Though many of my Westside-centric friends believe East LA begins in Silver Lake, they are woefully wrong. They speak pro udly of venturing as far east as Echo Park, where all the hipster bars and new age restaurants are opening.
But true Los Angelinos know that East LA really begins off the 60 highway, encompassing Boyle Heights, Montebello, and Monterey Park. While authentic ethnic food abounds in these neighborhoods, few would ever venture to describe the dining scene here as anything resembling hipster. With the opening of Cook’s Tortas in spring 2008, however, things have started to change on a formerly sleepy stretch of Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park’s main drag.
Many reviews of Cook’s Tortas have noted that it is more reminiscent of Westside eateries, with its daily-changing chalkboard menu, bright mint green walls, gourmet ingredients, and upscale flavor combinations. I agree, but where I think Cook’s has succeeded the most is upgrading a classic Mexican sandwich while keeping prices down and flavors accessible to the general public. This success is apparent in the never-ending lunch lines at the restaurant, the crowd a mix of East LA College students, neighboring firefighters & police, office workers, and adventurous foodies (like myself).
Cook’s menu features over 20 rotating varieties of tortas, each one with a unique flavor profile. There are heaping entree salads and an array of sides as well. I ordered the Ranchito torta ($7.39), filled with chorizo, carne asada, nopalitos (cactus) salad, queso fresco, and guacamole, with a side of sweet potato fries. The Ranchito is not for the faint of heart. Though smoky and rich from the steak and chorizo, the intensity was balanced by the slightly acidic nopalitos and creaminess of the cheese and guac. The best part of the torta to me, however, was the bread–made fresh in-house everyday. Porous and light, but still dense and chewy enough to stand up to the fillings, it was truly a feat of engineering genius.
To wash down the torta, I ordered a melon agua fresca. Aguas frescas, a popular Mexican beverage made by infusing water with fresh fruits, grains, or flowers, are also made daily in house and are available in rotating flavors. The melon agua fresca was refreshing and not too sweet–a perfect compliment to the intense flavors of the torta.
I found the desserts at Cook’s to be a bit disappointing. Grandmother’s corn cake, topped with raspberry preserves, had a slightly goopey texture that was off-putting. And while the chocolate chip cookie was large enough to share, it wasn’t really worth the effort.
The stars at Cook’s Tortas really are the tortas. Fresh, innovative, and affordable, these tortas are definitely worth the drive and may even lure insular Westsiders further east than Echo Park.