Whenever my teeth are reunited with the powdery, smooth chewiness of Carrillo’s fresh flour tortillas, it takes me back to my childhood visiting family in the San Fernando Valley. My parents always made sure we stopped to get at least two dozen. The plate-sized discs of doughy bombness were the only piece of home we could take back with us to our home in Bakersfield where we never found a substitute to match Carrillo’s quality.
It’s rare when you find an eatery like Carrillo’s Tortilleria & Mexican Delicatessen. It is an 818 classic that has grown to have locations in San Fernando, Canoga Park, and Simi Valley.
The most famous locale is the original in San Fernando, which has become synonymous with the Valley’s hometown hero, George Lopez. Thanks to a burrito named after him on the restaurant’s menu because he goes there so often. He’s gone as far as labeling it as his favorite in the city.
“Every Mexican living in L.A. needs a good Mexican restaurant,” Lopez said to LA Times in December 2007. “For me, it’s Carrillo’s in San Fernando. I’ve been going since I was a kid. There’s a burrito named after me, but I go for the amazing pork tamales — I just had two.”
Pacoima’s official celebrity Danny Trejo puts the tortilleria in his “top three” Mexican spots in the North Valley. “Everybody who’s anybody in San Fernando waits here for takeout. I always get the George Lopez Burrito,” Trejo told L.A. Mag in April 2012. Drummer Sal Rodriguez of the funk band WAR is known to come in at least three times a week, too.
Carrillo’s tortilla lore even reached the White House when former Vice President Al Gore came to the original location in September 2000 to try their revered tamales.
My family also sticks to this location because they swear it is the most consistent. My nana’s tamales every Christmas is 75 percent filling from my mother’s family recipe and the other 25 percent is Carrillo’s heavenly masa, which has been passed down five-generations in the Carrillo family. Combined, our two families recipes become one to form an extremely soulful, satisfying bite of food.
The Carrillo’s legacy began when Guadalupe Carrillo and her husband Emilio purchased the original location in 1943. The idea was to sell food based purely on her Sonoran heritage, things like machaca and other Northern Mexican specialties. But their handmade tortillas and tamales outshined everything and earned them a reputation. Her daughter Amelia Carrillo Luna and her husband Epigmenio — “Pime” — would later take over the restaurant in 1964 to eventually expand into their other additional locations.
Luna’s sons now split the family empire with Steven running Simi Valley. Larry runs Canoga Park, and Willie runs my family’s favorite location in San Fernando.
This eatery will stick to the food everyone knows and loves for the remainder of their bloodline.
The secret to their success may lie in their refusal to use preservatives in their tortillas and the dedication to the original recipe. Flour, lard, baking powder, and salt is all it takes. Though, they decided to add a dough softener to improve the overall texture. The only ingredient for the corn tortilla is just that: corn, plus the customary water and lime to break down the maiz.
Fifth-generation descendant of Guadalupe Carrillo and operations manager of the San Fernando location Ryan Pineda still can’t believe the loyal following: “It’s just crazy so many people have been coming here longer than I’ve been born.”
The family behind the neighborhood gem credits the customers who’ve been coming back for years. These die-hards are known to keep the dining area packed every single Sunday and take tortillas to go to keep a steady supply of tortillas at home. On really busy days, it is not unusual for the restaurant to be completely sold out by 2 p.m. People as far away as Puerto Rico and Kentucky have ordered them to be shipped overnight, says Pineda.
Simi Valley resident Jose Pascual hopped in on crutches one recent Sunday morning just to get his favorite chorizo breakfast. 72-year-old Diane Colwen of Santa Clarita Valley comes to Carrillo’s every chance she gets with her husband for almost 20 years.
“I have been going to Carrillo’s for over 25 years and everything I’ve gotten is amazing,” says Sandra Perez, a 46-year-old resident of the city. “My favorite thing to order is the burritos. I have ordered almost everything on the menu and their handmade flour tortillas are the best.”
In the kitchen, the pat-pat method that Steve Padilla described more than 25 years ago in the L.A. Times is still all you hear as two women rapidly pump out hand-shaped corn tortillas every three seconds.
Every morning, they make over 120 dozen flour and 60 dozen corn at the San Fernando location alone. After they’re cooked, they’re brought out wrapped in butcher paper by the dozen and set on a shelf by the register with warm rags set on top. Though, the pro move when you get home so they keep fresh longer is to separate them one by one, wait until each tortilla is completely cool, and then restack them in a large ziplock bag. Even then, eat them fast to avoid the moldy tortilla heartbreak.
“I love having so much pride in [fresh tortillas], Pineda says.
The restaurant plans to expand their menu within the scope of the family recipes and in descendants like the 21-year-old Pineda, since the owners intend to keep Carrillo’s always in the family.
With no plans of expanding or selling their tortillas in grocery stores, Pineda says customers can always expect one thing: This eatery will stick to the food everyone knows and loves for the remainder of their bloodline.
“We still make everything the same. The tamales, the tortillas, and everything.” Pineda finishes. “We want to be fresh and authentic. Just like how it was when it first opened.”