Stop by Isaac's Cafe on any given morning, and you'll end up sharing breakfast burritos with the stevedores that work the nearby docks of Wilmington and San Pedro. And those burritos? Some of the best in L.A.
Despite an unlikely industrial location blocks away from the neighborhood's main drag, people in the know have kept Antonia Medina's family busy since she built a small restaurant behind her home in 1977. Isaac Jr. explains, “this was our backyard. My mom just wanted to make a yard, but the zoning guy said she couldn't because it's a commercial zone. Little by little, the business grew by word of mouth because we're in the middle of nowhere.”
You'll find no big #10 cans of commercial salsa in the kitchen. Isaac's stuffs big flavors into each bite with from-scratch sauces made with 100 year-old family recipes. The heavily black-peppered, cooked green sauce made of ground jalapenos, cilantro, a ton of onion and garlic is the kind that stays delicious long after lunch, if you know what we mean.
While the stewed red and green chiles are good, the breakfast burritos first grabbed our attention. How many places make a chorizo and egg breakfast burritos without the pool of nasty, orange grease? Isaac's does, and we learned their pro tip.
Is the grease drained off and the chorizo twice-cooked like we do at home? No. Second-generation co-owner Isaac Medina Jr. reveals it's about choosing the right brands. “We buy Reynaldo's or Carmelita, the best ones. Other than that, I don't care what brands, they're no good. Not the beef chorizo, either, because they have more fat than pork. We cook it in a pan, a little butter to get it going, and once it cooks up and the egg absorbs it, there's no grease.”
Beside the more minimal chorizo-and-egg burrito, you can order the more substantial Dispatch burrito stuffed with perfectly crisped bacon, scrambled egg, beans, cheese, rice and red salsa. It's only available while the bacon lasts, so show up at 3 p.m. like we did for this photo, and you might end up getting chili verde instead of bacon. Not that that's a hardship, it just ain't a Dispatch.
They have weird names for their burritos, like the Dispatch, and the Jones. That's a burrito with chunks of beef round stewed in chile rojo, cheese & avocado. Is it because you'll jones for it? Not exactly. Isaac Jr. explains, “Mr. Jones was one of my mom's first customers, a longshoreman. He used to come in here and give them to his friends at work, who'd come back and say, 'give me the kind Jones gets.'”
In the 35 years they've been in Wilmington, this gritty city of heavy industry has mellowed in many ways, but it's still a blue-collar neighborhood absent of even one Starbucks, never mind one on every block. Isaac's has no website, no email, no computer, not even a fax machine. Word-of-mouth, the original social networking, seems to be working for them as well as ever.
Isaac's Cafe: 632 North Fries Ave, Wilmington; 310-830-4933.