Photo by Anne Fishbein
LOS ANGELES, IT IS WELL KNOWN, IS THE WORLD capital of the burrito. Like the giant bowls of spaghetti and meatballs prepared a century ago by immigrants translating Italian poverty cooking into the bright, vulgar language of new American prosperity, the burrito transforms the humble taco -- in which cheap tortillas stretch a small amount of meat into a filling meal -- into plump, overstuffed generosity, flowing rivers of rich meat and fried beans swamping the flimsy tortilla in which they are wrapped. The burrito is the opposite of "authentically Mexican" food -- south of the border region, the only burritos in Mexico tend to be made at places catering to northern tastes.
Still, authentic or not, the burrito tends to be a fairly regional food, reflecting a variety of local tastes. Burritos in Arizona are most often on the spicy side, the dominant flavor the duskiness of dried chile; burritos in San Diego taco shops are usually oozing tubes of melted cheese. San Francisco burritos, which locals prize above all others, are variations on the healthy-Mex theme, clean, discreet, orderly arrangements of black beans, vegetables and sparing amounts of grilled meat.
Los Angeles burritos come in many different flavors, from the giant, starchy monsters served at El Tepeyac to the elegant seafood burritos at Señor Fish; from the bean-intensive chile burritos at East L.A.'s Lupe's to the burritos at places like King Taco or East Hollywood's El Gran Burrito, which are basically big tacos of brains or chicken or spit-grilled pork rewritten into burrito form.
Lately, I've been getting a lot of burritos at Chabelita Tacos, a burrito stand on Western that you pass just before you swerve onto the Santa Monica Freeway, Christmas-bright, sweetly fragrant and always crowded enough to generate a little knot of traffic big enough to snarl the avenue. Chabelita, in fact, is popular enough to have generated its own small empire of food. Directly to the north of the stand lie a Chabelita seafood restaurant, a Chabelita ice cream parlor and a Chabelita truck specializing in sweetish shrimp cocktails served in portions as big as your head. Chabelita, y'know, rules.
If you were going to construct a typical L.A. burrito stand, it might look a lot like Chabelita, a tight complex, all stucco and wrought iron, dominated by industrial-grade steel picnic tables and the bleatings of the NeoGeo machine. The customers range from truckers to cops, hood rats to priests, and a huge smattering of little kids, many of whom end up taking turns wearing the security guard's hat.
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You bark your order through one grated window -- if you hesitate, half a dozen people will start yelling at you -- and pick up your order to your left. While you wait, you will have plenty of time to admire the paintings airbrushed onto the plaster, of a beautiful young Latina woman -- Chabelita herself? -- posed with burritos, tacos and a watermelon-size triple-deck cheeseburger that threatens to drip onto her blouse. My favorite painting, on the truck parked across the street, is of Chabelita rising from the churning, blue waves like a Venus of the Mariscos, beatifically bestowing octopus tostadas on us all.
Chabelita, I think, exemplifies a particular style of Los Angeles burrito, thick layers of finely chopped grilled beef, roast pork or stewed tongue, ballasted with a bulletproof paste of refried beans, weighted at one end with a scoop of well-seasoned Mexican rice and shot through with a thick vein of melted orange cheese. The salsa is of the juicy-tomato school, though not the kind that drips down your elbows at the earliest opportunity; the encurtido, lavishly served in a Baggies sandwich bag, includes plenty of crisp, freshly pickled carrots and onions alongside the usual bottled jalapeños. A Chabelita burrito seems designed to be eaten in a car, and you can finish, say, a chile-spiked burrito al pastor driplessly, in just the time it takes to drive to the airport. What could be more Angeleno than that?
2001 S. Western Ave.; (323) 734-0211. Open 24 hours. Dinner for two, food only, $5$9. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only. Recommended dishes: burritos, tortas.