Some of L.A.’s Best Burritos Are Served Inside a Gas Station
It is a satirized fact that some of L.A.’s most critically praised cuisine is found in strip malls: Ludo Lefebvre’s Trois Mec, the late Tui Sungkamee’s Jitlada and Kwang Uh and Matthew Kim’s Baroo. The humble food truck also should not be overlooked: Celeb chef Roy Choi got his start with Kogi BBQ truck, and in 2010 was the first food truck chef ever to be named as a Food & Wine Best New Chef. Wes Avila’s Guerilla Tacos also competes with the best of the brick and mortars.
It should come as zero surprise, then, that some of the city’s best burritos can be found inside a Chevron gas station, at Cilantro Mexican Grill. (And the ever-present lines there back up our statement.)
In North Hollywood, chef Adolfo Perez has quietly been cooking tacos, tortas and Mission-style burritos for over five years. There, his carne asada is charbroiled with mesquite logs. Serrano peppers are roasted to black and puréed into a pepita pesto, ready to be slathered on all permutations of masa. The habanero version sports onion and cilantro and pepitas, all puréed. The guajillo chile might be the most compelling of them all, though: Smoky with the red pepper, it’s sautéed with shrimp and then paired with cool, creamy avocado.
As a Cordon Bleu alum, Perez cheffed behind the stoves of The Cheesecake Factory and burger restaurants before opening his own place. “I had to follow recipes; there was a chain of command,” he tells Food & Wine. “Though this is a small space, I felt like I could do whatever I wanted to do, and express myself.”
At first, he came to the gas station as a consultant of sorts, never entertaining the idea of opening up a concept here. “My intentions were not to stay here, but it so happened that the bosses gave me total freedom,” he says “The spot was designed to sell hot dogs and pre-made sandwiches, but it was such a nice spot, I said to the owner: We can do better than that.”
And so they did. The customer-facing kitchen is roomier than you’d expect: think of the Subways you might see at truck stop gas stations. There’s room then, for a team of five to churn out roasted pepper pestos and fresh carne asada rubbed with a housemade spice blend—several times a day.
Cilantro Mexican Grill is probably most well known for their burritos which, unlike some larger Mission-style versions where you can end up with a mouthful of rice—we’re not naming names—there’s a more-even distribution of ingredients. The key here is that every tortilla is swiped and slathered with avocado, for example, instead of having a gloop of guacamole in one corner.
“The whole idea is, when you eat the burrito, you get to taste every single ingredient you requested in every single bite,” Perez says. And they’re manageable enough in size where that’s actually possible.
Practicalities aside, Perez has managed to differentiate his fare not just from other gas station fare. Given the low bar of their cellophane-wrapped products, that would be easy. Rather, he’s put his restaurant—and it is, in its own right, a restaurant—in a category to compete with any other Mexican spot in the city. And given that this is L.A., that’s saying a lot.