View more photos in Anne Fishbein's "What is a Burrito?" photo gallery.
I have never been able to change a Taiwanese woman’s mind when I tilt against her favorite soy milk, and there is no arguing rigatoni with a certain kind of Italian-American, at least unless your opinion is that his mother makes the single best version in the world. When I praise one kind of ramen at the expense of another, I half expect to end the evening with a brace of feathered banderillas stuck into my flanks, as if I were a panting bull. Discussing the finer points of fried clams with a New Englander has all the charm of sticking a fork into a wall socket.
But to talk about burritos is to charge down a road lined with IEDs, every bump potentially the charge that is going to send you flying into a ditch, every screeching curve potentially your last. Tell me what kind of burrito you like and I will tell you who you are, but tell me what kind of burrito you really think I should like and I start looking for the next escape route out of town. The last time we casually described the moist, overstuffed monstrosity that San Francisco calls a burrito, it was almost enough to prod the weepy, black bean–craving citizens to ride their fixies down here to picket. Do we dare insult the oozing tubes of melted cheese that pass for burritos in San Diego, the deep-fried mail bombs in Arizona, or the suppurating man-purses you find in Colorado? Need we even address the fungus-munching, DF-bred snobs who claim the burrito is as un-Mexican as duck à l’orange?
On a late summer day when the mountains were in flames and the temperature soared into the hundreds, Anne Fishbein, the photographer whose pictures have illustrated this column since the late 1980s, decided that she wanted to go on an extended Eastside burrito run, a journey through the heart of darkness that is beans fried with manteca as the good Lord intended, tortillas crisped on overheated griddles, molten cheese running through its veins. Because it’s never too hot for a good burrito.
A burrito is the crackly skinned marvel at Lupe’s #2, filled to order while the tortilla is still on the griddle so that it develops both intense toasted-grain flavor and spurting fumaroles of spicy beef stew if you are so bold as to slide it out of its paper wrapper as you eat. A burrito is the slender, home-style product of Tonia’s, a burrito stand that has been holding down its corner of Pico Rivera for half of forever. A burrito is the suave, lard-scented creation slid out from the barred windows at Al & Bea’s, a burrito so tasty that recently sprung cons squeeze into line behind the uniformed denizens of the police station down the block, and the green-chile salsa is practically a sacrament. A burrito is the fat, oozing block desultorily assembled at the Pico Rivera Lupe’s that may or may not have had a primordial relationship to Lupe’s #2 40 years ago, but not so you’d know it. (Lupe’s #2 has been owned since the early 1970s by Tuche, a burrito master who apprenticed under the late founder of Tonia’s — even some 20-year customers don’t know that her real name isn’t Lupe.) After midnight, a burrito is the bean-and-cheese specialty of J&S in Montebello, a stand that looks like a relic of the Eisenhower administration.
L.A.’s most authentic taquerias think they serve burritos as a public service to their dumb Northern cousins who don’t know that you’re supposed to eat al pastor in a taco. Taqueria burritos are filled with stewed beans instead of refried beans, with grilled chicken instead of gristly beef, and often with unholy supplements of rice.
Certain purists would like to tell you otherwise, but in Los Angeles and other regions of Northern Mexico, the burrito came into being as the rough equivalent of a hardhat’s lunch pail, a method of constructing a filling, portable meal from a tortilla, last night’s beans and a spoonful of stew if there was one. A burrito is a Chicano thing, a Los Angeles thing, proudly Mexican-American. It is the food of mom.
AL & BEA’S: 2025 E. First St., Boyle Heights (323) 267-8810
J&S No. 3: 887 N. Garfield Ave., Montebello (323) 728-3853
LUPE’S: 8653 Beverly Blvd., Pico Rivera (562) 463-0345
LUPE’S #2: 4642 E. Third St., E.L.A. (323) 266-6881
TONIA’S: 4233 Rosemead Blvd., Pico Rivera (562) 695-4322