Burritos at La Azteca (E. Los Angeles, CA)


Prompted by a list that appeared on fivethirtyeight.com, my daughter and her fiancé decided to go on a burrito quest (with me in tow). And why not, since Southern California has one of the highest concentrations of the best burritos in America. One of the restaurants that made the list was La Azteca, which technically is not a restaurant at all, but a tortilleria. It also happens to be in the same neighborhood as Molés La Tia (reviewed here), within a block of each other on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue in East Los Angeles.

Even at 1:30 in the afternoon, the place was packed with customers, some eating at the skimpy few tables and counter space inside. Above the order counter printed on a blackboard is the menu, which reveals that La Azteca also sells tacos, quesadillas, tamales. And there are the tortillas, both flour and corn. But people come here for the burritos.

Along the west wall is a huge mural of an Aztec with a background of a masonry wall and portal and blue sky that continues through to the entire ceiling. To the right of the order counter are copies of food reviews. One of them, written by Michael Krikorian, journalist, novelist and occasional food critic, who writes primarily about Los Angeles crime, provocatively mentions La Azteca in the same breath as French Laundry and Alinea. It also happens to be L.A.’s highest rated burrito place on Yelp.

la azteca

All the burritos are wrapped in Azteca’s glorious, freshly made flour tortillas. There are no excessive fillers, as in Mission-style, only a thinly applied spread of refried beans and pico de gallo, plus the main ingredient.

Our party ordered three kinds of burritos: chile verde, carne asada and chile relleno. It took a good half hour, maybe even longer, to get them in hand, which apparently is typical on a busy day.

The carne asada was the least appealing of the three (☆☆). Tasty enough, it had shortcomings. The beef was hardly tender, probably overcooked. Because of that and the fact that they were cut in large slices, they had the annoying tendency to pull out whole with almost every bite. Worse, many pieces were gristly. La Azteca’s fame can’t possibly rest on this burrito.

The chile relleno can be had with or without asada, which I would recommend against (read above). The vegetarian burrito (☆☆½) consisted of a roasted poblano chile stuffed with white cheese, battered and fried, then wrapped in a flour tortilla. It didn’t generate any excitement among those who ate it, including diners back at the house for whom we ordered takeout, a clear disconnect between our circle and those who generally gave it high marks.

Chile relleno burrito

Chile relleno burrito (image posted on Yelp by Roopa S.)

Except for the superior tortilla, the burritos failed to impress. Our own hunt for the best continues.

La Azteca Tortilleria
4538 E Cesar E Chavez Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90022
323.262.5977

Asada Burrito at El Maestro del Taco


For my money, the best soft tacos in Bellevue are served at El Maestro del Taco. La Cocina del Puerco served terrific ones too but the restaurant closed a few years ago. Cocina was a sit-down restaurant, while Maestro is a food truck that also sells tortas, cemitas, sopes, quesadillas and a carne asada plate (with rice and beans). It also sells burritos that can be ordered with any meat offered in a soft taco (lenguacabeza, beef cheeks, adobadaasada and carnitas). My favorite taco filling there is asada, which is the reason I got a burrito filled with the same thing.

I can say unequivocally that El Maestro del Taco’s burrito is in a league by itself.

Let’s start with the flour tortilla wrap. Unlike at most places where the ends of a gigantic tortilla are tucked in before the burrito is rolled, a single turn of an 8-inch one barely covers Maestro’s substantial filling, potentially a big mess if the filling pushed out at one end when the other is bitten into. Fortunately, the whole thing is swaddled in foil. The absence of the tucks eliminates excessive tortilla that can double, even triple upon itself otherwise. A small matter maybe, but one appreciated by me. Plus, the tortilla itself is thin yet stretchy enough not to tear, putting all the emphasis on the filling.

It starts with shredded iceberg lettuce for a pleasant crunch and generous slices of avocado for creaminess. Sliced pickled jalapeños add spiciness and zing. Rather than whole beans, Maestro uses savory refried beans that act as a glue to hold the rice together. The supremely flavorful asada is chopped and in generous quantity that there’s no mistaking it as the main ingredient, unlike other places (such as Casa D Taqueria) where the filling is mostly rice and beans, tasty as they may be. Also excellent is the tomatillo salsa that comes with the burrito. At $5, this classic burrito (☆☆☆☆), like everything else here, is a bargain.

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El Maestro del Taco
15615 NE 8th St
Bellevue, WA 98008

Pancho’s Restaurante (Brookings, OR)


It took one bite of the burrito to realize that the red snapper was faultlessly fresh. My memory doesn’t serve me if I’d ever eaten a fish burrito before. I don’t normally choose anything with a cream sauce, but the dish was listed as one of the specialties at Pancho’s Restaurante. Fortunately, the cream was added with restraint. The entire filling was combined with salsa Lolita (presumably the restaurant’s own creation) and the burrito topped with a mild chile verde sauce. The simply named Fish Burrito (☆☆☆½) was another excellent entrée served in a Mexican restaurant that we’ve serendipitously come across on our road trips (the other being molcajete at the now-shuttered La Hacienda in Orick, CA). The menu specialties reflect the cooking of Puerto Vallarta where the owners come from.

The salsa that came complimentary with the tortilla chips was also remarkable. I even asked the waiter how they make it, but instead of quipping that if he told me, he’d have to … anyway, he simply said I’d have to sign a waiver not to tell, then gave me a devilish grin. He wasn’t about to reveal anything. It turns out that the salsa is available for sale at the restaurant and in local stores.

We were directed to Pancho’s by the front desk at the motel where we were staying, proving once again that one of the best ways to discover good local restaurants is to ask a local.

fish burrito

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Pancho’s Restaurante y Cantina
1136 Chetco Ave (Oregon Coast Hwy 101)
Brookings, OR 97415
541.469.6531

 

Léona’s Restaurante (Chimayo, NM)


Carne adovada burrito

Leona’s was a little gem in Chimayo, across the walkway from the Santuario. Since 1977, Leona Medina-Tiede has been serving delicious snack foods, primarily burritos and tamales. I ordered the carne adovada burrito, very different from the adovada I had at El Bruno’s. This was a wonderful adovada, more tender than Bruno’s, more garlicky, shredded and salty, and lightly combined with red chile sauce. Her red chile sauce, also served on the side, was pure, unadorned chile powder and water, with a hint of natural sweetness. We purchased a jar of the green chile sauce, it was so good.

Chicken burrito

Green and red chile sauces

At checkout, for later eating, we purchased biscochitos (anise-flavored cookies) and a tub of real chicharrones, not the “chips” that are sold in cellophane packages in supermarkets.

Chicharrones

Unfortunately, as of October 16, the restaurant portion will be closed when Leona retires from the cooking business. But the shop will continue selling gift items.

Update: The restaurant, after being closed for a few years, has re-opened. Unfortunately, Leona is no longer with us, but her legacy continues through Leona’s eldest daughter and her family.

Leona’s (Restaurant now closed, gift shop still open)
17 Santuario Drive
Chimayo, NM 87522
(505) 351-4569