They are a stolid bunch, Los Angeles burrito lovers, neatly queued at burrito shrines at noon, pulling homemade burritos out of lunch buckets, occasionally attending to late-night cravings as faithfully as worshipers attending midnight mass.
A taco is a racy thing: consumed in a couple of quick bites, sold from trucks and rollaway carts parked outside nightclubs, on street corners, near bars. There is no commitment to a taco – you can flit between stands without filling up, chase a few down as an afternoon snack, pick a couple up on the way to your car, or have both green and red salsa if you can’t decide. Tacos are less nourishment than entertainment for the mouth.
Burritos are sustaining, wholesome; a spoonful of leftover stew and another of last night’s beans stretched into a filling meal. If you tuck a burrito into your lunch bag before you go to work, it will still be warm and tasty at lunchtime, where a taco would long since have disintegrated into its constituent parts. Tacos are creatures of the evening, but burritos belong to the day – many of the greatest burrito stands in Los Angeles, including Lupe’s and the great El Tepeyac, don’t stay open much after dark.
Al & Bea’s is one of the greatest of the Eastside’s classic burrito palaces, a low, ancient, heavily fortified kitchen a few steps from the local police station, next door to a huge youth center. Extended families show up to Al & Bea’s after romps in nearby Hollenbeck Park; so do uniformed officers of every stripe, guys on their lunch break from nearby Homeboy Industries or from building the Gold Line’s underground Eastside extension, teenage couples paying for their mild green chile-and-bean burritos with handfuls of dimes. It is not unusual to see giant trucks taking up a half-block’s worth of parking spaces while the driver ducks in for two combo burritos, an horchata, and a tostada the size of your head. If you live or work in Boyle Heights, you come to Al & Bea’s.
If your only encounters with burritos have been at taquerias specializing in sesos, San Francisco-style joints that stuff their tortillas with black beans and grilled steak, or at mini-mall fresh-Mex places that happen to flavor their tortillas with sun-dried tomatoes and basil, the plainness of the food at Al & Bea’s may come as kind of a shock.
Your choices are basically limited to red chile or green, meat or no meat, and whether to pay the extra fifteen cents for cheese. When you order, the guy behind the register flips your ticket out of his pad like a card sharp showing you the four of clubs. You pull your napkin from a roll. Then you wait, and eavesdrop on the line.
“My daughter has been going to that fancy school,” a woman behind me moans, “and now she can’t talk right any more. I’m telling you – she sounds like a broken gabacho.”
In addition to burritos, there are old-fashioned fried tacos with guacamole, which are delicious, and hot, oily taquitos, which are even better. Hamburgers are available, although in practice they seem mostly to be eaten by patrons under the age of ten, as well as an only-in-East L.A. classic known as the Four-Finger Dog, which is a couple of hot dogs dressed like a burger and served on a hamburger bun. The fried jalapenos, stuffed with something very like the shiny, processed cheese you find topping nachos in movie theaters and at Dodger Stadium, are more compelling than they have any right to be.
It is glorious to watch an Al & Bea’s burrito come into existence, to see a tortilla grabbed from a freshly griddled stack, smeared with a spoonful of refried beans, a sprinkling of orange cheese and a careful drizzle of chile, and folded with a flick of the counterman’s wrist into a careful envelope that will stay intact until the last drops of juice run down your wrist. About half the burritos involve meat, long-stewed beef expertly ladled from a third container; every so often there will be a call for chicken, or a chile relleno, or ground beef, and during lunch rush you can sometimes hear the burrito fabricator grumbling curses under his breath as the rogue oddball orders take him out of his zone. As a partisan of the Al & Bea’s Special, which involves lettuce, tomatoes and guacamole in addition to the usual ingredients, I have more than once been the subject of this grumbling myself.
Al & Bea’s, 2025 E. 1st St., Los Angeles, (323) 267-8810. Open Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. No credit cards. No alcohol. Takeout. Street parking. Lunch for two, food only, $4-$8. Recommended dish: burritos.