|El Tepeyac's logo, enjoying a burrito|
I've been going to El Tepeyac Cafe since 1978 (more here), when I started college and was introduced to the place by a burrito-crazed friend. I try to eat there at least once every time I go to Los Angeles, 400 miles away. This was a good, safe distance since eating burritos that weigh almost as much as the typical house cat does not qualify as dieting. More like a burrito binge. Safe, if only done a few times per year.
The owner, Manuel, did mention something about an El Tepeyac opening in Northern California somewhere around Sacramento, but that was probably a year ago, and since the place didn't exist I figured that they'd changed their mind. Until last week. There is was, in letters big as the Internet: Panchito's El Tepeyac Cafe now open in Rocklin.
Rocklin? OhmyGodImgoingtobloatuplikeawhale! Three hundred eighty miles closer. A mere 25 minutes. A granny on a bicycle could go there and back in a day. Jump in the car, five stomach growls and I'm there, ordering a Hollenbeck or a Machaca burrito or taquitos or...
Saturday arrived, and I couldn't restrain myself any longer. As the lunch hour arrived, we sped to Rocklin, anticipating a significant wait. I thought we'd hang out in line with other fans, swapping burrito stories (...Remember the time you dropped the tray and scattered exploded burrito bits all over the patio..."). We arrived. Empty. The open sign glowed in the window. We approached the door. Unlocked. We entered. "Sit wherever you like," said Amanda, the waitress. One table was occupied by a couple. Everything else was a surreal emptiness.
In the L.A. restaurant, the wait is part of the ritual. Nobody just walks into an empty El Tepeyac Cafe and sits down. You stand in line, maybe say, "hello" to Manuel, chat.
Yet, here we were, in a booth,with menus in our hands, Panchito's El Tepeyac Cafe written on them. We were indeed in the right place.
I managed to avoid saying, "I don't need no stinkin' menu". Good thing, because Pancho added a burrito! Aptly named Pancho's Nightmare, it's picante. Five chili variety picante. I didn't order it, though. I wanted to compare So Cal to Nor Cal, so Hollenbeck it was.
When the luscious, steaming mound arrived, dripping with chili verde sauce, its tortilla bulging to the point of bursting, it was instant flashback to L.A. This is indeed a Hollenbeck! I sliced through the tortilla, its thin flesh yielding to the knife, exposing the first layers of flavor. Subsequent bites reached the bright green guacamole, the ingredient that really makes these things blast off. I popped a morsel of tender pork into my mouth. Heat. This burrito has a bit of chili in it. Could it be?
Thirty years ago, one friend would eat about a third of his burrito and begin to sweat. As he ate, his forehead transformed into a shower head as the chilis affected his metabolism. He hasn't sweated like that in years, and I found the East L.A. Hollenbecks tamer, too.
Now, here I was feeling the old bite like the Hollenbeck of the seventies, the once familiar tang of capsaicin-infused peppers returning like a long-lost friend. This was more like the burrito of my youth, a bit fiery yet balanced by cool guacamole and other ingredients into a whole that more than equaled the sum of its parts. This was the burrito I dreamed of while living in France, savory spicy cool and rich all bound together by a thin membrane of tortilla.
When I was twentysomething, I found that eating at Manuel's more than once per week leads to a noticeable increase in mass. I suppose I could have ordered lighter things than massive burritos, but I didn't. They were my first love, more faithful than that girl with the long hair who drove a two-tone Datsun 510. I probably went there with her, though. I probably went there with just about everyone I know in L.A.
Most of those people are forgotten, but Hollenbecks are eternal. They're not Mexico authentic, since they were invented in Los Angeles by a true master of the burrito craft. Authenticity? Who cares? I can get tacos al pastor, carnitas, buche, carne asada, chili verde and the usual gang of suspects just about anywhere nowadays. What I can't get is a Hollenbeck, unless I go to El Tepeyac. Only one restaurant on the entire planet where I can eat this. That's special.
It's funny though. Every Mexican restaurant has a combination burrito. Many have rice, beans, meat, and even guacamole, yet none come close to the flavor of a Hollenbeck. Maybe it's the sour cream, that Hollenbecks don't have. It's not something I generally want in my burrito anyway. It's cold. It takes up space better reserved for a big ladle of guacamole. Yeah, the guac is also cold, but it adds a lot more flavor and has a better mouthfeel than sour cream. There's also the chili blend, another unique to El Tepeyac flavor profile that happens to marry incredibly well with the avocado.
Don't get me wrong - I like sour cream. I just don't want it in my burrito, competing with an excellent dose of guacamole. It's fine on nachos, whatever. Just spare me the creamy stuff in my burrito.
Time will tell if Northern California, or more specifically Rocklin, will embrace this food as their new icon of delicious. They should, but then we're a long way from East L.A. If good food is indeed universal, they should be full in a month or two and packed soon thereafter. I certainly hope so, because I really don't want to drive 400 miles every time I'm jonesin' for a burrito.
Panchito's El Tepeyac Cafe. 6835 Five Star Blvd, Rocklin, CA 95677
You can visit their web site here.