Have you heard about the burrito that won LA Weekly's Tacolandia event last year? It was an upset that propelled Burritos La Palma into legendary status. And that's just one of its accolades. Jonathan Gold has called its birria de res one of his five favorite burritos and Gustavo Arellano lauded it with triple honors last year as OC Weekly's Best Dish, Best Burrito and Best Food Truck.
If you didn't know any of this, you will as you walk in the door of its new place in SanTana. Laminated clippings of every review and award I just mentioned hang on a wall as if badges on a four-star general's uniform. As OC slowly discovers it, I expect that wall to grow more crowded.
During multiple visits, I saw customers from all of OC's tribes consuming burritos in this spartan room that's mostly kitchen. One day, I sat across from bespectacled hipster Asians. Next to them, a thirtysomething blond couple tended to three young kids, all chomping quesadillas oozing queso. On another day, I spotted both a quiet day laborer with soil-covered jeans and a large, tattooed-and-bearded biker dude. As the biker left, he waved goodbye to the owner, Albert Bañuelos, telling him he came all the way from Seal Beach to have a burrito—and that he intends to come back for more.
I believed him, for these burritos resemble nothing I've had anywhere else and aren't burritos as I've come to know them. They're small and slender, no bigger than a New York-style egg roll, stuffed with about a half-a-cup's worth of filling. There's no bulk from rice, guac or sour cream. The burritos here are laser-focused on two things: the tortilla and the meat. In fact, if they weren't folded into tubes, they'd be more akin to tacos. And as with tacos, ordering one isn't enough; you need a couple. I was reminded of this when I went up to the cashier. She demonstrated how big the burritos were by showing me a bottle opener that conveniently had the same dimensions.
She also pointed out a sample package of flour tortillas akin to those swadling the burritos. These are the tortillas that began Bañuelos on his path to opening Burritos La Palma. He first sold his family's secret-recipe tortillas at the farmers' market near his home in Lake Forest. Spurred by his success, he opened a brick-and-mortar in El Monte. After that came the food truck and, now, this Santa Ana store. And it's these tortillas that distinguish his burritos from all others. They are, quite frankly, the best flour tortillas I've ever tasted. With a chewiness like the doughy insides of a just-baked croissant and the delicateness of a crepe, they're never dry, never mealy. And when they're wrapped around Bañuelos' wet fillings, then slightly seared on the griddle to form a seal, they create a burrito that has no equal.
There are six different burritos in all, but the specialty of the house is birria de res, a spicy, brick-red stew traditionally made with shredded goat meat. It's a regional specialty from Jerez, Zacatecas, where Bañuelos (and our Mexican-in-chief) is from. At Burritos La Palma, Bañuelos uses beef instead of goat, simmering it until it's dripping with home-cooked sumptuousness. He also offers deshebrada, shredded beef in a green chile sauce, and a chicken tinga mixed with potato. But my favorite filling so far has been the chicharrón, slips of pork rind stewed until they attain the consistency of Jell-O. Apart from being great inside that tortilla, the chicharrón's cooking liquid is pure piggy nectar. After it leaked out and puddled in my paper basket, I drank it as if it were a spicy pork-flavored soup.
Besides a fresh serrano pepper, the only thing you need to complement the burritos here is a salsa so refreshing and bright it can be prescribed as an antidepressant. There's also an option to add beans and cheese to the birria for a burrito con todo. It's wonderful, but the best upgrade is the plato especial: beans and a salad join two birria burritos that are smothered in a homey, pork-flecked, green chile sauce that turns them into almost-enchiladas.
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Aside from quesadillas that I realized are actually just the burritos in a different form, Bañuelos makes a filling torta stuffed with thickly cut pork loin, ham, jalapeños, avocado and melted queso. But to me, Burritos La Palma will always be about that chicharrón burrito, which I can tell you now is one of my top three favorite burritos in OC. What's the other two? Well, the chicken tinga and the birria con todo, of course. With that said, is there still room on that wall for one more gushing review?
Burritos La Palma, 410 N. Bristol St., Santa Ana, (657) 266-0575; www.burritoslapalma.net. Open daily, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Burritos, $3.25-$3.85. No alcohol.