True Burrito Tales

You can go a lot of places in this world, but you can only be from one place, and I’m from the east side of L.A. Though I’ve lived in the Bay Area for more than twenty years, there are still a few things I miss about my hometown. The mild winters. The crazy profusion of FM radio stations. But above all, the L.A. burrito.

With all due respect to San Francisco’s  celebrated Mission burrito, let me be frank: it is not a real burrito. Real burritos are not packed full of rice like a Chinese freighter. Real burritos contain neither sour cream nor guacamole. They are made with lard-infused refritos, not whole beans and certainly not black beans. And under no circumstances are they wrapped in anything other than a large white flour tortilla. If it’s some weird color, like red or green, it is most certainly not a burrito.

Many world travelers conclude that the burrito, due to its widespread unavailability south of the border, is one of those made-up faux-Mex dishes like taco salad. Nothing could be further from the truth. The burrito was a regional invention, native to a part of Mexico that was ceded to the Yankees in the 1840s: Alta California. Some nameless rancho cook decided to make a few oversized flour tortillas for wrapping up the leftovers, and an important  culinary innovation was born, right up there with the sandwich on the short list of wildly successful workman’s lunches.

On a recent trip south, I paid a visit to Manny’s El Loco in East L.A. to reacquaint myself with the Real Thing. I was not disappointed. Thoroughly and unashamedly old-school, Manny’s has changed very little since I used to go there in the 1970s as a long-haired teenager.  Same orange-plastic decor, same clientele of working-class Chicanos and the occasional Anglo or Asian down from  Monterey Park. The few menu changes in evidence seem to be half-hearted nods to “healthy” eating: they’ve added a turkey wrap and something called a Santa Fe salad, and deleted the pastrami quesadilla, one of those freaky “only in LA” things that have now gone the way of the Chinese Kosher Burrito.

The king of Manny’s menu is and always has been the El Loco Burrito: beans, cheese, a chile relleno, steak picado, and salsa. It’s big, it’s messy, and it’s God-knows-how-many-calories. This is the burrito against which all others must be judged.

A great burrito is a symphony of flavors, and one false note can ruin the whole effect. At Manny’s there are no false notes. The tortilla is same-day fresh. the beans are runny, lardy, and cooked for days; almost a soup. The steak picado is likewise cooked down for savory goodness: round steak, onions, chiles, and tomatoes. There is no shortage of cheese or green sauce, made with hot peppers and tiny flecks of avocado. And at the heart of this beast, robed in deliciousness, is the mighty chile relleno, a study in contrasting textures and flavors: the chewy crispness of the fried batter, the sweet snap of the fresh Anaheim chile, and the gooey river of hot melted cheese inside.

Don’t get me wrong: there are some other great places nearby. El Tepeyac, for instance, is another classic joint, with an even bigger and gnarlier burrito called the Manuel’s Special. But El Loco remains my personal favorite, and the one I think of every time I settle for a riced-up, foil-wrapped Mission “burrito.”

Manny’s is located just off Atlantic Blvd on Pomona Street, a block south of the 60. Si mon!


6 Responses to True Burrito Tales

  1. One of the main reasons I had to leave the Bay Area for home. No burritos and too much fog was just too much to take.

  2. Paul Anderson says:

    As many chat’s as we have had (many slurred, some not) I have assumed since the Carter Administrationt, that I alone was the single advocate of the Chile Renello Burito. It is, if done correctly,it is superlative and worth being 3 days consumption of lippids. It’s fine tuned with pickled carrots, jalepenos, lime and cilantro suit one’s compression ratio, and in my opinion is a philharmonic performance of tasteswhich wein Californiaare priviliged to not give any thought to. I would also liketo mention hileon the quest of theperfect Burrito, there is moreto salsa than the three orfor offered by TGI Fridays…some include Chocolate, Carrots, Bananas and acavalcade of spices and peppers.

    I applaud you calling out rice on a Burrito as well. Burritos as fine cuisine (not to be confused with wraps please) should be a tightrope walk of texture and flavor. You would not haveabe Beefsteak bound in a corset of starch, or lobster with poi or corn mush….These pieces of art deserve a bit more respect. Sadly in most cases, the nobel burrito has become a medium for leftovers and filler bilge just as “Gulash” (an actual dish of fine pedigree) has become an idom for a “Bubble and squeek” or leftover.

    You notonly have written a fine piece but you have done a service for fans all over to seek out the subect morsels and grow personally.

    Cheers my friend

  3. […] recent rant about the L.A. burrito (vs. San Francisco’s patently inferior “Mission burrito”) […]

  4. Bill Fields says:

    Please help. Does anyone remember when the Kosher Burrito opened in L.A.? Bobby Valentine claims to have invented the wrap in 1980 at his Stamford, Connecticut restaurant. I think he’s full of sh**. I’m pretty sure the Kosher Burrito was in operation making pastrami wraps long before that but I can’t find it anywhere.

  5. Bill Fields says:

    The July 199 issue of Los Angeles Magazine stated that the Kosher Burrito was in business circa 1949. So, I would submit that pastrami in a tortilla is a wrap and Bobby Valentine is mistaken in his claim of having invented the wrap in 1980.

  6. Kayla says:

    what!?! You mean to tell me I can’t get a pastrami quesadilla anymore!? What about at the one in Arcadia? =(

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