Whereas swanky Los Angeles restaurants have done relatively well with their spin-offs, the quality of the expansion teams of joints such as Fatburger, Tommy’s and Burrito King has rarely approached the original. The exemplary Mid-Wilshire hamburger stand Cassell’s sold franchises a few years ago, and the clones were uniformly miserable copies of the original. The mid-'60s clones of the tiki palace Kelbo’s--anyone remember Kelbo’s Jr.?--dumped the tropical drinks in favor of sugary tiki-style pork buns. The new Mo’ Betta Meaty Meat Burger on Melrose next door to Spike’s Joint, a branch of the ramshackle Pico Boulevard burger place, seems to be Mo’ Betta mostly in the spelling of the sign, which corrects the “Meatty Meat” of the original. The new El Tepeyac Cafe, though, is a marvel.
El Tepeyac Cafe is the first branch of the Eastside Mexican restaurant that in the Southland has become practically synonymous with the burrito, a place opened up to serve the vast proportion of El Tepeyac customers who have moved from small, tidy houses in the old neighborhood to nicer places in Montebello or Whittier. At El Tepeyac Cafe, the food is more or less the same, but there are no armed guards in the parking lot, no wheedling guys named Gregorio who offer to wash and wax your car while you eat.
On a fast stretch of Potrero Grande Road, across the street from the sprawling old Montebello cemetery and amid a row of prosperous flower shops, the place resembles any other squeaky-clean suburban restaurant except for the line that perpetually snakes out the door and the bright pinatas that hang from the ceiling, and possibly the funky Sunday-morning aroma of well-seasoned menudo simmering away on the back of the stove.
It’s very crowded in here: “Ummm,” a waiter said last week, “I don’t think we have any forks right now. Would you mind eating with spoons for a while until we can get things straightened out?”
Like the giant bowls of oversauced pasta devised a century ago by immigrants translating Calabrian poverty cooking into the language of new American prosperity, the burrito symbolizes a cuisine of newly found abundance: the humble taco, in which cheap tortillas stretch a small amount of meat into a filling meal, is now transformed into the plump, overstuffed generosity of the burrito, where meat and beans overwhelm the flimsy tortilla in which they are wrapped.
“Eat,” the burrito says, “eat until you are full and more.”
At El Tepeyac, few people ever manage to finish the enormous burritos, some of which approach the size of lap dogs, and it is rare to see a party of four leave the restaurant without at least one parcel of leftovers. To-go orders are stacked in corrugated cardboard shipping cartons--a paper bag would certainly collapse from the weight--and a simple $10 burrito order feels as heavy as a load of bricks. You know you are at El Tepeyac when your friend’s burrito is bigger than her purse.
The Hollenbeck, named after a local East L.A police division, seems like an old-style Mexican restaurant’s entire No. 2 dinner--rice, beans, stewed meat, guacamole--wrapped into a tortilla the size of a pillowcase and garnished with red sauce, more meat and something like a half pound of melted taco cheese. Some of my wife’s earliest food memories involve the Hollenbecks that her mother sometimes brought home after a night out on the town, nostalgia tempered by recollections of the inevitable fight with her sister over who got the tasty glob of guacamole tucked into a corner of the burrito.
Manuel’s special is sort of like a Hollenbeck that is three times the size--buy one and feed your family for a week--and an Oscar is a purist’s burrito, all meat and red chile sauce. I am fond of the Okie burrito, which is more or less a Hollenbeck finished off like an enchilada, the intense, spicy chorizo-and-egg burrito, and the salty machaca burrito made with onions, eggs and sauteed shreds of beef.
The crisp, fat taquitos , served with a vast wash of fresh guacamole, are pretty good, if not quite up to the standard of Ciro’s, which is across the street from the original location. This may not be the most delicious Mexican food in town, but it is among the most evocative.
Though perhaps not evocative enough: “The burritos may be the same,” says my mother-in-law, rolling her Rs as she does not when she is talking about subjects other than burritos, “but I think I’d still drive to East L.A.”
* El Tepeyac Cafe 1965-A S. Potrero Grande Drive, Monterey Park, (818) 573-4607. Open Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Monday. Original location: 812 N. Evergreen Ave., East Los Angeles, (213) 267-8668. Takeout. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only. Dinner for two, food only, $7-$10.