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Restaurants | COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: MEXICO

After 49 years, the rest is gravy

Make that 'chili gravy,' the old-fashioned enchilada sauce that made this local institution called Bill's.

October 22, 2003|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

A faded sign reads "Original Bill's Taco House." Look a little closer and you'll see why it's faded -- another sign reads "Since 1949."

Fifty-four years. That's enough to make any restaurant a landmark in this town. It's not hard to run into people who figure they've been going to Bill's Taco House for close to half a century.

Contrasting with the muted colors of the sign are vivid murals of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., along with fervent '60s-style wall manifestos about the need to embrace creative altruism and eschew the poison of destructive selfishness. Well, that fits. Bill's is on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, about a mile from its eastern end. (There's a place called Bill's Taco House No. 3 at Slauson Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard in Hyde Park -- neither restaurant seems to know anything about a No. 2 -- serving a similar menu, but it's not under the same ownership. It also seems to have a less reverent attitude about King. Above its mural of him is the slogan "One People One Nation One Taco One Destiny.")

Original Bill's Taco House is basically a taco stand that uses fried hamburger patties in nearly all its Mexican dishes and also serves hamburgers. The distinctive thing about the place is its "chili gravy," an old-fashioned red-brown enchilada sauce. Slightly hot, with a whiff of cumin along with the earthy, bricky aroma of ground chiles, it's the gravy-like sort of sauce some people remember fondly from Mexican restaurants in the '50s.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Original Bill's -- In Wednesday's Food section, a headline incorrectly stated that Original Bill's Taco House in Los Angeles has been around for 49 years. The restaurant opened 54 years ago, in 1949.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 29, 2003 Home Edition Food Part F Page 2 Features Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Original Bill's -- In last week's Food section, a headline incorrectly stated that Original Bill's Taco House in Los Angeles has been around for 49 years. The restaurant opened 54 years ago, in 1949.

If a dish includes enough of this gravy to slosh around in its paper carton, it comes with a couple of saltine crackers to soak it up, the way chili used to be served. In fact, it tastes a lot like chili-burger chili without the chunks of meat. It's thick and rich and it sticks to the ribs (or, as some might say, hits your stomach like a brick).

And it shows up in just about everything on the menu except the soft drinks; they might as well call the place Bill's House of Chili Gravy. For instance, the secret sauce on the hamburger is no secret -- it's a bit of chili gravy mingling with the mayo and mustard, which means that every burger here is a sort of chili burger.

All the burritos contain cheese and at least a little chili gravy, from the plain burrito (made with a little hamburger meat plus beans) to the taco meat burrito (one hamburger patty) to the Silva burrito (two patties rolled up in a big flour tortilla). Ordering it with gravy, which is an option you should weigh (in more senses than one), adds at least three-quarters of a cup of the sauce to the dish and 30 or 40 cents to the price.

At Bill's, an enchilada consists of a burger patty wrapped in a corn tortilla, floating in a sea of chili gravy, topped with sour cream, onions and black olives. In fact, the only dish here that doesn't use hamburger meat is the tamale, which is a surprisingly classical version (a rather short one, about 3 1/2 inches) with a filling of stewed chunks of beef seasoned with ground chiles. You can get it covered with chili gravy, of course.

The taco consists of a burger patty chopped up and mixed with lettuce, cherry tomatoes and chopped onion in a corn tortilla. It's spicier than chili gravy (though there must be some of that in this taco too), so I suspect the presence of the hot salsa -- not gravy but a real Mexican hot sauce -- that comes with the tostada (a fried corn tortilla topped with a burger patty, refried beans, lettuce, tomatoes and sour cream). By the way, if you ever want some hot salsa to vary your chili gravy, ask at the cash register when you pick up your order.

Six combo plates are available, mixing tacos, enchiladas and tamales in various combinations with beans and/or salads.

Original Bill's chili gravy has attracted an enthusiastic following, and the walls sport dozens of photos of politicians and entertainers who have been friends of Bill's over the decades. There also are shots of former owner Hank Silva in community-minded settings: for instance, in front of an educational center bearing his name. The current owner, a tiny woman named Eva Man, appears in photographs with the likes of Mayor James K. Hahn and the late Barry White.

In short, there seem to be three secrets to Bill's long life: 1. Being down with your peeps. 2. Keeping your prices low. 3. Gravy.

*

Original Bill's Taco House

Location: 219 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 233-1587.

Price: Hamburgers, $1.80 to $2.65; burritos and other Mexican dishes, $1.85 to $3.65; combination plates, $4.95.

Best dishes: Silva burrito with chili gravy, taco, beef tamale.

Details: Open 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, till 9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Closed Sunday. No alcohol. Street parking. Cash only.

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