For the past two years, Southern California's most celebrated taco . . . has been a burrito. Huh? But that's the magic of Albert and Lauren Bañuelos, the husband-and-wife team behind Burritos La Palma.
They make a miraculous thing, really: just a little longer than a man's palm, it's filled with birria de res, a Zacatecan beef take on the classic goat stew. But it's on that simplicity that the Bañueloses have started a mini-empire, with a restaurant in El Monte, a food truck and a new SanTana location. The savory flour tortillas are the same that Albert's family in Jerez has sold for more than 30 years at the original Burritos La Palma; the birria de res is sumptuous and slightly spicy. One burrito won't fill you, not two or even five—they're like a box of Thin Mints.
The accolades are impressive. It won Tacolandia's Best Traditional Taco in 2015, as well as Best in Show last year. Jonathan Gold named La Palma's speciality one of his top five burritos in Southern California. Food legend Nancy Silverton is a fan, as well as legions of Instagrammers, Yelpers and tens of thousands of jerezanos in Southern California, including yours truly and all 200-plus of his cousins.
"Shocking," says Albert of their success. "It's such a niche food. I'm just humbled that people from outside Jerez enjoy us."
Lauren, a kindergarten teacher in Santa Ana by day, is more philosophical. "Our challenge is to get people to taste the burritos," she says. "After that, comes the best part . . . that second bite. When I can see someone, anyone, light up from that taste, my day is made."
Lake Forest residents for 23 years, the two represent the Reconquista at its finest. Lauren is originally from what she calls "John Hughes Land," the suburbs of Chicago; Albert was born in Baldwin Park but moved to Mexico when he was 13. "You ever hear older Mexicans say they want to move back to Mexico?" he asks with a laugh. "Well, my dad did it!"
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Albert returned to the U.S. in his 20s and helped to open Wolfgang Puck restaurants in Orange County. That's where he met Güera—what he lovingly calls Lauren. And that's where she first got a clue about the power of his heritage.
"Everywhere we went, Albert knew someone—and that person was always from Jerez," she says. "I told him, 'No way can you know all these people!' But he did!"
Albert worked in the restaurant industry while Lauren taught, and the two raised three boys together. But in 2012, Albert decided to start selling his family's tortillas at the Lake Forest farmers' market. The sales were strong enough that he opened Burritos La Palma in El Monte—"halfway point between the IE, San Fernando Valley and OC," he explains. Quick word of mouth allowed him to expand to a taco truck and now the brick-and-mortar SanTana spot, which he plans to use primarily as a tortilla factory while also selling burritos and more.
The La Palma craze is such that even other restaurants, from loncheras to high-end restaurants, have put birria de res on their menus, which Albert finds "awesome. That just means someone's thinking, 'Hey, this dish is good, and I'm going to make it with my twist,'" he says with a hearty laugh. "What's the sincerest form of flattery?"