East Redondo’s Mexican hideaway

El Amigo #3’s odd location has hidden charms

Chano Hipolito owns the El Amigo chain, which now includes three restaurants. Photo by JP Cordero.

There are certain amenities that send a restaurant investor’s pulse racing. A view of the ocean is the most obvious, but having the closest burger joint to a high school or the closest pizzeria to a hotel are also obvious winners. Surfers, students, and tourists have varying budgets, but they all get hungry, and being the closest place with food is an obvious advantage.

The location of El Amigo #3 doesn’t look like it has this kind of advantage. It’s on 182nd Street in North Redondo, flanked by a hair salon and a medical clinic. However, just down the street is the King Harbor Brewing brewery and tap room, and scientists have found beer and tacos go very well together. Granted, everybody else knows the joys of that pairing too, but some scientist has probably gotten paid to document it. Though the brewery often has food trucks, the line for those can get intimidating, and many of their customers walk down the street to El Amigo. Some have become loyal customers, and stop in even when the brew isn’t flowing.

The rear entrance to El Amigo’s patio is more inviting than the front. Photo by Richard Foss

I stopped in at El Amigo for the first time after noticing the change from the previous restaurant, which had specialized in Mexican food that was healthy but not particularly flavorful. That was two years ago, and since then they have broadened their selection, remodeled their patio, and become one of my regular stops for Mexican food.

The menu has all the classics, plus a few items that go deeper into the cuisine, like birria, tortas, and sopes. Order at the counter and pull a soft drink or a beer from the cooler, taking care as you do to notice the handwritten note with the desserts – they aren’t on the menu. Homemade flan and Mexican rice pudding are often available. Then you have the choice of dining on the small front patio, the somewhat loud interior with kitchen noise, or the quieter and prettier back patio. You can guess which one I prefer.

Every meal starts with the requisite chips and salsa, which always give you a preview of the kitchen’s attitude. The salsa is medium thick and chunky with a little cilantro and a moderate chili kick. The chips arrive hot and crisp. Don’t eat too many, because as is often the case at Mexican places, the portions are immense. On one visit my wife and I ordered a quesadilla as a starter when we already had chosen burritos, and the manager, a friendly fellow named Edgar, dissuaded us. “That’s too much food for just the two of you,” he admonished, and that was indeed true.

Those burritos were not only immense, but generous with the protein. The big portion of tender, garlicky shrimp went quite nicely with a smoky red chile sauce that had some cumin and cinnamon modifying the heat. The green sauce on the al pastor burrito was spicier and had the tartness of tomatillo along with a mélange of spices I couldn’t identify. I’m a big fan of tomatillo sauce, and this was above average.

A garlicky shrimp burrito with a smoky red chile sauce, and an al pastor burrito with a spicy green sauce, with the tartness of tomatillo. Photo by Richard Foss

A specialty here is birria, the spicy stew that is probably from Jalisco and is usually made there with either goat or lamb. I tried this in a taco and it worked about as well as you’d expect a taco full of soup to work – it was delicious but I think a few dribbles made it all the way to my elbow. I haven’t tried it in a torta sandwich but suspect that would be only slightly neater. I asked for birria over a tostada but Edgar objected on the grounds that the hot stew would wilt the lettuce, and I bowed to his superior knowledge. Get it in a burrito and more of that tender meat in chile broth will make it into your mouth instead of your lap. I prefer goat, mutton, or lamb birria to beef because the stronger flavor of the meat complements the vinegar marinade and sauce, but this beef version is very good.

I do recommend the tortas here, which are made with the soft whole wheat cemita bread rather than the usual crusty bolillo or telera. They make tortas with all their regular meats or a Cuban-style sandwich with a combination, and the one we had with their soft, intensely porky carnitas hit the spot. There’s no reason a sandwich shouldn’t have guacamole and radishes in it, but I never think to do that at home and get reminded when I eat here.

The machaca plate at El Amigo. Photo by Richard Foss.

Of all the things I’ve tried at El Amigo #3, though, their machaca is the best. The mix of eggs scrambled with pot roast, bell peppers, and onions has a little smokiness and caramelization that gives it depth of flavor. The sides of tomato-scented rice, beans with cheese, and slightly spicy guacamole give you the materials for a succession of build-it-yourself tacos. I tend to leave a few scraps because it’s just too much food, and even then spent some time afterward feeling like a snake that had swallowed something much larger than itself.

As such I didn’t even try the flan I had ordered until the next day, but luckily flan travels well and keeps in the fridge. It’s a fine finish to a meal, even if it isn’t the meal from El Amigo.

El Amigo is the easternmost independent restaurant in Redondo, and a lot of locals don’t even know it’s here, or that this is even part of the city. It is worth the trip for very good food at modest prices, and while you’re here you might stop by the brewery down the street for a pint or two. Both are worthy destinations with their own considerable merits.

El Amigo #3 is at 4438 West 182nd Street in Redondo. Open daily except Sunday, 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. Parking lot in rear. Beer and soft drinks offered. No website. (424) 350-7059. ER

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Written by: Richard Foss

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