You know Yuca’s. We all know Yuca’s. But in the unlikely event that you do not know Yuca’s: Yuca’s is that tiny hut you see in the parking lot on the north end of Hillhurst Avenue, the brown building with a blue tarp and a smattering of tables and chairs and very often a line that stretches across the lot to the edge of Hilhurst Liquor. Socorro Herrera — better known as Mama to most — is usually perched on a stool at the hut’s window, writing down orders on paper plates or paper bags, depending. What is everyone ordering? Cochinita pibil tacos and bean and cheese burritos. Cheeseburgers with the nicest of chars. Tamales, if it’s Saturday.
Yuca’s has been around since 1976; a second location, also in Los Feliz, opened in 2007 (tamales are served there, too, on Wednesdays and Saturdays). Over the last 39 years, Yuca’s has garnered countless fans, plus a James Beard Award in 2005, in the “America’s Classics” category, and it was also 2009’s Taco Madness winner.
We sat down with Herrera and her daughter Dora to talk about the beginnings of Yuca’s, Ruth Reichl’s love for their bean and cheese burritos and secret menu items. (Note: Mama spoke in English and Spanish; when necessary, Dora translated for her mother.)
Did the James Beard Award change anything for you?
Dora: We started to know who was coming. Apparently, famous chefs had been coming in. We ran into people in New York [during the awards ceremony], and they’d say, “Mama!” And we’d recognized them from what they order. Somebody behind us would say, “Did you know that’s so-and-so from such-and-such restaurant?” And we’re like, Nope. We just know it’s Don and he comes in and gets a burrito. So that aspect was kind of cool to find out — that chefs who were renown were coming in.
And of course, it gave us a little ego boost. And we started being called Chefs. Chef Mama and Chef Dora. But we didn’t want that, because we’re not chefs. We’re very good cooks.
How do you define a chef?
Dora: For both of us, a chef who is someone who has gone through the education process of going to school, learning the different techniques. They can compete in Top Chef or Chopped, or whatever. That would be, to us, a chef. And then there are home chefs who can compete in competitions, too. But my mom just learned from her grandmother and mother.
When you read the internet too much, you find all these heated conversations about who gets to call herself a chef.
Dora: Yeah, and we don’t need to have that, because we have a James Beard Award. That’s our kudo. To us, it’s a vindication of what we’ve been doing, and what people have been saying about us. To have a professional peer group agree with that is just great for us.
Next year is the original location’s 40th anniversary.
Dora: Yeah. We’re going to have to start planning.
How was business when you first started?
Mama: It was funny. We did everything in a haphazard way. As years went by, we found more efficient ways to do things. At first, it was just figuring out how we were going to mass produce small recipes.
Because before then, you were cooking at home?
Mama: Yes, I was cooking for family and friends.
Dora: In fact, that was one of the worst things, for us. When she got the restaurant going, we stopped getting food at home.
Was it always your dream to open a restaurant?
Mama: Yes. All my friends told me that I cook very well and that my food was delicious. I thought it would be easy to do this.
Dora: In fact, when she opened, she was going to be cashier, cook, cleaner, everything. Within a very short time, she realized she was going to need help.
Mama: My husband helped me.
How did you end up with the first Los Feliz location?
Dora: My sister was working, and one of her co-workers knew that my mom was dreaming about a place for her own, and she knew of a place for sale. My mom came and saw it. It was ugly and dirty and not very well kept.
She said it was perfect.
Was it a food stand before? Or did you install the kitchen back there?
Mama: It was originally a shoeshine stand.
Dora: It was originally a shoeshine stand built in 1970. Then they built a building around it and it was a burger joint called “My Aunt from Cincinnati”.
Mama: My Aunt from Cincinnati did ribs and burgers.
Dora: I don’t know how many people had it after that, but the guy who sold it to us did falafels.
Has the menu at the original location pretty much stayed the same over the last 40 years?
Dora: Originally, she had a little French fry machine. But when it broke, she got rid of it because it was frustrating. They could order 100 burritos, and she could make those really fast, but then the French fries took forever. So there was a hurry-up-and-wait feeling.
Mama: When I started, I didn’t sell burritos.
Not at all?
Mama: Originally, I sold burgers, hot dogs and steak sandwiches. And the falafel and French fries. I kept selling the falafels for two months.
Dora: There were three guys who used to come and complain about everything, but they loved the falafel. I said, “Maybe you should stop selling falafel.” So we did and that was it.
How did you eventually switch over from selling steak sandwiches to tacos and burritos?
Mama: The first thing I started to do was the taco. It was easier to make burritos and tacos than steak sandwiches. So I thought, I’ll just do that. Cochinita pibil, then carnitas and carne asada.
For the bean and cheese burrito, I use American cheese.
Dora: When I got there, I said, “Bean and American cheese, seriously?” But I tried one, and thought, Hey this is good!
Initially, she mashed the beans like everybody else. Then one day she decided she had enough, because it was annoying and time consuming. Soon after that, Ruth Reichl wrote about the fabulous Yuca’s beans and how they explode in your mouth individually. I told my mom, “Only you could get kudos for being lazy.”
When Ruth moved to New York [to become The New York Times’s restaurant critic], we thought she’d never write about us again, but she did. And then when she moved to Gourmet, I thought seriously, never again. But a couple years back, she was in town and wrote a blog post about us. So, thank you, Ruth, for loving us.
And so you’ve always had the burgers on the menu.
Mama: Yes. I have customers that order only the burgers. Double cheese, sometimes just plain.
Dora: We knew we had great burgers when the kids would pick us instead of McDonald’s to have their birthday party. Because they said we had the best burgers.
My first semester at Brown is when she got the restaurant. When I came in, I had the cheeseburger. When I started being there regularly, people looked at me having lunch and they’d say, “Why are you having a cheeseburger?” And I’d say, “Because they’re good!” And so they’d order a cheeseburger. My eating habits apparently influenced a lot of people.
Initially, there were a lot of older customers who came in and wanted crunchy tacos. We had to explain to them that this was Mexican food, and it didn’t include crunchy tacos.
The cochinita pibil is legendary. Is that something you learned from your grandmother?
Dora: We still get the spice from the Yucatan. We tried to source it locally, but it just wasn’t working. It’s a great excuse to visit the family. When we’re running out of achiote, it’s time for a trip.
Do you source anything else from the Yucatan?
Dora: Initially, we had to bring other stuff, but now everything is pretty much available. My sister and I actually used to go out at 10 at night and look for banana leaves. Now you can get it at the supermarket. It’s still nicer to get them off the banana tree, though, because they’re fresh.
Mama: And more flavorful.
Dora: Yeah, once they’re cut and frozen, it just loses the flavor.
When you started serving tacos and burritos, were you concerned at all? That people wouldn’t like it or not take to it?
Mama: No. I was sure people would like the food.
Dora: Initially, there were a lot of older customers who came in and wanted crunchy tacos. We had to explain to them that this was Mexican food, and it didn’t include crunchy tacos. And they said, “What do you mean? But I get it at Taco Bell.” And we had to explain that that wasn’t Mexican food. So, there was a little educating.
Tell me about the second location. You opened it back in 2007?
Dora: Mexican Mother’s Day, 2007. Partly because we were facing the possibility of getting kicked out of there [the first location]. So we thought, a mile is doable; people will come. Once we got this place, suddenly those threads of possibility disappeared. Now we have two, both in Los Feliz.
Is there anything on the menu here that people don’t generally order, but you wished they would try?
Dora: For breakfast, the huevos motuleños. It’s like a souped up ranchero, a Yucatan version of huevos rancheros. It’s delicious. When people try it, that’s the only thing they order for breakfast.
I invented nuevo relleno without eggs, because we have a lot of vegans here. That turned out to be a favorite and one of our biggest catering items. It’s stuffed with portabellos and cheese and grilled onions and grilled tomato. And it doesn’t have the egg wrap, but still has the tomato sauce on top.
We also have a secret menu. Like Mama’s Burgers, where we add beans to the burger. The Esprechata, which is horchata with a shot of espresso. Part of the fun is being flexible. We have customers who have complicated orders, so now we have a Richard button, a Hunter button.
You mean some of your customers have their own buttons on your POS?
Dora: Yeah, and they love it.
Do you have plans for the future?
Mama: My future could be a week or 20 years, so I’m not making any plans.
Dora: We’re looking into more locations. Even here, or New York. I’ve been getting a lot of requests from people in New York. My dream is to end up in Paris or London. I just got accepted to the Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative program. We’re learning how to scale.
Was it hard to scale from one location to two?
Dora: Oh, it was a nightmare. Over [at the first location], you open, everybody comes in, everybody works, we close and everybody goes home. Here, we have shifts.
Your hours are longer here.
Dora: Yeah. And then the economy tanked, so it was twice as tough. We opened on May 10, but on May 7, Oprah put us on her show. The guy from Grey’s Anatomy — Mama calls him Mr. Carne Asada — Eric Dane was a surprise guest. It was his idea. He told Oprah, “You know pizza, you know burgers, but you don’t know burritos.” And so they did this whole thing on it, and he came out with a whole tray of our burritos.
How did that work, logistically? Did you ship all the burritos to Chicago?
Dora: Well, I offered to fly out and make them fresh. They said it was not going to work. They had me ship one burrito to see if it would work. We froze it and shipped it, and they said it was fine. So we ended up shipping them.
Mama: Someone did it before. This guy wanted to send burritos to his kid. It cost him $60 to ship burritos in dry ice, and he only shipped four or five burritos. I always tell the foreigners who come in and say, “Oh, I wish I had a burrito in Paris” to call me, I deliver. (Laughs)
Was there any time in the last 39 years that you thought you weren’t going to make it?
Dora: 2007. But then, the entire United States was not going to make it. My mom has a fabulous attitude. I thought, “Oh my god, we just invested all this money,” and she said, “Don’t worry. Just keep doing what you’re doing, and it’ll work out in the end.” And sure enough, it did. I’m still learning from her. Which is fabulous.
Yuca’s, 2056 Hillhurst Ave. and 4666 Hollywood Blvd. in Los Feliz, http://www.yucasla.com/
The tacos at Yuca’s are well priced, and can be a great bargain. Looking for a good coupon bargain site online? Try Frugaa.