Boston Born: El Pelón Is More Than Just A Bald Man

Long a plantain-stuffed staple of the Boston food scene, the El Guapo burrito went national in 2014. What started as a fun creation by staff members worked its way from the six burner stove of El Pelón’s tiny Fenway taqueria to fourth place on stats site, FiveThirtyEight’s burrito bracket.

“I say it to people all the time, ‘I know you think that I don’t notice and people don’t notice when you do a good job, but every single person notices right away,’” El Pelón’s moustachioed owner, Jim Hoben says of the recognition.

Hoben shares an afternoon laugh with one of his counter staff. The restaurant’s name, El Pelón, is Spanish slang meaning “the baldy.” While he was working in kitchens and bars, Hoben was spending a lot of time around Mexican people, and picked up the nickname on account of his shiny dome.

The nationally ranked burrito was born after one of the eatery’s chefs experimented with adding some fried plantains the kitchen had on hand to his own dinner. The mammoth rollup of steak, rice, beans, salsa, cheese, lettuce, crema, and plantains worked its way up from a staff insider meal to the menu board, to placing in the famous bracket.

“It was a big compliment,” Hoben says. “I wish that FiveThirtyEight had predicted this election so people didn’t doubt them now!”

Hoben struggles to pick a favorite item on the menu, but admits the Caramellos house tacos have a special place in his stomach. They’re a hearty portion of grilled steak, melty cheese, hot sauce, salsa fresca, and guacamole.

Most things that happen under the roofs at El Pelón’s Fenway and Brighton shops aren’t a direct result of Hoben at this point. The Guapo is no exception. He’s still the boss, but Hoben stresses he’s a co-equal part of the team. One of his responsibilities is keeping himself out of the way.

“If the restaurant is the noun in the story, then the workers are the verbs,” Hoben says.

Manager Jose Torres tackled the dinnertime rush on a Wednesday, juggling orders from the counter and delivery services as they came. Hoben didn’t name a manager before the restaurant reopened after the fire, as he knew one would emerge.

Hoben and his team have racked up thousands of stories during the restaurant’s 21 years in business. There have been epic tales like the tragic fire that decimated the whole block in the beginning of 2008, and lead to the opening of the Brighton location, or comedies of errors, like employees accidentally sexting their boss.

There are scores of anecdotes from the everyday grind, like always trying to remember the guacamole, or videos of Jim rapping to A$AP Rocky in his car, all of which make up the experience of running a business. There are so many stories, in fact, that Hoben will often struggle to tell one completely before enthusiastically launching into another.

The wall of El Pelón’s Fenway location is covered with framed photos of people around the globe wearing the restaurant’s t-shirt. Hoben had to take down shots of people at places like the Eiffel Tower, as he had too many.

One of those stories is how Hoben’s eccentric moustache came to live on his face.

“I’ve had this moustache off and on for like 20 years,” he says. While working at a bar, he was reading books about architecture in his down time, and he spotted a photo of architectural and cultural critic, Lewis Mumford, and decided he’d try to grow that moustache. It’s been a universal conversation starter since.

The restaurant’s logo is a painting of Hoben, and one of his cockatiels he used to own with his wife, which used to perch on his shoulder and eat the wax out of his moustache, he says.

The creation of Hoben’s Mexican restaurant was a slightly less whimsical decision though. From his time working in kitchens and bars around Boston, Hoben knew the truth that no matter the cuisine, it was almost certainly hispanic people cooking it. So for his new restaurant, he figured why not use that? Instead of having to train every cook, he’d be able to hire people who already knew the food, and what’s more, cared about the food.

“I knew if I made [the cuisine] something that people cared about, we’d be successful,” he says. “When we first opened, there were shoving matches over the beans. Could you ever train anyone to care that much about what they’re doing?”

Another of Hoben’s main reasons for opening his own restaurants was to put into practice the lessons he’d learned about how not just the service industry should be, but how the world should be. “I’ve been on the other side of it as an employee,” he says. “So I’ve looked at what hasn’t worked.” Like yelling, for example.

“After the fire when we had no money, I still donated money,” he says. “If you’re not generous when you don’t have the money, you’re never going to have enough money.” While Hoben doesn’t make a big effort to publicise their contributions, he says being a good community member is part of what gives his and his employees’ jobs meaning.

“I figured I could affect the six feet around me, even if it doesn’t change the whole world,” he says. He instills the same ethic in his co-workers, teaching them that even at a humble taqueria, by giving their best while they’re there, they can make a difference to themselves, their community, and something even larger.

Hoben’s ethos of doing things the right way extends to the smallest items on the menu. Even the bright yellow rice is all natural, colored with annatto seeds the restaurant mail orders.

“We’ve got a lot of good people working here,” he says. “I’m the first to admit it’s got only a little bit to do with me and a lot to do with luck and people pulling together, and people trusting, and people showing up and doing it. That’s what gave our success.”

Fenway is a vastly different neighborhood than when Hoben opened El Pelón in 1996. It was a very transient neighborhood, he says, filled with students, refugees from spiralling rent costs in the South End, and cheap commercial rent. “As everything changes,” he says, “we remain constant.”
Fenway’s not the only thing that’s different. The food scene in Boston is very different, too. More people care about food now, Hoben says, and you can get an awesome quality meal at 11:30pm at night.
“A lot of what I do is not about changing stuff,” he says “It’s about doing the same. Just keep doing the same thing. How do you compete against big companies? You just keep being the company that you were.”

Yelp connects people to great local businesses, and in our Boston Born series, we’re sharing the stories behind some of the highest-rated, locally-owned biz in and around the city. Features researched, written and photographed by Lloyd Mallison. To read what Yelpers have to say about the featured biz, download the Yelp app.


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