Back at the end of February, when there was talk of a citywide shut down, I met a friend at the Rosenthal Wine Bar & Patio, which was still open as other wineries were closing in anticipation of a shelter-in-place order. It was packed, and one of the last experiences I had in pre-coronavirus LA. I brought the perfect food to pair with light summer reds and crispy white wines: a mini-Hollenbeck burrito and a chile relleno burrito from East LA institution El Tepeyac.
And why not, Manny Rojas’ oversized burritos are meant to be eaten with a fork and knife, like a fine dining meal of Mexican American comfort food. When he took over his father’s restaurant in the 1950s, he reshaped it in his image, including a hospitality model that was pure East LA. You came for the burritos, the combo plates, the Mexican breakfast classics smothered in salsa and melted cheese, and the classic Chicano guisados — and you came for Tequila shots and greetings from Manny.
When our grandparents came to the U.S., they entered into a long work day, which stripped them of their traditional comida, the main meal of the day, that was enjoyed in the afternoon. Often only having time for a quick sandwich or snack, they would be starving by the time they got to El Tepeyac. Manny didn’t want anyone going home hungry, so his recipes would be designed to entertain and feed guests like they were guests in his home.
Manny’s original pork burrito is a catering spread of Chicano stews wrapped in a flour tortilla, with a paradoxical tomato-based pork chile verde, which is a testament to Manny’s sense of humor. The mere idea of making chile verde, a traditional pork in green sauce, with red tomatoes is wild, but it’s so tasty. And if you’re looking for an individual burrito, the mini-Hollenbeck is perfect, while the original can feed up to four.
Other burritos, mains, and combos at El Tepeyac feature the usual selection of Mexican American stews: steak picado, chile colorado, and machaca that is more like strewed shredded beef. For customers that have been coming for decades, everyone has their favorite dishes, and of course, their go-to El Tepeyac brunch dishes. No, East LA’s most famous restaurant doesn’t serve brunch, but the after-church, Sunday rush crowd comes for hot plates of huevos rancheros camouflaged in melted cheese and salsa ranchera; chilaquiles with rice, beans, and sour cream; and Kiko’s special rancheras, which are enchiladas rancheras topped with fried eggs. With a menu as big as El Tepeyac’s, any kind of dining goal can be realized, because it’s your home away from home.
Today, Elena Rojas, Manny’s daughter, carries on his legacy one burrito at a time, feeding a community that she regards as family. El Tepeyac customers are multi-generational customers. Even if young adults move away to go to school or pursue their careers, they always come back to El Tepeyac, because Manny took care of their parents, in good times and bad times, with a side of Tequila shots, jokes, hugs, and East LA home cooking, wrapped in giant flour tortillas.
And on top of every burrito wetted with an extra ladle of pork stew or steak picado is the essence of Manny’s generosity. It’s not just to fill you up; it’s love.