In a nutshell: Don’t let the gargantuan “Manuel Special” intimidate you: the Mexican fare at this neighborhood spot in Boyle Heights just might convince you to expand your waistline for a day.
Whenever I’m in the L.A. area, I always save a meal for Manuel’s Original El Tepeyac Café. The restaurant has quite the storied history, with the Rojas family opening its first restaurant–El Tupinamba Café–in downtown L.A. in 1942, then moving to Lincoln Heights under the name La Villa Café. The family at last settled in its current Boyle Heights location in 1952 and adopted its El Tepeyac moniker.
The legend behind El Tepeyac’s name goes back to an Aztec Indian tale:
[A man] named Juan Diego went to pray on a hilltop called El Monte de El Tepeyac or some say the mountain of pity and it was there where he had a vision of the Blessed Mother who became known as the Virgen de Guadalupe. As she forgave him for the sins he had committed, her image remained on his serape and as he returned to town, many people saw this image as a miracle. Many scientific tests have been done and as this remains a mystery, the story has been acknowledged by the Catholic Church by most recently naming Juan Diego a Saint for the miracle he witnessed. Salvador Rojas, Manuel’s father and founder of the restaurant, chose his restaurant to be on a hill in honor of this miracle and his devote faith to the Virgin.
Manuel Rojas started running the place with his mother Rebecca when father Salvador passed away untimely; for the next half-century, he filled the bellies of hungry masses, making the restaurant worthy of pilgrimages from across the Southland and beyond. While the world lost Manuel to throat cancer in 2013, the restaurant lives on in two locations (the original Boyle Heights joint and a City of Industry location). The popularity and long-standing nature of El Tepeyac is a testament to the team’s dedication to its craft 7 days a week, warming up the kitchen at 3 am to prepare for 6 am openings.
Should you be dining in, the waitstaff will drop off a basket of chips and salsa after you order. Shatteringly crisp, slightly oily, warm to the touch: this is the way tortilla chips are meant to be. The salsa packs heat with the chiles giving no mercy.
The restaurant is infamous for the “Original Manuel’s Special”: a hulking 5 pound burrito plump with pork, rice, beans, and guacamole and topped generously with cheddar/jack cheese and sauce. Should you conquer this feat on your own in one sitting, a t-shirt broadcasting “I ate the whole thing!” will be yours.
For the average diner, though, 5 pounds is a bit much for one meal. Some go in groups of 2-4 to down the beast. I opt for the Original Hollenbeck, a scaled-down version of the special that I believe can still feed groups of 2-4. The seared pork is simmered in a bright red tomato-based chile verde recipe, leaving tender, fragrantly spicy chunks of meat for the taking.
My other go-to is often found on Mexican breakfast menus, but I could eat this all day, any time. Sautéing shredded beef with onions, tomatoes, jalapeños, and eggs, the cook piles cheddar cheese on top of the mixture and expertly slides it all into a giant flour tortilla. Refried beans are normally included in the mixture, but I opt out to both prevent the legumes from masking the flavors and satisfy my carnivorous tendencies.
I’m always stunned when I go to a restaurant selling guacamole on the appetizers menu for upwards of $15; I’ve been spoiled with El Tepeyac’s healthy serving–read: 1/3 of the plate–of guac accompanying many of its dishes. Avocado is stirred with diced tomatoes and a dash of salt and pepper, then scooped onto a plate to join other (often fried) bites.
Taquitos are perfect for dunking and made simply: the tortilla is wrapped around shredded beef (or chicken if you prefer), toothpicked to hold its shape, and immersed into a deep fryer. The well-seasoned meat is moist, crispy on the edges where it hits the hot oil.
While similar to the taquitos, the hard shell tacos distinguish themselves with a shower of chopped lettuce and cheddar cheese piled on top. They are equally as addictive.
Seeing regulars stroll in, assume their usual spot at the back table, engage in lively banter with the waitress, and dig into honest food like your padres and abuelos made lets you know this pilgrimage is worth it.
El Tepeyac Café
812 N Evergreen Ave | 13131 Crossroads Pkwy S
Los Angeles, CA | City of Industry, CA