Manuel Rojas dies at 79; El Tepeyac proprietor served up popular burritos
In a city of thousands of humble taco stands and family-run Mexican restaurants, El Tepeyac Cafe in Boyle Heights gained legendary status for the gargantuan, chili-spiked pork burritos created by owner Manuel Rojas.
In the kitchen at 3 a.m., seven days a week to prepare for the 6 a.m. opening, Rojas spent a half-century serving up his famous Hollenbeck burrito and the hulking “Manuel’s Special” — five pounds of roast pork, rice, beans, guacamole, cheese and chile verde stuffed into a plate-sized tortilla.
Rojas, 79, died Tuesday evening at White Memorial Medical Center in Los Angeles, said his nephew, Joey Duran. The cause was throat cancer, with which Rojas had been diagnosed last year.
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Burrito-lovers from all over Southern California lined up at the small North Evergreen Avenue cafe to tackle the special and the Hollenbeck, a smaller version of the special that was consumed in great numbers by Los Angeles police officers from the local Hollenbeck Division.
El Tepeyac’s fare regularly made critics’ lists of favorite burrito joints. After the restaurant was featured in the Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food” show in 2009, chow hounds from around the country and even abroad joined the pilgrimage to its tables.
“For decades, whenever somebody told me that they’d discovered a place in East L.A., I always knew that they were going to next mention El Tepeyac,” said Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold. “And that after describing the size of the burritos — like pillowcases! — they would become quiet, almost dreamy, thinking of the masses of rice, beans, guacamole and stewed meat. To generations of Angelenos, El Tepeyac was the Eastside, and its covered patio was certainly the most diverse patch in this part of town.”
“Many of us mourned when Mr. Rojas hinted of a sale last year,” Gold added. “And while there is little doubt that El Tepeyac will long outlive its founder, it is a sad day in the Los Angeles restaurant world.”
The Rojas family opened El Tepeyac in 1955, after running restaurants in downtown Los Angeles and Lincoln Heights. Rojas took over the operation with his mother, Rebecca, a few years later when his father, Salvador Rojas, died, according to the restaurant’s website.
Long resisting the urge to expand, the family didn’t open a second location, in the City of Industry, until two years ago.
Duran said Rojas continued working at the cafe until he went into the hospital in October, greeting customers with a kiss for women and a hug for men.
Born in Los Angeles on April 4, 1933, Rojas put the Hollenbeck on the menu after police officers kept urging him to pile more ingredients into their lunch burritos. It cost 50 cents.
“The guys would ask for this burrito and ask Manuel to throw in rice and avocado,” Robert Vernon, then an assistant Los Angeles police chief who had worked in Hollenbeck, recalled in a 1986 Times article. “Guys kept asking to add stuff to it. The thing was bigger than any burrito I ever saw.”
Family legend has it that Rojas created Manuel’s Special when football players from Cal State Los Angeles wanted even more. “Many have tried but few have succeeded” in eating the five-pounder on their own, boasts the restaurant website, suggesting it will feed two to four.
Rojas is survived by a sister, Dolores Rojas, and a brother, Rudolfo; children Elena and Mark Rojas, Manuel and Tiffany Gallegos, Monique Lopez Yoshitake and Richard Lopez; as well as 15 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Services are pending.
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