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Jonathan Gold's 5 best L.A. burritos

Jonathan Gold's 5 best L.A. burritos
The chile relleno burrito from La Azteca Tortilleriamade Jonathan Gold's list of the five best burritos in L.A. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

I like Tito’s Tacos. I have often defended it against the barbs of those who would dismiss it as somehow "inauthentic," as if the definition of authenticity encompasses only the cooking of Michoacan or Oaxaca. Tito’s is a proud bearer of California-Mexican tradition, and its hard-shelled tacos with shredded lettuce are delicious. When I was growing up, Tito’s was equidistant from Hyde Park, where we lived, and UCLA, where my mom was going to grad school, and sometimes it seemed as if we lived on Tito’s tacos, always with extra cheese.

Nonetheless, while I have always admired Tito’s claim that its burritos contain "100% Steer Beef," and I still stop by for a taco every couple of months, those burritos have always seemed beside the point; the provenance of bros looking to add some ballast to their pre-gaming, or of ravenous teenage boys. While their beefy minimalism belongs within the philosophy of burritos to which I subscribe, they tend to be of indistinct flavor and haphazard construction, falling far short of what colleagues sometimes refer to as the proper burrito gestalt still found in many proper though undistinguished establishments.

Some small part of me was pleased when the website Daily Meal recently pronounced Tito’s burritos as the best in America – at least the award didn’t go to one of those San Francisco places that wrap vast expanses of dry rice and indifferently grilled chicken into what amount to oversteamed pillowcases. But I believe that I in no way am showing insufficient respect to Tito’s when I say that their burritos, while certainly edible, belong nowhere near any discussion of the best burritos in Los Angeles . . . or of the best burritos in the United States, which I would submit is the same thing.

For the best burrito in Los Angeles, you need to try one of these:

Al & Bea's

The bean and cheese burrito at Al & Bea's. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

Al & Bea's isn't fancy, and your choice of burrito is basically limited to red and green, but what it churns out by the hundreds is the lean, classic Los Angeles burrito: refried beans, a bit of cheese, and a ladleful of stew if you want it, a reminder of the burrito's origins as a way to turn a bit of the previous night's dinner into a delicious, transportable taste of home. 2025 E. 1st St., Boyle Heights, (323) 267-8810.

Lupe’s #2

A bean burrito from Lupe's #2. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

Lupe's is the emblematic old-school East Los Angeles burrito: a slender packet of lard-fried beans and super-spicy chile folded into a slightly charred, griddle-toasted tortilla and served in a paper sleeve; the ideal of Chicano-era Los Angeles. The standard order is the simple bean-and-cheese burrito, because at Lupe's, bean and cheese is enough. Adeline "Tuchie'' Portillo, the stand’s matriarch for decades, is no longer with us, but her burritos live on. 4642 E. 3rd St., Los Angeles, (323) 266-6881.

El Tepeyac

The El Tepeyac Hollenbeck burrito with pork. Credit: Ken Kwok / Los Angeles Times

A monstrosity sure, although I have always suspected it was meant to feed a family of five, the Hollenbeck burrito, which everybody calls Manuel's Special, is more or less an old-line Mexican restaurant's entire menu wrapped into a bedsheet-size tortilla. The Hollenbeck is to the Mexican-American Eastside what spaghetti and meatballs has always been to New York’s Little Italy: a cheerfully nontraditional expression of both the old-line flavors of the old country and the impossible abundance of the new. 812 N. Evergreen Ave., City Terrace. (323) 268-1960.

Burritos La Palma

The birria burrito from Burritos La Palma. Credit: Ken Kwok / Los Angeles Times

The only burrito on this short list that is not a product of proud Chicano tradition, this slender, tightly wrapped burrito stuffed with beef stew, birria, is in fact a direct import from Jerez, Zacatecas, a part of Mexico most people have never thought of as burrito country, where birria is usually made with goat. But the well-toasted tube lies firmly within the minimal aesthetic associated with the Los Angeles burrito – spicy, captivating in its plainness, and almost wholesome. 5120 Peck Road, El Monte, (626) 350-8286.

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La Azteca Tortilleria

The chile relleno burrito from La Azteca Tortilleria. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times.

If you have never been to La Azteca, which may be less well-known than some of the other burrito stands in town, you may be puzzled by what you find. It is in one of the great, old food neighborhoods of the Eastside, steps from the pan dulce at La Fama Bakery, the sweet ice confections at Raspados Zacatecas and the tamales at Lilliana’s, but it has all the character of a strip-mall deli. The lines are often formidable – customers are urged to call ahead.

But what’s more important, the burritos, while ostensibly traditional, differ radically from any others in town. The tortillas are full-fat and extra-large, so that when they hit the griddle they blister and become flaky, resembling at times something like Iranian sangak more than they do anything you might find at Burrito King. When used to wrap the chile relleno burrito, La Azteca’s signature item, the tortilla is gathered into intricate box folds at both top and bottom, so that at least one out of three bites at the thing are into what turns out to be pastry alone. And – I can find no other way to say this – when you work your way to the heart of that chile relleno burrito, you may imagine that you are holding a goblet brimful with molten cheese, which occupies the area both inside of and outside of the roast poblano chile. The vision is at once voluptuous and overwhelming, especially at the moment when you realize that it is impossible to put the burrito down without risking the chance of all that cheese draining out onto the table, which may impel you to consume more than may be seemly – chug, chug, chug – before you finally lower the spent stub.

Formidable.

It is only fair to mention that La Azteca was the Daily Meal’s choice as the best U.S. burrito in 2014. 4538 E. Cesar Chavez Ave., East Los Angeles, (323) 262-5977.

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