By Katy Coley, Associate Editor
A neon “open” sign lights up the unassuming storefront, located between an auto shop and a drugstore. In the midst of the steady stream of cars zooming along Roosevelt Road, Los Burritos Tapatios would be easy to miss, but for many Wheaton students, there is much more to be enjoyed at the restaurant than the “Tacos Tortillas Burritos” advertised in black-block letters above the door.
As soon as I stepped across the threshold, the smell of the steak and chorizo sizzling behind the service counter washed over me. It’s a small space with the wooden tables assembled in the front, but at 10 p.m. on a Thursday, there wasn’t much of a crowd. Tucked behind a heap of peppermints was a to-go cup stuffed with dollar bills. Glass bottles of Jarritos in every color lined the counter, directing my attention to the mountain of chip baskets under a heat lamp on the end. It was clear staff would be expecting many more customers before closing time at 2 a.m.
After I ordered, I found an open booth and a waitress brought a basket of chips to the table with fresh salsa and three specialty sauces — spicy red sauce, avocado salsa and salsa verde. The tortilla chips were crispy and warm. The salsa was fresh; at first glance, the identifiable cilantro sprigs, diced tomatoes and onion suggested a relatively mild flavor, but their house blend provoked a spicy kick after a few bites. The rhythmic brass, cowbell and bongo melodies rang out from a Spanish radio station overhead and mingled with the clang of the cook’s utensils on the stovetop. Before long, a waitress approached, “171?” and set a burrito, filled with steak, rice, cheese, lettuce and slices of tomato, in front of me. I enthusiastically set to work on my meal.
Like many Wheaton students, I am a regular at Los. This Chicago-based chain, founded in September of 1998, has become Wheaton College students’ unofficial after-hours haunt.
“Oh gosh, I feel like I’ve probably been [to Los] at least 50 times,” sophomore Micaela Van Meter laughed. We sat at a Sam’s counter on a Thursday afternoon and you could feel the productivity of the week grinding to a halt in early anticipation of the weekend. Van Meter, however, bubbled with energy. Having grown up in Wheaton, Van Meter explained there’s more to the average Los run than the food. “I think it’s fun to sit there, and lots of people are around. It’s always a place I’ve loved and I have lots of memories there.”
Los is open late, even until 3 a.m. on weekends. When asked what he thought initially made Los stand out to Wheaton students, senior Josh Kim explained, “You can’t get food that quality at that time of night.” Typically, Wheaton students tend to go late at night. Kim admitted, “The earliest I’ve been there on a Sunday afternoon is 1 p.m. and the latest I’ve been is 1:30 a.m., but I know people who’ve been there until closing time.”
Los offers a pretty wide menu from the advertised “best burritos in Chicago” to multiple kinds of soup. Kim explained the process that goes into his order. “Nine times out of 10 it’s a steak burrito with cilantro and onion and then they usually ask ‘With everything?’ and I say ‘With everything.’ But if I don’t get that, it’s usually a half steak half el pastor burrito with cilantro and onion … it depends what I’m feeling that day.”
A Los run is a frequent thing for Kim. “Saying it’s a lifestyle is maybe extreme, but it’s close,” he laughed. When I asked him to put a number on how many times he’s been, he sighed, shaking his head under a black Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap and clicked a pen thoughtfully. “Dang. This year I would say I’ve been there close to 15 times. It’s a lot. I would say sophomore year I went close to 80 or 100 times.”
Kim said his sophomore year was formative for his Los obsession. “Sophomore year, me and my roommate, on average, were at Los two to five times a week,” he said. “One of the ladies actually knows us because whenever we go, just between me and my roommate, we use around five salsas. We put the red sauce and the avocado green sauce on every bite. Normally when you order chips the waitress will bring you the chips and a salsa, but when she sees us, she usually brings three because she knows.” Kim sighed dramatically, “[Even] the water is really good. The water is just different, it’s extra refreshing.”
While most Wheaties have heard of Los, Kim said that depending on where students live, they may be introduced to the restaurant more quickly than others. “The chances of you getting hooked on Los are higher if you’re in Traber,” he said. Junior Jack Barth, a former resident of Traber Hall’s second floor (T2), confirmed Kim’s theory. “The first time I went was probably the day I moved in to T2,” he said. “We had a really good group of sophomores my freshman year, they were all really into the culture and they all had cars. So we probably had a group of 15 people go on the very first night.” Barth spoke with an easy confidence as he leaned back. “I’ve heard it said that the first time you go you think it’s kind of alright, but then you start going regularly and you’re hooked.”
Current T2 RA, junior Caeden Hood, further explained, “[T2] is kind of known as the ‘Los Floor.’ We’re keeping that reputation up this year: we’re trying to go every week or so.” I asked Hood how someone knows when they need to go to Los, and he laughed. “I think it depends. As you eat Los, maybe at first you don’t know [when you need to go on a Los run]. But once you have it, it just completely changes you. It’s just this crazy experience where eventually your body needs it. So if you ever come around and you kinda feel yourself being angsty and everyone’s just kinda bugging you, then you know that you need to go to Los. Especially if it’s in the 11 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. range.”
Even for T2-ers however, there’s more than food to a Los run. While Hood praised the steak nachos and horchata, he noted the spontaneity that can accompany a Los run. “Sometimes we’ll just be blasting music and then the train will come. We’ll have to stop so we’ll park the car and all get out and have a dance party.” He said, “We’re just going to Los, and we’re just chilling, having community and having burritos. It’s good.”
In senior Josh Franker’s experience, T2- ers, among other Wheaton students, don’t stop visiting Los as they move beyond floor life. “I went to Los last night,” Franker said. “Actually someone who graduated last year, a T2 alumni, came back and he was like, ‘We have to go to Los,’ so me and four other T2-ers went to Los.” Los is where many friendships have developed and memories forged. Franker told the Record that students often dare each other to complete different Los challenges. Sheepishly, he admitted, “I’ve done one of the week-long challenges. I made it about four days in before being completely sick for the next day and a half.”
Franker also noted the changes in his own Los experience over the years. “Freshman year my Los order was different: more penny pinching. I always went with a quesadilla — pretty cheap. Most people love the burrito. I don’t know why, but I didn’t. Sophomore year I didn’t go quite as much, but when I did, I thought, ‘Let’s make an event of it and get the chimichanga.’” No matter the order, Franker conjectured, “I think it’s a place that always tastes better when there’s more people.”
Indeed, people with all sorts of dietary needs and preferences have found a place at Los’ tables. “The first time I went was at two o’clock during the day, with a professor,” senior Michaela Sandeno said. Since she follows a particular diet due to allergies and Celiac disease, Sandeno explained she’s come to love what Los offers. “Los is one of my favorite places to eat around here because their rice is really good, they give you a good amount of food for how much you pay and I’ve never gotten sick,” she said. “People sometimes say they don’t feel good after eating at Los, but I’ve never experienced that, and I’ve never experienced any symptoms I would normally get from [an allergic reaction]. Everything they make, I can eat but their rice is my favorite thing — I would order a whole bucket of rice and just eat it. It’s SO good.”
Junior Diego Hernandez wasn’t as quickly persuaded, however. Hernandez explained, “I’m from San Antonio and burritos aren’t that much of a thing; it’s more breakfast tacos, which is more specific to South Texas.” He elaborated, “Normally when I get burritos, we don’t like sour cream and all the stuff put into it, so when I first had it, I just could not stand it. We don’t like black beans, we use pinto beans. I mean, Los had both, so I just had to figure out what the feel was before I decided what I needed to order next time.”
For Hernandez, a restaurant’s enchiladas are the make-or-break indicator of high quality food. He looked at me from under an orange Texas Longhorns baseball cap and paused before he said, “It wasn’t too bad.” While Los isn’t his destination for homestyle Tex-Mex, Hernandez explained Los fills a different need. “There’s just something about going to Los where you feel like you can hang out there and talk with friends, and even meet new people,” he said. “When you go to Los, you’re going to run into other people from Wheaton whether you go with them or not.” Whether it’s for the food or friendships, Wheaton students seem to keep going back.
Los aficionados seldom plan their Los outings ahead of time, but despite the spontaneity, Los trips foster a sense of being and belonging. “Every time you go, no matter what happens, no matter how many people are there, you will always find a seat once your food is ready,” Hood said. “It is something that I don’t understand, but it happens every single time.” For Wheaton students, Los has become a gathering place to release the week’s tension, grab a good bite, or build relationships at all hours. Although the small restaurant might not seem like very much to a passerby, it has become a place of Wheaton legend. Hood laughed, “There’s just something magical that takes place when you go to Los.”