Ponce de Leon had his Fountain of Youth, Ahab his whale, Columbus his islands of spice. Dr. Leakey spent half of his life looking for a bone or two. I once met a botanist who had searched the Andes foothills nearly 50 years for the mysterious plant that he knew to be the common ancestor of both the tomato and the potato. My quest may be more modest, but sometimes seems no less consuming: For the better part of a decade, I have been seeking a legendary East Los Angeles sandwich, a torta I suspect hides somewhere in the old Belvedere district, a venerable concoction beloved to the neighborhood yet invisible to casual passersby — a toasted, chile-fired, gravy-sopped Mexican meat sandwich that burns like a flame.
I first heard about this sandwich from an old guy whose family had come from the Eastside, who told me about a torta so good that truckers used to detour miles just to get a crack at it; the next clue was from a man who said that the mere memory of it helped get him through a rough tour of duty in Vietnam. My wife‘s late grandmother had tasted this sandwich, too. And because nobody seemed to know where the sandwich shop had been located, much less if it were still around, I have driven hundreds of miles looking for this place, browsed through scores of old Yellow Pages in the library, stopped off in dozens of delis and carnicerias, talked to a hundred strangers. I’ve eaten some good sandwiches on the way, but as far as I know, I haven‘t tasted The Sandwich. Or even come close to it.
Which is why I was so excited when a colleague first told my wife about Chroni’s Sandwiches, an Eastside place he had seen immortalized in the liner notes of a Los Lobos CD, a sanction as pungent as the Descendents‘ shout-out to Oki Dog or the Beastie Boys’ endorsement of the wine Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The man just assumed Laurie would know the place — she grew up in Whittier, which is where, I think, most of Los Lobos has lived for years. Laurie, meanwhile, assumed I‘d already have run into Chroni’s on the way to get pan dulce or a bowl of cocido; but she also half-hoped that it might be the great sandwich shop I‘d been looking for. I’m not sure it took me as long as 30 seconds to climb into the Dodge and go.
It turned out to be a place I‘d passed a million times, a faded old stand halfway between the Whittier Boulevard redevelopment area and the car dealers of Montebello, and the smell of frying beef could probably have guided me there from Atlantic Avenue if I’d taken the trouble to sniff. In a line that stretched nearly to the corner, shaved-head East L.A. roughnecks chatted easily with beehived women who might have been their grandmothers, while in the parking lot out back, $30,000 custom Silverados shared space with new minivans, rusting Monte Carlos and tricked out ‘60s Impalas that gleamed like gold teeth. And there was grape soda on tap.
“I think this sandwich is going to come out all right, ma’am,” the fry cook behind the counter assured a customer. “I‘ve been making them here for 37 years.”
On the sun-bleached sign above the restaurant, a little dog sat upon a giant hamburger, all but bowing to the giant hot dog that towered above them both. Chroni’s may not have been the Great Lost Tortas Shack of legend, but it did turn out to be the great burger stand I never knew existed in East L.A., home to steaming orders of chili fries dense and hot enough to melt plastic forks into Brancusi sculptures; wet, sloppy pastrami dips stuffed with chewy, tissue-thin slices of garlicky meat; taut boiled frankfurters that snapped like the lowest string of a guitarron. Hamburgers, painted with yellow mustard and sluiced with a meaty, emulsified chili that seemed a couple of degrees spicier than its equivalent at, say, Jay‘s Jayburgers, were robust creations, tasting distinctly of the grill, piled high with ripe tomatoes (at least in September) and crisp sheaves of lettuce — one of the finest chiliburgers imaginable, even in this chiliburger-obsessed metropolis.
I walked to a pay phone and called my mother-in-law, who grew up just a couple of miles away in Pico Rivera, to tell her about this great Eastside equivalent of Tommy’s.
“You called up to tell me about Chroni‘s?” she said. “I’ve been going there since high school. But watch what you say about the place. We don‘t think much of Tommy’s around here.”
5825 E. Whittier Blvd., East L.A.; (323) 728-7806. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $6–$10. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only. Recommended dishes: hamburger, hot dog, pastrami sandwich.