The Virgen de Guadalupe looming over El Tepeyac’s shiny Formica tabletops, framed in Christmas lights, suggests something that isn’t altogether true: That, in the years since he opened his neighborhood diner in 1957, Manuel Rojas made a name for himself serving auténticas comidas, food the way Mexicans make in Querétaro. Toss that romantic notion out with the one about the rough neighborhood one has to brave to get there — the Hollenbeck police station, which oversees the neighborhood surrounding North Evergreen Avenue in Boyle Heights, reports a lower crime rate than the West Valley’s. Thoroughly Anglo police officers from that very station inspired El Tepeyac’s pièce de résistance, a cornucopia of naturally occurring saturated fats — pork and guacamole among them — stuffed with rice and beans under the glutinous blanket of a steaming flour tortilla called, ceremoniously, the Hollenbeck Burrito. A marvel, yes; a generous portion, absolutely. Uninitiated El Tepeyac-ers, who fail to manage their daily food intake for maximum metabolic action at dinner, haul half or more of it home for lunch the next day. But authentic Mexican cuisine the Hollenbeck is not. Nor is El Tepeyac’s other celebrated wonder, the Manuel Special, which appeared on one plate to be bigger than the head of the man intending to eat it. “Oh no,” he sighed, backing away from the table a little, as if a cleaned plate were a requirement he was loathe to fulfill. “I didn’t know what they meant by big.“
It’s not that a catering to the massive appetites of the masses is anything to be ashamed of; quite the contrary. I looked around El Tepeyac and saw a rainbow that would certainly please the Reverend Jackson: East Indian, Asian, black, white, Latino; I heard talk in at least three different tongues (Spanish among them). Nor does such a nod to local bingers preclude more traditional flavors; after all, a restaurant that takes its name from the Mexican town where the Virgen made her first appearance in 1531 doesn’t have to prove its ethnic credentials. Purists can still order El Tepeyac’s satisfyingly stringy machaca (packaged Hollenbeck-style, if you like), spicy fajitas, enchiladas con ranchera sauce, taquitos and chile verde. Blander tastes can swing the other way and order the Okie Burrito, basically the Hollenbeck without the kick. Diners who fear being exposed as nibblers can order anything to take home (“in a matter of minutes,” pledges the takeout menu), and never worry about degrading the environment, because El Tepeyac eschews the Styrofoam container as rigorously as it does alcohol. I like to think it’s for the same reason: that the all-paper format has something to do with El Tepeyac’s longstanding concern for community, which moved Rojas to change the closing time back from 2 a.m. to 11 p.m. over a decade ago when early-morning diners proved too rowdy, and inspires him to keep prices low enough for neighborhood families to feast well, and often. The price of the Hollenbeck has risen from 50 cents to $5.65 since its invention, which seems an understandable, fair rate of inflation. 812 N. Evergreen Ave., Boyle Heights; (323) 268-1960.