The Perfect Gringo Burrito
El Coyote Cafe
7312 Beverly Blvd.
Los Angeles CA 90036
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In certain self important quarters of the foodieverse, there is an obsession with “authenticity” in ethnic cuisine. This is, to a certain extent, admirable: one would rightfully recoil to find say, mango chutney garnishing your traditional Icelandic Kjösúpa stew or as I, your humble knight, once did while traveling in a small town in the southwest of England, become inordinately excited to find not only a Mexican restaurant but one with a burrito on the menu, and order it, only to be served a crêpe filled with canned kidney beans, white rice, and catsup (I jest you not); but the label of “inauthentic” is often applied erroneously to that genre of cuisine which is both my passion and my study: traditional California Mexican food, or what some call “Gringo.” food.
It is a much maligned niche. Confronted with a standard CaliMex combination dinner plate consisting of crispy ground beef taco, a cheese enchilada, refried beans and Spanish rice, the garden variety foodie of the Chowhound ilk will wax apoplectic. “It’s not authentic” cuisine. “You would never see food like this in Mexico City.” “Americanized, homogenized!” “It is NOT Mexican food!”
I beg to differ.
It is easy to forget, in the melting pot that is California, that much of it—everything south of Mendocino County—was, until less than a hundred and fifty years ago, a part of Mexico. Especially to one knowledgable in the various regional Mexican cuisines, from the tangy and delicate pibils of the Yucatan to the moles of Oaxaca to the mild, creamy mariscos dishes of Veracruz, the failure to recognize California-style Mexican cuisine as a regional variety, that by definition created, and continues to create, its own authenticity, seems inexcusable. Gringo cuisine was, and is, a cuisine as authentic as any other: homegrown, using influences from abroad but peculiar to the area, its ingredients, and the gestalt of its time.
So: As a lodestar of the genre, unashamedly, unabashedly, I raise to the heavens, atop a standard-issue, restaurant supply off-white plate, the ground beef and bean burrito at El Coyote.
There are few more polarizing restaurants in Los Angeles, perhaps in the world, than El Coyote. Many despise it, and I understand why. Preparation and presentation can be uneven. Service, with the aging cadre of waitstaff that is one hallmark of a generations-old, family-run restaurant, can be hit and miss. And there are those canned green beans, beets, and 1000 Island Dressing that are the default topping for their tostadas and the butt of many an online snark—and also one of mi mujer’s favorite dishes. But there are also admirable and ongoing attempts at joining the 21st Century in the grammatically-challenged El Coyote menu; witness the recent addition of credible chicken and steak street tacos with accompanying salsas verde y rojo, a self-described “Authentic Chile Relleno” (never mind that it resides alongside the old-school, and by-implication inauthentic, relleno—also one of mi esposa’s favorites), and a quite delicious grilled tilapia taco.
But thankfully, ground beef has not been cast aside for these modern fripperies. For those of us of a certain age, ground beef is where Mexican food began, usually during family taco nights with a bag of Lawry’s taco seasoning topped with shredded lettuce, shredded cheese, and diced tomato. It continued with high school trips to Taco Bell. By the time I was an adult, ground beef and bean burritos had ascended from regional SoCal quirk to the ubiquitousness of the microwavables section in convenience stores and truck stops across the US. In my Southern California youth, even the families of purely Mexican descent prepared meals based on ground beef. It was the go-to protein of the 50s and 60s, and gave birth to such other items of regional California cuisine as the chili burger: a ground beef patty, with a topping of…ground beef.
The ground beef and bean burrito is the ultimate in California/Gringo comfort food. In a cuisine that has no lasagna, no moussaka, no meat loaf, no shepherd’s pie, it is where I, Don Miguel de Los Angeles no McDonalds, hies himself when he is hung over and wants layers of cheesy, carbohydrate-rich, meaty, saucy redemption.
At the heart of the burrito is a layer of surprisingly nuanced seasoned ground beef (the recipe having been re-vamped within the last year or so). A generous amount of onion lends the meat a sweetness that sets the keynote for the entire ensemble. The beans, refried, have always been one of El Coyote’s strong points. Made fresh daily from whole pinto beans and vegetable oil, they are mashed to the perfect consistency, creamy yet still retaining individual and partial beans for texture. I, personally (and who is more a person than I, Don Miguel?) add guacamole inside, because I, personally, love guacamole.
And I strongly urge you, my acolytes, to order your burrito mojado, with sauce and melted cheese on top. The sauce is the same as that used atop El Coyote’s enchiladas, and is also one of the establishment’s fortes; a red sauce tangy with ancho and arbol chiles, emulsified to a buttery perfection. And the cheese is…
Well, it’s cheddar.
But if you are a burritophile you know that it is the symphony of the burrito, rather than its individual partitas, that is paramount. And here the symphony is as satisfying as Mozart, as cozy and sleep-inducing as Brahms. It isn’t a spicy dish, but a sweet/savory one, like unto a Moroccan b’stilla, or a beef Wellington, with the tortilla taking the place of dough. The tomatoey tang of the enchilada sauce gives way gently to the tender layer of rolled tortilla, which gives way to the creamy beans, which gives way to the faint resistance of restaurant-grade ground round.
And the cheese is cheddar.
This is a burrito the size of your head if your head were slightly smaller and more oblong. And yet I, Don Miguel de los Angeles, always finish it.
Will you find this burrito in Mexico City? No. In the Yucatan? No. In Veracruz? Absolutely not. But then neither (prior to the 1940s) would you have encountered deep fried tortilla chips in Mexico; they were first mass produced in Los Angeles in the 1940s. Nor the burrito, invented in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1960saddthis_counter addthis_pill_style.
So let us celebrate our uniqueness! In the end, al final, and at the end of the day, I, your humble knight, care not a whit whether the dish is or once was prepared the same way in an ethnic capital thousands of miles away. All I ask is, is it delicious? Does it make me want to eat it all? Do I crave it? And with the El Coyote ground beef and bean burrito, the answer is yes to all of the above.
Call it Gringo if you wish; but call it the Perfect Gringo Burrito.