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In a town filthy with taco joints, hearing that a 30-year-old taqueria is shuttering soon shouldn’t bum you out, but such is life in 2020.
Also known to patrons as Midnight Tacos or The Gay Burrito, the eclectic spot on the southwest corner of Vermont Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard was just as satisfying to the eyes as it was to the mouth.
The epitome of diversity, at any time of day or night, the 24-hour taqueria hosted a parade of every type of Angeleno, tourist and space alien.
As a fan for 20 years, and as a bachelor for that entirety, I appreciated that the food at El Gran Burrito was reasonably priced and was served in generous portions. Rarely did it make it on one of those fancy lists declaring the best tacos in L.A. because that’s not what they were going for. El Gran Burrito offered the real deal at all hours, and best of all: plenty of parking.
They had so much parking space that they were able to rent some out to tour bus companies and moving services and still had plenty of space left for customers.
That was another quirk — constant change. This spot usually had three places to order food from: inside on the east dining room, outside on the west portion, and sometimes they had a grill cooking up some of the best chicken that would steal some Zankou customers away. Myself included.
Rarely was there ever any rhyme or reason as to why one section would be open while another one was closed.
You also never knew what you’d find going on inside. Sometimes there was a TV. Sometimes two. Then none. And may the Lord help you if you wanted to watch anything other than soccer. Lakers in Game 7? Soccer. The first Black president being inaugurated? Soccer. Super Bowl? Well, yes. But then at halftime, someone would turn it to soccer, and it would never return.
For a while, they had some pretty cool arcade games outside. But they’d be gone the next time you showed up. And all the furniture would have been moved around by the chicken guy.
Were they selling these things? Did drunks come in and say, “YES, I WILL BUY THAT WEIRD GUMBALL MACHINE FROM YOU — AND THE KARAOKE MACHINE!”
That seedy corner was a show all in itself. How did El Gran Burrito survive there for 30 years?
Every shade of drunk stumbled through its many doors. How did it last so long without even one security guard?
The staff was fine, and the owner was always busy, running around with a coat and hat on, like a long lost Marx Brother whose suit jacket was just a little too big on him.
But he was always moving.
Selling a jukebox to a drug addict, I guess.
Probably at a great price.
The restaurant will be replaced by a much needed 187-unit apartment complex for low-income households.
The new building complex will feature retail space on the ground floor, and I can’t help but wish that the nonprofit developer and Metro would rent out some of that space to the El Gran Burrito family. It would make sense, but these things never happen.
When WeWork sprang up on Vine Street and replaced Molly’s Burgers, a stand that had been around since 1929, they could have figured something out to include it in the redesign, but that would have required the company desiring to be anything more than another forgettable office building. Didn’t happen.
It won’t happen for this magical place either, which I guess we’ll have to live with.
At least the restaurant’s quirkiness is captured beautifully by Sean Baker in a few key scenes from his shot-on-an-iPhone feature film, “Tangerine,” about a trans woman who gets released from jail and quickly starts wreaking havoc on Santa Monica Boulevard, from Highland to Vermont avenues. Naturally, she makes a literal scene in El Gran Burrito’s rarely used middle seating section.
Something owners Pedro Davila and his wife Guadalupe need to manufacture in large quantities and sell before they serve their last taco is a sign I have only seen at their restaurant.
It brings a smile to everyone I’ve ever shown it to, as it hints at a dark past or rash of dramatic instances.
NO DRUG DEALERS
Now that I think of it, I never saw any of those things on my many visits to the joint.
But it has made me wonder, what if a drug dealer has clocked out for the night and wants the half chicken combo. Will he be denied the special that comes with salsa, rice and black beans and several freshly made tortillas?
Is being a drug dealer the same as being a vice president or a marine? Once you’ve held the title, is that who you always are?
Regardless, how has that sign not become a T-shirt?
And how has the adorable, hand-painted sign of the burro welcoming customers in the parking lot not been reproduced in some sort of special way?
It, too, raises endless questions. Did a child paint it? A master? Was it painted by an employee? A loving patron?
Before the plague struck, El Gran Burrito, conveniently located a very short walk from the Metro Red Line City College Station — and feet away from the cleanest bathrooms in L.A. — had never closed. So, of course, the fun had to end: It was too perfect.
It was the ideal blend of shady, gritty, authentic, ridiculous, fun and funny. And the salsa was just right.
The mood was usually chaotic — but never intense.
And the employees were always friendly, especially this one guy who I will miss whose English was as bad as my Spanish but who enjoyed fist-bumping his regulars and making sure we got the best chicken out of the dozens that were warming over the coals.
May we all be so lucky to find another spot like this again.