Of all the beats of journalism, food writers are probably the most notoriously flowery with their prose, their love of metaphors, similes and rampant exaggerations. But please believe that I’m being literal when I say the California burrito at Pepe’s is the size of a 500-page hardcover book, specifically Ramona author Helen Hunt Jackson’s other masterpiece on Native American relations, A Century of Dishonor. I put the burrito over her tome, and the burrito covered it comfortably.
This is one of the biggest non-novelty burritos in Orange County, and it’s not even on Pepe’s menu—you have to ask for it. Pepe’s is also one of the few places in lanaranja to make the California burrito: French fries stuffed inside a flour tortilla alongside carne asada, guacamole, sour cream and pico de gallo—a San Diego specialty. But all awe aside, Pepe’s California burrito works: juicy carne asada more flavorful than what you’ll find at any taquería, fries just a bit south of crunchy that offer some resistance to your teeth instead of immediately transforming into mush, buttery guacamole contributing sweetness, and sour cream that’ll coolly tickle your palate at opportune moments. Don’t bother eating it in one sitting—or even two; after about the third round, you’ll swear you’ve gotten your hands on one of those regenerating Lernaean burritos of Greek myth.
Pepe’s, of course, is a Mexican-American institution, an old San Gabriel Valley chain that now has three of its four locations within OC. It’s where you want to take the in-laws to remember the days when taco salads and taquitos were more prominent in Mexican restaurants than horchata and birria, where the menu differentiates between soft tacos and the hard-shelled kind, and questions of authenticity get tossed out the window like a bad batch of refried beans.
Though the menu is extensive, I stick with the burritos, hand-held time warps. The chile relleno version spurts with melted cheese and grease; red-chile beef and green-chile pork possess the type of saltiness that never made it into our Mexican household and thus have the same effect as MSG has, a gentle buzz you can feel to your fingertips. Pepe’s is also famous for its breakfast burritos, and what better time to reacquaint yourself with machaca, that strange cut Mexican-American dives interpret as little more than shredded beef and bell pepper? You’re fine with any burrito choice at Pepe’s, but at some point, you must take the California challenge. Food for a week!
Pepe’s Mexican Food, 821 N. Placentia Ave., Fullerton, (714) 528-9291; 655 S. Brea Blvd., Brea, (714) 257-7373; 2429 W. Ball Rd., Anaheim, (714) 952-9410.
This column appeared in print as “The California Challenge.”