A few blocks from the railroad tracks that run through Huntington Park, there is a torta gold mine. Yaya’s Burgers on Gage Avenue has one of the most creative and comprehensive torta menus in L.A.
Don’t let the word “burgers” in the name confuse you. Twenty-five years ago, Juan Rodriguez bought the diner from its original owner and added five traditional tortas to the American menu: milanesa, carne asada, carnitas, chicken and ham. Yaya's now offers more than 70 kinds of tortas, from the familiar steak to the Americanized club.
Rodriguez began his restaurant journey as a graveyard line cook at the now-shuttered Jody’s Coffee Shop in Torrance. There he perfected American diner cuisine, making everything from burgers to pot roast to New York steaks.
He began washing windows on his days off, and in the course of five years built a window-washing route that included 20 stores and businesses. One of his customers, a Greek restaurant owner named George, asked if he was interested in buying his diner. Rodriguez and his wife, Ofelia, decided to take a chance.
The couple quickly realized their best-selling items were the few tortas, and Ofelia, who was the mastermind behind the first few on the menu, continued to experiment with the style, adding more to the list. Soon, Yaya's had the heftiest torta menu around.
For a sandwich to be considered a torta, it must be on a bread called bolillo, which is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside; refried beans must be used as a spread; and the whole sandwich should be topped off with some combination of avocado, lettuce, tomato, onions, jalapeños and mayo.
Yaya’s took that simple formula, perfected it and then chopped and screwed it. The La Tepic-K torta, for instance, pairs spicy, heavily marinated and thinly sliced pork with an eggless chile relleno. Like every other torta on the menu, it includes avocado slices and jalapeños.
Yaya's isn’t stingy with the fillings, either. For $5.99, you get a full meal and then some. The sandwiches are gargantuan — almost the size of an entire plate — and they're messily stuffed, so there's always something to pick up with a fork.
The two most popular tortas are the milanesa, with traditional, lightly breaded steak, and the nontraditional Hawaiana, grilled pineapple with thinly sliced ham. For those who prefer to go meatless, the vegetariana is also a favorite. The chile relleno torta is smoky and comes with cold Oaxacan cheese (but you should order it with fried queso panela instead).
Ofelia, Rodriguez's wife of almost 39 years, died three years ago. But the charm and heart of Yaya’s remains. Rodriguez, along with the couple's three children and six grandchildren, keeps the restaurant humming.
“When we were all together here in the restaurant, [those] were the best memories of my life,” Rodriguez says. “We’ve gotten to know so many people. I’ve seen kids who I met when they were 5 years old and now they come in here with their own families.”