Adding that personal touch

By Joe Torok

Owner Ofilia Diaz takes a hands-on approach at El Burrito

Like an old log cabin in the forest, El Burrito is nestled cozily among grocery stores, emporiums, and fix-it shops along a stretch of Cedar Street in south Lansing.

Housed in a small building where Chinese food was once dished up, El Burrito is under new management after switching over to Mexican cuisine.

Owner Ofilia Diaz took over the taqueria in early October, stepping in on a Tuesday after the previous owner called it quits on the preceding Sunday. Diaz came armed with cookies and cakes, adding sweets to an authentic menu specializing in tacos and burritos.

Diaz has operated a few enterprises over the past 20 years — a still-thriving wedding and all-occasion cake business and delis around town — while holding down another full-time hospital job. She says shes happy to be cooking again.

"Except for the tortillas, everythings homemade," Diaz says. Pinto beans are bought dry, brought to a boil, simmered for four hours, and smashed. The only added ingredients are salt and pepper; she used to add bacon grease, or cook the beans with a chunk of salt pork, but thats a no-no for folks who want their legumes without animal fat.

Diaz cooks and seasons her own rice, too. She concocts salsa and guacamole from chilies, avocados and vegetables; fries her own tortilla chips; assembles tamales by hand; makes her own mole; bakes cookies and cakes from scratch. Get the idea?

All this without being, as she says, a real Mexican. A proud third-generation Mexican- American, Diaz has had to brush up on the cooking end of Mexican cuisine (she mastered the baking 30 years ago).

A brother-in-law from Mexico is an oft-tapped brain. Shes called local Latin American grocers for ideas. Shes consulted a friend about a marinade for pork — not how to make it, just the ingredients, she insists — and, alchemistlike, Diaz produced the taste she desired.

Shes even consulted the Internet on occasion.

"I just called Mexicans I knew, friends and family, and figured it out," Diaz says.

But shes a curious cook by nature. Having taken over from the previous ownership so quickly, Diaz says she tasted a bit of left-behind enchilada sauce while preparing an order for a regular. It didn’t look right to her — and was bland to boot — so Diaz donned her
colorful cupcake-print chefs hat and started mixing chicken broth,
chilies and spices until she found the right combination.

regular told her the new sauce was even better than the old one, and
Diaz, tongue planted firmly in cheek, credits her heritage with the
ability to cater to American tastes.

"I think its because Im not a real Mexican," she says, while laughing, about the positive reception to her new sauce.

style tacos — with meat, cilantro and onion, as opposed to ground beef,
cheese, lettuce and tomato — go for $1.59 and are double stuffed. The
choice of meats includes what youd find at latitudes lower than 31
degrees north: carne asada (roast beef), chorizo (sausage), carne molida
(ground beef), carnitas (fried pork), lengua (beef tongue), tripa (beef
tripe), cabeza de res (beef head), pollo (chicken) and carne al pastor
(marinated pork).

Burrito is open early with fat breakfast burritos ($3.50) for early
risers. The menu is still being finalized, but Diaz says if shes got it
on hand, she can probably cook up whatever a hungry customer wants.

plates ($5.99) include burrito, taco, tamale, enchilada and other
entres that come with rice and beans. Dinners, like the carne asada
($9.95), come with fixings, in this case lettuce, tomato, pico de gallo,
guacamole, beans, rice and tortillas.

(75 cents each), Mexicanstyle shortbread cookies, crumble with each
bite and quickly melt away. Pan dulce (sweet bread), tres leches
(three-milk) and other cakes may be available, too, depending on the

Holding down
two nearly full-time jobs can be tiring. While Diaz loves cooking and
baking, the hospital is her security blanket, a way of not ending up
lost in the woods. The opportunity to begin fresh in south Lansing,
though, has been revitalizing.

"The last time I closed up, I thought I was done," Diaz says. "Its always been my passion, I just can’t give it up."

El Burrito

5920 S. Cedar St., Lansing 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday- Friday; 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday (517) 272-1665 TO, $$