For some people, discussions of Lenchita’s begin with the massive weekend lines: Pacoima’s minivan set, Dodger-lidded four-generation families, hot CSUN kids out for a Saturday-morning bowl of albondigas — a vague, undifferentiated mass that somehow regiments itself by the time it squeezes through the restaurant’s glass doors. Lenchita’s is always mentioned when people talk about L.A.’s best tamales, and its owner, Angelita Alvarez Renteria, has been a community fixture since Lenchita’s opened in the late 1970s. There probably hasn’t been a Pacoima kid in 25 years who didn’t grow up with a Lenchita’s quesadilla in one fist, a sticky cup of Betadine-colored pineapple drink in the other. It’s not beautiful, but it’s home.
But even before you move your way up to the front of the self-regulating queue, nudged in the direction of an empty table by a regular when it mysteriously becomes your turn, and are attended to by a waitress eager for you to choose something from the giant painted menus on the walls, you will probably discover the reason you have been waiting for 45 minutes on a 100-degree afternoon — Lenchita’s corps of tortilla makers, pat-pat-patting away; sturdy, beautiful women with forearms like Popeye’s, amazons who pluck dough from mountains of masa, work it between their hands like Swedish masseurs and fling the finished disks onto a superheated griddle, where they sizzle and crisp and bake into burnished, pliable, char-spotted works of art. You may have tasted better tortillas in Southern California, but I suspect somebody’s mother was involved.
You should probably consider Lenchita’s combination platters, not just tacos and chiles rellenos and tamales, but also grandmother-style stews plopped onto a plate with rice and beans, informal tastes of plain, second-generation Mexican home cooking served with big stacks of freshly made tortillas. The unorthodox chile verde is made with chewy strips of smoky grilled meat simmered in a thin, spicy, salty broth enriched with puréed green chiles; the carne en salsa de molcajete is more or less the same meat drenched in a broth flavored with pulpy red chiles pounded in a stone mortar — both of them perhaps less complete dishes on their own than elaborate sauces meant to be scooped up with a toasty scrap of those tortillas. Carne asada — tough, salty slices of grilled steak that nonetheless have a developed beef flavor — is good with the pico de gallo mounded in a little bowl on the table.
You will find most of the usual antojitos at Lenchita’s, snacks based on the kitchen’s handmade masa — dryish gorditas, vaguely similar to rounds of Mexican pita, split and filled; rudimentary tacos so big you can barely get them into your mouth; and simple quesadillas stuffed with melted cheese. The sopes are especially nice, fried saucers of the corn dough with a substantial crunch and the delicate taste of hot oil and corn, heaped with lettuce, meat and cheese. The soups are good too, also quite plain but among the best of their kind in Los Angeles: rich chicken soup, a chile-laced beef soup called picadillo, and a minty broth barely concealing a lode of enormous albondigas — loose, delicious meatballs flavored with onions and herbs that dissolve in a gush of liquid in your mouth. And if you’re into that sort of thing, Lenchita’s mild menudo, tripe soup, is pretty wonderful too, bits of tripe with the luscious texture of melted cheese, a chile-red brew tasting of clean tripiness and corn, and a marked absence of the barnyard stench that some people take as authentic, but I tend to interpret as a sign of tripe that hasn’t been cleaned quite well enough.
After lunch, you should probably grab some tortillas to go. At $2.40 a dozen, they are among the great takeout bargains in the San Fernando Valley, and they are good enough that you will probably finish most of them before you even get to the freeway.
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Lenchita’s, 13612 Van Nuys Blvd., Pacoima, (818) 899-2623. Open daily 6 a.m.–8 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only. Lunch for two, food only, $9–$15. Recommended dishes: tortillas, sopes, menudo.