dollop of both red and green; a festive and holy ornament indeed.) But whereas New Mexican green chile is merely a sauce, a topping, in California, chile verde nearly universally means a spicy green stew starring that most noble of meats: pork.
The mythical abuela who, in my mind, cooks the archetypal version of every Mexican dish, would make chile verde thus: roast a secret combination of green chiles—Serrano? Anaheim? Jalapeño? New Mexican Hatch?—over an open fire, and add them to a stewing base of blanched and pureed green tomatillos. She would sauté an ample, cubed pork shoulder, add it to the simmering stew, and spice and season lovingly. She would allow it to burble over the fire for hours, until the pork has begun to shred itself into tender strands of spicy deliciousness while the remnants of the original larger cubes cling to gelatinized bits of fat.
Chile verde is to be found in two burritos at Johnny’s. One is eponymously named, but the other rides in the place of honor atop the small menu board: chile relleno burrito with pork. Upon my query, I was told that yes, the pork in question is the selfsame chile verde. While Sancha plowed her way through what looked like a thoroughly credible bean burrito, I quietly communed with what would prove to be tubular manna from above, a Faberge egg-like wonderment that is best described in reverse based on an examination halfway through its consumption. Imagine the burrito version of a cutaway view of a woman with child or of the Great Mother herself. At the nucleus, a soft, pliable, not quite molten fetus of white cheese; that, gently enveloped in the womb of a mild Anaheim chile; that, wrapped softly by a stratum of fluffy, chick-yellow egg; that, floating in the warm, rich, life-giving amnius of the chile verde itself, the pork a miracle of tenderness, the stewed sauce not technically verde at all but rather tinged red (perhaps by the inclusion of a single red chile among the green in its base, or a red tomato among the tomatillos?) and brought to a level of perfect buoyancy by a suffusion of sunset-orange cheese; all that, wrapped in the soft skin of a tortilla; and finally protected by swaddling cloth of paper and a shining mantle of foil, upon which is scrawled in black sharpie, “CR,” which I suppose stands for “Chile Relleno,” but which might just as well signify “Christ Returned.”
This is a large burrito, but not so large that I didn’t consume every bite and order another two to carry on our long journey. It might have left me bloated and dyspeptic, but no. Even after the half hour it has taken me type this upon a borrowed laptop, it has left me, rather, rejuvenated, restored, healed in mind and body.
My faith has been renewed. The burrito is perfectible, and I might well have found it at Johnny’s. Do you hear me, Monty Zooma? Do you hear me, world? I am the king of my domain name, at theperfectburrito.com, but I hereby project global power and plant a flag at Johnny’s. You may not claim it from me, for I have placed it on a virtual hold. And I will return, if not to crown the King of Kings, then, at least, to try the carne asada.
So dear reader, I continue my journey, but I will do so with a lighter heart, feeling no longer every one of my fiftysomething years, but less than half that, all sinew and determination, nearly godlike in the knowledge that although I may yet find a More Perfect Burrito, the charlatan Zooma will never find one better than I have found here.
El Coyote Cafe
7312 Beverly Blvd.
Los Angeles CA 90036
CLICK HERE FOR THE GOOGLE MAP
In certain self important quarters of the foodieverse, there is an obsession with “authenticity” in ethnic cuisine. This is, to a certain extent, admirable: one would rightfully recoil to find say, mango chutney garnishing your traditional Icelandic Kjösúpa stew or as I, your humble knight, once did while traveling in a small town in the southwest of England, become inordinately excited to find not only a Mexican restaurant but one with a burrito on the menu, and order it, only to be served a crêpe filled with canned kidney beans, white rice, and catsup (I jest you not); but the label of “inauthentic” is often applied erroneously to that genre of cuisine which is both my passion and my study: traditional California Mexican food, or what some call “Gringo.” food.
It is a much maligned niche. Confronted with a standard CaliMex combination dinner plate consisting of crispy ground beef taco, a cheese enchilada, refried beans and Spanish rice, the garden variety foodie of the Chowhound ilk will wax apoplectic. “It’s not authentic” cuisine. “You would never see food like this in Mexico City.” “Americanized, homogenized!” “It is NOT Mexican food!”
I beg to differ.
It is easy to forget, in the melting pot that is California, that much of it—everything south of Mendocino County—was, until less than a hundred and fifty years ago, a part of Mexico. Especially to one knowledgable in the various regional Mexican cuisines, from the tangy and delicate pibils of the Yucatan to the moles of Oaxaca to the mild, creamy mariscos dishes of Veracruz, the failure to recognize California-style Mexican cuisine as a regional variety, that by definition created, and continues to create, its own authenticity, seems inexcusable. Gringo cuisine was, and is, a cuisine as authentic as any other: homegrown, using influences from abroad but peculiar to the area, its ingredients, and the gestalt of its time.
So: As a lodestar of the genre, unashamedly, unabashedly, I raise to the heavens, atop a standard-issue, restaurant supply off-white plate, the ground beef and bean burrito at El Coyote.
There are few more polarizing restaurants in Los Angeles, perhaps in the world, than El Coyote. Many despise it, and I understand why. Preparation and presentation can be uneven. Service, with the aging cadre of waitstaff that is one hallmark of a generations-old, family-run restaurant, can be hit and miss. And there are those canned green beans, beets, and 1000 Island Dressing that are the default topping for their tostadas and the butt of many an online snark—and also one of mi mujer’s favorite dishes. But there are also admirable and ongoing attempts at joining the 21st Century in the grammatically-challenged El Coyote menu; witness the recent addition of credible chicken and steak street tacos with accompanying salsas verde y rojo, a self-described “Authentic Chile Relleno” (never mind that it resides alongside the old-school, and by-implication inauthentic, relleno—also one of mi esposa’s favorites), and a quite delicious grilled tilapia taco.
But thankfully, ground beef has not been cast aside for these modern fripperies. For those of us of a certain age, ground beef is where Mexican food began, usually during family taco nights with a bag of Lawry’s taco seasoning topped with shredded lettuce, shredded cheese, and diced tomato. It continued with high school trips to Taco Bell. By the time I was an adult, ground beef and bean burritos had ascended from regional SoCal quirk to the ubiquitousness of the microwavables section in convenience stores and truck stops across the US. In my Southern California youth, even the families of purely Mexican descent prepared meals based on ground beef. It was the go-to protein of the 50s and 60s, and gave birth to such other items of regional California cuisine as the chili burger: a ground beef patty, with a topping of…ground beef.
The ground beef and bean burrito is the ultimate in California/Gringo comfort food. In a cuisine that has no lasagna, no moussaka, no meat loaf, no shepherd’s pie, it is where I, Don Miguel de Los Angeles no McDonalds, hies himself when he is hung over and wants layers of cheesy, carbohydrate-rich, meaty, saucy redemption.
At the heart of the burrito is a layer of surprisingly nuanced seasoned ground beef (the recipe having been re-vamped within the last year or so). A generous amount of onion lends the meat a sweetness that sets the keynote for the entire ensemble. The beans, refried, have always been one of El Coyote’s strong points. Made fresh daily from whole pinto beans and vegetable oil, they are mashed to the perfect consistency, creamy yet still retaining individual and partial beans for texture. I, personally (and who is more a person than I, Don Miguel?) add guacamole inside, because I, personally, love guacamole.
And I strongly urge you, my acolytes, to order your burrito mojado, with sauce and melted cheese on top. The sauce is the same as that used atop El Coyote’s enchiladas, and is also one of the establishment’s fortes; a red sauce tangy with ancho and arbol chiles, emulsified to a buttery perfection. And the cheese is…
Well, it’s cheddar.
But if you are a burritophile you know that it is the symphony of the burrito, rather than its individual partitas, that is paramount. And here the symphony is as satisfying as Mozart, as cozy and sleep-inducing as Brahms. It isn’t a spicy dish, but a sweet/savory one, like unto a Moroccan b’stilla, or a beef Wellington, with the tortilla taking the place of dough. The tomatoey tang of the enchilada sauce gives way gently to the tender layer of rolled tortilla, which gives way to the creamy beans, which gives way to the faint resistance of restaurant-grade ground round.
And the cheese is cheddar.
This is a burrito the size of your head if your head were slightly smaller and more oblong. And yet I, Don Miguel de los Angeles, always finish it.
Will you find this burrito in Mexico City? No. In the Yucatan? No. In Veracruz? Absolutely not. But then neither (prior to the 1940s) would you have encountered deep fried tortilla chips in Mexico; they were first mass produced in Los Angeles in the 1940s. Nor the burrito, invented in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1960saddthis_counter addthis_pill_style.
So let us celebrate our uniqueness! In the end, al final, and at the end of the day, I, your humble knight, care not a whit whether the dish is or once was prepared the same way in an ethnic capital thousands of miles away. All I ask is, is it delicious? Does it make me want to eat it all? Do I crave it? And with the El Coyote ground beef and bean burrito, the answer is yes to all of the above.
Call it Gringo if you wish; but call it the Perfect Gringo Burrito.
You, my reader, will find here writ The Gospel According to Miguel, testimony of the truth as I find and understand it, the chronicle of my journey seeking godhead and perfection in the oblong form of the burrito.
“Why the burrito?” you may well ask.
To which I may well answer, “Why not?”
The Divine may, after all, be found in an infinite number of forms, may it not? For the scholar, it is eternally bound within the leathern pages of a Quran, Bible, or Upanishad; for the inner seeker, it is in the breath, in the Om, in the hara somewhere between the navel and pubis; for the musically inclined, in the soaring finale of a baroque Passion, the soaring Gothic echoes of a Gregorian chant, or the intertwining vibrations of a singing brass bowl; for the artist, in the transitory beauty of a sand mandala, the transcendent lines of a Pietá, or the throbbing surge of primordial life force itself in a Rothko.
For the burritophile, it comes wrapped in a tortilla, and this should surprise no one.
The Divine may be found wherever one seeks it, but it is never found without first the dedication to its pursuit, a pursuit that I proclaim here. As Galahad sought the Grail, as Don Amadis of Gaul sought his own origins, or, more exactly, as Don Quixote sought fame and adventure in order to redound to the greater glory and honor of his Dulcinea, I, unworthy though I am, will attempt to redeem my own mortal sins by seeking and revealing The Perfect Burrito.
Second, you may well ask: can perfection be attained by any but God? This is of course a question for a philosopher; I am merely a humble warrior, a servant, an apostle, an acolyte, a prophet, a knight-errant of the burrito’s chivalric order, roaming the world proclaiming its righteousness, my way guided by the holy light reflected by its enveloping foil. Yes, a burrito is merely a humble congregation of beans, meat, tomatoes, onions, and chiles, parts which may, unto themselves, be simple, even ordinary; but when combined and contained, given form and shape by an enveloping tortilla—like the Word of God manifested as the World (and mayhap served mojado, i.e., with cheese and sauce on top)—it becomes not merely a convenient handheld meal, but a universe unto itself, a sub-creation with a capital C, a Platonic shadow of the essential Divine.
Like its distant cousin the pizza (and I will not deny the godhead of the Pie, for I am a tolerant and merciful knight, and though I often lunch at the altar of Pizza, it is not the one at which I take communion), the burrito is a vessel that may contain the essential ingredients of humanity itself: art, aesthetics, beauty, love, wisdom, history, philosophy, and guacamole.
Finally, you will bring the question skeptically back around to the Burrito itself. Even if perfection is attainable, is it likely to manifest itself in the microwaveables section of your local mini-mart? And is the worship of such a Silver Calf not idolatry?
To which I answer: if a humble pair of intersecting cedar beams could become the sacred symbol of mankind’s redemption, before which we bow down in humility and awe; if a humble piece of some ascetic’s dinnerware could become the very vessel of Divine Grace, sought even unto death by the very Knights of the Round Table; then surely I may be allowed the Quest of The Perfect Burrito. For I seek it not as a replacement for, or rival to, the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but as a manifestation of them as Protein, Tortilla, and Extras. And I vouchsafe here and now, as God is my witness: if The Perfect Burrito is to be found, fear not—I, Don Miguel de Los Angeles no McDonalds, will find it; and as Christ gave His life for our sins, I will reveal it unto you as redemption for mine.
So: praise the Lard and pass the Tapatío.