Opening a restaurant, particularly in Southern California, is no easy task. Seeing the enterprise through the first few years is even more difficult. So when a restaurant thrives well beyond its infancy and remains a constant pleasure among its patrons, something is being done right.
Such is the case with Burrito Express in Pasadena, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary.
The last time Pasadena Weekly paid a visit was in 2008, shortly after Wil Orozco and his wife Deya had taken over as owners. Erica Wayne, PW’s longtime restaurant critic, promised readers that not much had changed in the transition, other than the addition of a few new menu items. It’s now more than a decade later and still not much is different. This might not sound like a good thing in an industry that’s always in search of the next new thing, but, as Orozco likes to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And he’s right.
Burrito Express was opened in May of 1978 by Vic Cuadra, who now lives in Italy with his wife and their family. In 1999, the Cuadras sold their restaurant to Ranulfo Roses, Orozco’s uncle, who had worked at the restaurant since the day it opened. While Orozco was familiar with Burrito Express when Cuadra owned it, he became intimately knowledgeable about it when his uncle took over the business. Even then, Roses knew that nothing on the menu should be changed, Orozco recalled. This was done, or not done, in order to ensure the happiness of their ever-growing base of loyal customers. In less than a decade, Roses wound up selling the restaurant to his nephew.
Orozco had not been in the restaurant business for some time, but was seeking a career change, so he knew it was the right move.
“The opportunity was there, and knowing it’s been around so long, I knew that something must be right with it,” Orozco said.
Roses continued to work at the restaurant for five years, which facilitated a smooth ownership transfer for Orozco, as well as the customers. He knew people can get wary of new owners, so having a familiar face introduce him to regular customers was a tremendous boost. This is also why keeping the menu the same remains important to him.
A few of the changes that were made include the addition of carne asada (in my opinion necessary), tortas, and French fries to make asada fries, which are highly requested. During the summer, they also feature shaved ice in the evenings, offering more than 20 flavors and a way for their customers to cool off while they dine on the outdoor patio.
Recently, in honor of their 40th year, they created the “Pasadena Burrito” ($7.89), which is essentially their take on a California burrito, with added beans, carne asada, cheese, guacamole, onions, cilantro, tomatoes and, of course, French fries. This dish is also highly requested by customers, and let me tell you, it was well worth the price. While it’s packed tight with so many ingredients, no single item overpowers the others. Plus, it’s not overwhelming.
Vic’s Special, named in honor of Vic Cuadra, remains a customer favorite. For an upcharge of $2.25, any burrito on the menu ($4.45-$7.89) can be ordered with spicy or mild sauce layered over melted cheese, and comes with a side salad and chips. The JVC Burrito ($5.69-$7.34), my favorite, comes with a double flour tortilla, meat of choice, rice, beans, lettuce, tomato, sour cream, guac and cheese. Their traditional dishes also remain on the menu, from tostadas and tacos to tortas and enchiladas, as well as various dinner plates that are served with rice, beans, salad and chips.
The subtle addition of potatoes over the years grew the popularity of their breakfast burritos, which are now some of their most ordered items. It’s no wonder that PW readers over the years have voted for them as Best Burrito in the paper’s Best of Pasadena contest. But beyond the food, Burrito Express is a feel-good place to enjoy a meal.
“We like to keep it a family atmosphere. Customers will wave at the cooks because they know who they are,” Orozco said.
Some of the cooks have been with Burrito Express for more than 15 years, which has a lot to do with the authenticity and family feel. Just in the short time that I was there, two customers ordered and the staff responded to them by name. Orozco said the staff not only knows the names of customers, but what they like to eat.
In a time when people don’t even want to leave their house to dine out (thanks DoorDash), this is a rare and special thing. I get giddy when a barista near my work knows my name and simple coffee order, so I can only imagine how this resonates with customers.
It’s this familiarity with the community that Orozco cites as a reason why he and his wife shop at local businesses and still sell cookies from Patticakes bakery in Altadena.
“We just love serving good food to the community,” Orozco said. “We like keeping our business in Pasadena, we like to shop local.”
Speaking of DoorDash, a food delivery service app, Orozco explained that social media has influenced their business in the 10 years that he and his wife have owned it. For one thing, social media has become one of their main methods of advertising directly to their customers. Food delivery, on the other hand, allows them an opportunity with customers they otherwise might not have been able to reach. Who in 1978 would’ve thought this would be possible? Despite operating out of a small kitchen and dining space, their ability to adapt and grow with their customers also deserves praise.
“I enjoy that people enjoy the food so much. I really like that,” said Orozco. “It wasn’t my menus, and it wasn’t my recipes, and I didn’t bring it up, but the fact that people really seem to enjoy the food so much, that makes me feel really good.”
Orozco’s passion for food, his business, the community, and most importantly his customers explains why, even over the course of ownership changes, Burrito Express has continued to thrive.