I was in our office one day when Steve excitedly rubbed his palms together and said, “Andy’s coming by. It’s burrito day.” When I asked him to explain, he said, “You don’t know about Andy’s burrito days??” I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I knew I needed to be a part of it. Andy Heger arrived a few minutes later with a box of yellow-paper wrapped bundles of joy and laid a few of them out on the coffee table in our office. He explained the contents of each burrito, his preferences and recommendations, and then we engaged in a taste test. When we’d finished, Andy packed up the remainder of the box and continued along his burrito route, spreading absolute joy from Boyle Heights to Pasadena.
I had to know more. I had to go with him. I was still so hungry.
What began as a serendipitous series of events has become a consistent mission, a thing his friends and family look forward to and depend upon. Heger works two mornings a week in what he refers to as “prime burrito hunting ground,” by county hospital. Last year when Jonathan Gold published his list of the five best burritos in Los Angeles, Heger both took it to heart and accepted it as a challenge. He tried each of Gold’s picks, and because he didn’t agree with all of them, he continued the quest to round out his own Top 5 list. But the initial burrito excursion quickly took on a new form.
When he went to pick up lunch for himself at Al and Bea’s one afternoon, he felt weird handing over a $20 bill to pay for a $3.10 burrito, so on a whim he ordered six. He figured on his way back to his Pasadena office, he’d just dole out the remaining burritos to friends and relatives along the way.
“It was a nice way to do something generous, spontaneous, and inexpensive for friends, and it gave me a nice excuse to drop in on them,” Heger says.
Now that you’re caught up on what “burrito day” entails and how it came to be, onto the meat: The List.
So what are the standards here for judging LA’s finest burrito? I nodded continuously as Heger described his burrito imperatives, and just in case you’re thinking, “Why would I listen to a financial advisor and a realtor about burrito rankings?” I’ll lay out the Top 5 List and the reasons why to earn your confidence.
1. The Tortilla
As a reformed fat kid (always fat at heart,) I won’t bother to eat a sandwich if the bread isn’t phenomenal. Conceptually, a burrito is no different. If the vehicle that delivers inarguably delicious ingredients is a dry, flavorless mess (or so soggy that the whole thing falls apart), the burrito is a failure. As Heger says, “You have almost no chance of being memorable unless your tortilla is homemade and at least near-exceptional in both flavor and mouth-feel.” This is where La Azteca Tortilleria in East LA comes in. The number one burrito is the one with winning tortilla; the chile relleno burrito from La Azteca is, as Heger says, “the Usain Bolt/Michael Phelps of burritos. It is number one with a bullet.” Whether to add carne asada to this impeccable specimen is a judgement call, and Heger goes without it about 60% of the time.
2 & 3. A Quality Guisado…or Lack Thereof.
A really excellent stewed and/or marinated meat is key to a fantastic burrito, like great cochinita pibil or al pastor, or in this case the lamb barbacoa from My Taco in Highland Park.
But sometimes the rules don’t apply. Sometimes a whole is much greater than the sum of its parts, and simplicity and elegance in execution win out. This is the case with Al and Bea’s in Boyle Heights. As Heger, his wife, and I sit around their table throwing back Al and Bea’s bean and cheese burritos, he says, “It’s embarrassing how good this is.” What he means is it’s humbling how incredibly delicious something so deceptively simple can be when it’s done so perfectly. That’s what Al and Bea’s does, and through that, they’ve earned the Number 2 spot on Heger’s Top Five List. Though respected and oft-lauded, that lamb barbacoa from My Taco comes in third behind Al and Bea’s bean and cheese with red sauce.
4. As evidence of quality often having an inverse relationship to quantity (notice Jonathan Gold’s beloved El Tepeyac is conspicuously absent from Heger’s list), we arrive at Burritos La Palma. The prize here is the burrito de birria con todo. Heger’s approach to ordering these is as follows: one if you’re on a starvation diet, two if you’re enjoying a regular adult having lunch, three or four if you are a teenage boy.
5. Prior to the day of our in-person interview/burrito trek, the number 5 spot on Heger’s list was TBD. I do believe in burrito kismet, and when I asked about the final spot and he kind of sighed and began, “I think I have to go with…” I knew what was coming. There’s no seafood anywhere else on the list, and ignoring a seafood burrito when you have five spots to fill is criminal. For all of the passion behind and loyalty toward mom-and-pop places, LA burrito aficionados have to admit the glory of Señor Fish. “Scallop burrito,” he says. “Not shrimp and scallop?” I ask. “Just scallop,” he says. “Grilled or fried?” I ask rhetorically. He tilts his head, “I go with the fried.”
When speaking to a burrito authority of this caliber—my words, not his—I can’t help but wonder about the worst burrito he’s ever consumed. “It was in Tonga,” he says, “and it’s almost too traumatic to talk about—there was celery involved.”
Andy Heger is an attorney, a financial advisor, and a well-traveled street food enthusiast. After years of traveling through/living in several different countries, Heger and his wife, Melissa, returned home to Pasadena. Any Angeleno who’s spent a significant amount of time abroad is familiar with that specific, deep-seeded yearning for good Mexican food. Heger scratches that itch on a bi-weekly basis, and the lucky recipients along his burrito delivery route are eternally grateful for that.