According to Burrito King lore, when the walk-up restaurant at the corner of Sunset and Alvarado opened for business in 1968, it was the first burrito stand in Los Angeles. In the years that followed, founder Julian E. Montoya would build what The New York Times once described as a “burrito empire stretching from Anaheim, Calif. to Bogotá, Colombia,” and added Caché, an elegant, sit-down restaurant that attracted L.A.’s celebrity clientele.
But, by the early 1990s, Montoya’s good fortunes took a turn. Competition grew from fast-growing national burrito chains and independent local restaurants–some of them started by former Burrito King employees who struck out on their own. He passed on potentially lucrative franchising deals, got mired in a concession deal at a golf course that failed to deliver hoped-for profits, and turned down earthquake insurance just a month before the Northridge quake. Cash was going astray, allegedly being pocketed by unscrupulous workers.
”It’s like the biblical story of the pharaoh’s seven fat cows and seven skinny cows,” he told the Times. “I got all seven skinny cows.”
Burrito King mini mall at Sunset and Alvarado in all its 1974 glory, captured by Ed Ruscha. So many little burros wearing crowns! https://t.co/Pg39qOuSCw
— Esotouric's Secret Los Angeles (@esotouric) September 12, 2020
By 2003, 20 Burrito King locations had dwindled to two. The Echo Park original, and a second outpost on Hyperion in Silver Lake. Then, in 2011, the Silver Lake location flipped to become Mixto–still a walk-up Mexican food stand, but now with grass-fed beef and vegan offerings, served in compostable packaging–though a sign from the original facade remained visible in the parking area.
For the past decade, there has been just one Burrito King. The Sunset and Alvarado shop has been a landmark for generations of Angelenos–and has had its own brushes with fame. Before the Disney Concert Hall was constructed and DTLA remade, LA Phil performers would often stop by for food after performances, reportedly showing up still dressed in their formal concert attire. The stand plays a supporting role in famous images of Tom Waits, Warren Zevon (captured in a video clip below, introducing a film crew to the stand), and Gram Parsons. In Burrito King’s early days, governor-to-be Jerry Brown lived nearby and frequently stopped by for machaca burritos. Artist Ed Rusha documented the facade.
Now, it appears, it may be time for a new chapter in the Burrito King story. Montoya no longer operates the restaurant day to day, and the individual to whom the business was leased is now ready to move on as well. The stand and business are now available for $120,000 up front plus a rent of $6,000 per month, according to the Eastsider L.A. The owners are looking for someone to take over at least the two years remaining on the current lease.
There will be no requirement that the new tenant keep the Burrito King name or concept, and even if they do, the future of the historic property after the current lease ends is unclear. The plaza where Burrito King stands has been less dramatically gentrified than many of the commercial spaces that surround it–including the lavish new development located across the street and just a stone’s throw west on Sunset Boulevard, with gleaming glass and brick construction, where, in 2018, the neighborhood’s first Chipotle chose to open.
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