By: Robby Lattimore
On a sleepy stretch of Fair Oaks Avenue populated by construction supply outfits and utility plants, a tiny kitchen attached to a liquor store is producing some of Pasadena’s most reliably excellent Mexican food. The venerated Yuca’s Tacos and Burritos, which the Herrera family has been been operating out of a former shoeshine booth in a Hillhurst Ave parking lot since 1976 (Wrightson), opened their new Pasadena walk-up shortly after their outpost on Hollywood Blvd closed in 2017 (Elliott). Eighty-year-old Socorro Herrera, who goes by “Mama”, opened the original Yuca’s to pay for her daughters’ education. Today, Dora and Margarita run the business while Mama greets new customers, regulars, and fans at the old hut on Hillhurst (Wrightson).
I’ve been one of those regulars for almost a decade. When I moved to L.A. at the age of nineteen, I resolved to make this place feel like home the best way I knew how—by eating. I would drive around the city, winding my way in and out of adjacent neighborhoods. I’d get lost on purpose, find somewhere good to eat, then retrace my steps back to my apartment. One morning, after finding my way to the Griffith Observatory and lingering long enough to build an appetite, I wandered down Hillhurst and came across a tiny hut with orange lettered signage. I joined the modest line of people, not yet aware how much my life was about to change for the better.
Waiting at the front of the line was Mama, perched on a black leather stool. She greeted me in Spanish. “Good morning” I replied, hastily scanning the menu, succumbing to the gravitational pull of my usual taco stand order. “One carne asada burrito, please.” She took my order and name down on a paper plate and passed it into the hut. I had just enough time to notice the Coca Cola sign in the window of the liquor store across the street before my name was called at the window. I retrieved my lunch and sat down at a wire patio table under a shady awning.
The burrito was small, held together by a thin, dusty flour tortilla. It was unlike any burrito I’d encountered back in Atlanta, where burritos are fast casual assembly line creations. As I took a bite, all of my past Mexican food experiences flashed through my memory, suddenly exposed as counterfeit by the realness I was currently living. The first thing I noticed—no rice. Of course. Without rice for moisture control, the steak, whole pinto beans, and pico de gallo melded into a delicious stew, unified by a gravy made from the juices of all three. The carne asada is salty, charred perfection—seasoned by the intangible magic of the hut’s old cast iron grill--which has seen action nearly every day for the past 40 years, never sitting idle long enough to need washing. Deep porkiness balanced the subtle sweetness of the pintos, leaving just enough room for the onion-forward pico de gallo, and the Dutch boy tortilla dam never gave way to the swelling burrito gravy I feared would overwhelm it. I was already planning my next visit.
In addition to the excellent carne asada burrito, which is still my go-to order, the Herreras offer classic Yucatecan family recipes, like cochinita pibil—slow roasted pork, seasoned with sour oranges and achiote, and wrapped in banana leaves; and carnitas—a pork confit, tenderized by a gentle bath of pork fat. Another highlight of the Yuca’s menu is the cheeseburger, which benefits from the same ancient grill magic as the carne asada. The burger comes in a few variations—with or without cheese or chili, one patty or two—all of which compare favorably to the fast food burger you’re probably thinking of right now. Like the Hollywood Blvd location before it, the Pasadena walk-up features a lightly expanded menu relative to the old hut, using the extra few-hundred square feet of kitchen space to produce dishes like fried plantains, milanesa, ceviche, and an additional meat option for their tacos, tortas and burritos—pollo. I tend to stick to the original core menu that has kept people coming back for all these years.
Unrelenting commitment to quality is what has kept Yuca’s afloat for four decades. They enjoyed consistent support from their local community long before they gained national recognition with their James Beard award in 2005, or the 2009 gold medal at LA’s most chaotic taco competition, Taco Madness (occurring in March, playing off of the NCAA’s annual springtime basketball tournament). In an interview with L.A. Taco, Mama recalls the time shortly after the Hollywood Blvd restaurant opened in 2007, when Eric Dane—a celebrity regular she knew only as “Mr. Carne Asada”—convinced Oprah Winfrey to serve Yuca’s burritos to her studio audience when he made an appearance on her talk show. The publicity was enough to keep the new restaurant profitable through the nationwide recession that was already threatening her business. But the increased notoriety her business has enjoyed over the last decade hasn’t changed their food or philosophy. “People come back 10 to 15 years later and say it tastes exactly as they remembered,” Dora told the L.A. Times in 2016. “That’s what it’s all about.”
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