The Burrito House Cafe is the latest addition to the tiny restaurant row that has formed at the juncture of First Street and Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles. To the casual passerby, it looks like a Mexican fast-food outlet sandwiched between the more serious Lyon and Hamayoshi restaurants. But that is a wrong impression. The Burrito House Cafe may be simple, but it is serious about producing superior, non-fast-food-style Mexican dishes.
The squarish black dinner plates, the massive black, Italian-made sideboard that sometimes has a white mantilla draped over it, the old chandelier purchased in England, the pots of cactus and the artwork on the walls indicate that this is not the sort of place where you eat from disposable containers on a plastic tray. Nor is it the sort of place where the burritos are filled with greasy meat or, worse, purchased frozen and reheated to order.
Typical of the style here is the Commonwealth burrito, named for Commonwealth, the next street going east. This one is filled with chicken in the most delicate green chile sauce imaginable. Cream and butter are blended in, but the effect is light, not cloying and rich. Lighter still is pollo celant, a burrito filled with chicken that has been dipped in lemon juice and combined with cilantro. This would be diet fare if it weren't for the beans and cheese inside and the big flour tortilla outside. But then, of course, it wouldn't be a burrito.
A Vegetarian Production
Light eaters can also try the halibut burrito or Tim's special, a vegetarian production that includes beans, rice, cheese, avocado and shredded lettuce, cabbage and carrots. More classic fillings include beans and cheese, chiles rellenos, green chile and machaca. What makes the burritos so good is the quality of the ingredients and the accompaniments--fresh tortillas, excellent beans, perfectly cooked Mexican rice and a salad made with an almost oil-less house dressing. The house salsa is an exceedingly hot, complex green mixture smoothed out with half and half--definitely not your everyday tomato salsa.
Aside from burritos, there are excellent taquitos, which are stuffed with ground beef mixed with finely cut potato and heaped with guacamole. The enchiladas are lightly coated with red chile sauce in traditional Mexican fashion rather than submerged in a pool of it. They have everything--sour cream, lettuce, cabbage, Jack and Cheddar cheeses--on top, and beans and rice on the side. Steak picado seems popular, but was too chewy for my taste.
The only outright failure was fish in black bean sauce, which was not the innovative Southwestern dish I expected but a sort of Chinese stir-fry, best dismissed as an aberration. The "homemade old-style tamales" were disappointingly dull and dry. And arroz con leche, the Mexican rice pudding, suffered from the grittiness of undercooked rice.
New dishes that sound worth trying are an "exotic chicken" burrito, filled with chicken in a mole-like sauce of ground nuts, peanut butter, chocolate and cinnamon, and "Indian sunset," a fried, hand-made flour tortilla topped with beef, mild New Mexico chile sauce, beans and cheese.
As much a specialty as the burritos are the fresh fruit drinks, which change from day to day. Served in heavy goblets, they include such imaginative combinations as green and dark grapes blended with papaya; pear, mango and cantaloupe blended with peach nectar, and a mixture of cantaloupe, pear, apricot, pineapple and mango. Fresh lemonade is also available.
The large delicatessen case that separates the kitchen from the handful of small tables is heaped with fruits and vegetables, a display that is pretty as well as functional.
Burrito House prices are reasonable. The burritos start at $3 for Tim's special. The Commonwealth burrito is $4.50. And pollo celant, which can also be ordered as a tostada, is $4.35. Tostadas are as low as $2.75, and the enchilada platter is $5.
Burrito House Cafe, 3358 West 1st St., Los Angeles, (213) 381-7281. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, to 7 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday. Cash and traveler's checks accepted but no credit cards. Park on street.