Sunday, December 18, 2011

Thirty-three years of burritos

All that fancy gourmet stuff is fine, but sometimes you just have to go back to your roots, bathe your tongue in thirty year old memories, remember the times you spent in that very spot, and wonder what happened to the people you knew back when...

We'd stop by El Tepeyac on the way back from school in 1978. I'd just started college, and my friend Mike decided to give me a valuable education in burritos. We'd go in his beat-up gold Chevy Nova, its black cloth seats smelling of time in the sun, early morning fishing trips and stale tobacco smoke. We'd inch forward in line, awaiting our turn at the order window, then the pick-up window. With a shout of "Hollenbeck! Machaca!", our burritos were handed out, creaking on sagging cardboard trays, rapidly passed out the window in a frantic moment where the price of failure would be the splat of several pounds of burrito hitting the concrete. Balancing them as best we could, we'd return to our table to devour them in the reddish-gold light streaming through the colored glass of the patio. All this fit well within a student's budget at around four bucks per burrito.

Phil and I loved the Hollenbeck, even though it made his forehead drip sweat. Mike's favorite was the machaca burrito, from which he'd carefully remove every trace of green lest a fiery jalapeño leave him gasping. We even tried a Manuel's special, a sleeping bag sized invention of the restaurant's owner. Once. One burrito, three people. I think we might have even finished it. Maybe. Then there was the machaca burrito. Shredded beef, eggs, sautéed onions, cheese and chunks of those incandescent jalapeños, now bred out of existence.

My friend Mike is now departed, but Manuel is still at the door greeting people. There have been some changes at the restaurant, too. The menu is a bit longer, and the Hollenbeck burrito is available with chicken and asada along with the traditional pork. The Hollenbeck runs almost ten bucks, the machaca a bit more. The silly little pile of lettuce no longer comes with the Hollenbeck. The machaca burrito now adds rice and beans to its former meat, onions, egg, fresh jalapeños and cheese. Those screaming hot peppers are but a memory.

What's in a Hollenbeck? Mass, and lots of it. Take a tortilla big enough to cover your entire head and face. Throw in some slow-cooked chili verde pork, then some freshly made guacamole, some rice, some beans. Wrap everything up like a small pillow, then pour some tomato-chili sauce over the top and drop some more chunks of the pork on top. Serve steaming hot. Eat fast, before your stomach realizes what you're up to. Don't drink large amounts of fluid for at least an hour - your stomach needs to work uninterrupted.

As for the Manuel's Special, just imagine the Hollenbeck. Double it. No, bigger. Triple it. This burrito is indeed larger than the average human stomach. The last time we ate one, it took four people. Just seeing a burrito that large is something that should be on everyone's bucket list. Put it last on the list if you plan on eating the whole thing at one sitting.

When we go, we look at our shadows, reaching back thirty years across the worn concrete of the patio. We have wives, families, responsibilities, retirement. We talk about old friends who've disappeared from sight. Mammon is more likely to be the focus of conversation than Venus. We think of playing outside under the sun instead of on computers, talking instead of texting; of times when driving a car meant freedom instead of obligation.

We don't bring our wives. They don't approve of this kind of mass consumption.

El Tepeyac Cafe is so famous that I probably don't need to even list the address, but journalistic integrity requires that all the information be here: 812 North Evergreen Avenue, Los Angeles.

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