A Farewell To El Gran Burrito, East Hollywood's Perfect Late-Night Pit-Stop
Were it not for its location next to the chic Metro station at the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, El Gran Burrito could be in Tijuana. Or Fresno. Or the middle of nowhere. It resembles the kind of ramshackle roadside stand you'd find well off the freeway, after driving for hours on an empty stomach without a rest-stop vending machine in sight.
El Gran Burrito's utilitarian architecture isn't an anomaly in Los Angeles, a land brimming with strip malls that hide gourmet delights. Whether they're drab or aggressively bright, gaudy or forgettable, these shack-like structures with signs announcing "24-Hour Comida Mexicana," "Menudo" and "Tacos al Carbon" offer up all kinds of incredible Mexican and Central American eats.
Sadly, like so many old-school joints, El Gran Burrito's days are numbered. L.A.'s housing shortage, the cost of real estate, the pandemic and long-standing plans to develop the land around Metro's subway stations have dealt El Gran a series of blows. By the end of 2020, it will officially close. When a new housing project breaks ground on the site next year, this East Hollywood street corner won't just lose El Gran, it will become a little less schlocky, a little glossier, a little taller and a lot less special.
El Gran Burrito is more than your run-of-the-mill, late-night Mexican joint. For three decades, its flimflam architecture has served as a beloved backdrop for an un-curated cross-section of the city's populace: Latino, white, gay, straight, trans, self-consciously cool, completely uncool and everything in between. For more than 15 years, that vibe along with its staggering array of condiments has kept me coming back.
I lived in Los Angeles for five years without a car. It shaped how I experienced the city and led me to El Gran. When I moved from West L.A. to Silver Lake in 2005, the #4 or #704 Metro Bus became an unreliable but necessary companion. If nobody I knew had a car or if they did but no one wanted to be the designated driver, my friends and I would take the bus along Santa Monica Boulevard to party in Hollywood or West Hollywood then catch it late at night to go home.
El Gran Burrito was a natural pit-stop on the return trip — open late, welcoming to everyone and appearing right around the time you wanted off the bus. After a quesadilla topped with whatever golden condiments I was drawn to that night — guacamole salsa, pickled carrots and grilled jalapenos was my go-to — I could walk the rest of the way home.
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I think about one of those early mornings long ago (okay, maybe it wasn't that long ago but it was before COVID) when friends and I were sitting at El Gran Burrito, eating a bleary-eyed but celebratory meal. It was 2:30 a.m. The crowd was a mix of gay rancheros spilling out of nearby nightclub Tempo, Central American trans folks, their friends and tricks, middle-age Mexican couples, a smattering of white hipsters and East L.A. gay kids returning from a night out at Circus in WeHo. The fluorescent lights weren't kind to any of us. Still, we were grateful to be there.
On this morning, the day after Cinco de Mayo, the wind was blowing hard and dry, bending palm trees and pushing paper napkins off tables. But this wasn't the moment to contemplate the cosmic and ecological implications of a Santa Ana wind in spring. I was tipsy and I had just ordered my food.
El Gran Burrito's building takes up maybe one-sixth of the lot. Most of the space is devoted to parking spots and seating, surrounded by chain-link and wrought-iron fencing with a few potted ficuses thrown in.
The line of hungry people stretched from the order window to the parking lot. One man, in a cowboy hat and tight white jeans, stood eating at the long, narrow shelves on the north wall while most patrons congregated at the plastic picnic tables. After dousing my quesadilla in toasty red salsa and smoke-your-tongue-off pickled jalapenos and carrots, I sat down with my friends.
Everyone around us was doing the same thing. After a night of drinking, dancing, flirting and cruising, carbs and cheese never tasted so good. Whether your trip home was sending you East or West, El Gran Burrito was the perfect comfort-food refuge.
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As my friends and I stood up to leave, one of them mentioned El Gran's days were numbered. L.A. County's Metropolitan Transportation Authority had begun developing the land on and around Red Line stations, throwing up those generic, modern, high-density apartment buildings with retail spaces on the ground floor. The idea was to boost ridership, tackle the dire shortage of housing and generate economic opportunity.
To Angelenos, the landscape around the Santa Monica-Vermont station is a familiar mix of urban and suburban elements: overstuffed strip malls, half-empty parking lots, gas stations, towering power lines, roaring traffic, booming swap meets, underperforming chain retail stores and intersections that don't give you enough time to walk across six lanes of traffic. It's not pretty or pedestrian-friendly but it's quintessentially Los Angeles.
As a landscape and urban designer, I'm supposed to think that the best buildings and public spaces are born from grand visions that are framed by clean lines and filled with exquisite details. Design it beautifully, and the people will come — or so the maxim goes. El Gran Burrito and its surrounding landscape represent everything I'm supposed to abhor and the general population is supposed to dislike. Aesthetics and practicality both demand an end to El Gran Burrito. But what's so great about clean lines, anyway?
I despise clutter. I love a spare, cozy apartment. I cringe at anything with squiggles or faux-Italian flair. Yet I'm not convinced that replacing these design elements with flat, monochrome stucco facades and sleek steel casement windows is a net improvement for the city, its culture or its public spaces. And what happens when those aesthetics get bastardized by every apartment building, strip mall and fast casual franchise? You get a sameness in scale and look that makes cities almost indistinguishable from each other.
The innumerable quirky, shacky spaces tucked into hillsides and between larger buildings that once made L.A. an intriguing hodgepodge of country-roadside-stand and megacity are disappearing, along with a sense of possibility and openness in the urban landscape. For me, spaces like El Gran Burrito — or Tiki Ti or Carnitas Michoacan or innumerable others — spark creativity and imagination. Their replacements offer a sense of familiarity and finality.
When I heard that the end was officially nigh for El Gran Burrito, I didn't cheer as I dreamed of a less cluttered, more pristine East Hollywood. I scrolled through a mental mishmash of its condiment cart, its collection of customers, its expansive menu and the unprecious architecture that housed so much life and good cheer. If given the choice between the clean lines of Grand Avenue's growing list of acropolises to high culture and the scruffy realness of a place like El Gran Burrito, I'd pick the latter. I can't think of anywhere else you can go in the wee hours of Sunday morning that'll feel as animated or will unite such a kooky cross-section of people for something as simple as no-frills Mexican food.
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