Why King Burrito Is Still North Portland’s Greatest Burrito Joint (After 24 Years)

The NoPo taco standby continues to thrive in its third decade with one winning strategy: keep doing things the way they've always been done.

By Margaret Seiler October 19, 2015 Published in the November 2015 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Amy Martin

North Lombard’s King Burrito has been there since 1995,* a milestone that testifies to the sort of anti-trendiness that anchors every great, unkillable neighborhood restaurant. So let’s raise a Jarritos and look at what it takes to be a survivor. 

Be open. A lot.

“We are open. Even in this black out. Cash only please.” That was the restaurant’s Facebook update during the Oscar night power outage of 2014. Ice storms, snowpocalypse, most bank holidays—the grill is going.

Stick with people you know.

Owner David Canales can still be found manning the grill many days, while wife Maria and his three children take orders at the counter. (The couple live just around the corner.) Joaquin Flores, who started working there 10 years ago as a Roosevelt High student, attributes the longevity to three things: “good food, good prices, very fast.”

Feed armies.

The weekday lunch rush brings a sea of orange-shirted construction crews, sun-hatted landscaping teams, the postal carrier, and the occasional police officer. All can fill up fast on burgers or burritos and get back on the clock.

Be a rock in a swirling sea.

Over 20 years, a building across the street has been a couple of pizza places, a BBQ joint, a brewpub, an Asian buffet, and, now, Green Zebra Grocery. Meanwhile, at King Burrito prices creep up a dime or so every few years. The walls have been repainted. “We try to keep everything the same,” says David’s son Jaime Canales. “We haven’t changed the menu in any way.”

Inspire devotion.

A 2013 Portland State University urban planning survey asked residents what aspects of North Lombard “provide a positive or useful benefit to you and your family.” Eight percent wrote in “burritos.” We asked lunchtime diners how they’d feel if the taco shop suddenly disappeared. “If I had a larger financial capability,” responded one teenager, “I’d do what it takes to keep it open.”

*Its logo declares “since 1970,” the founding date of the Canales’ previous restaurant in California. The Arbor Lodge neighborhood brick-and-mortar is not related to the food cart that uses the same name.

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