There are few foods more sacred to Los Angeles than the breakfast burrito, that all-day Mexican-American staple meant to satisfy any hunger and stave off every hangover. Neighborhoods from Altadena to Rancho Palos Verdes have at least one spot that does them well. But even in a market as crowded as Southern California, some breakfast burritos stand out from the pack — not just for being delicious, but for what they mean to the community they feed.
Enter Phanny’s, the few-frills Redondo Beach spot situated right on the Pacific Coast Highway. The restaurant, having fed tens of thousands of surfers, local families, beachgoers, and tourists for decades, is practically synonymous with the area, the sort of timeless mom-and-pop shop that often gets left behind in the era of big beachside development.
“We started out as your typical greasy-spoon diner,” says Andy Dispun, whose family has owned Phanny’s since 1982. At the time, the corner space was known for an eclectic collection of dishes, from burgers and gyros to coney-style hot dogs. “But over the years we’ve pared down [the menu].”
Dispun, who graduated from Cal State Long Beach in 2005, spent the better part of a decade avoiding a job in his family’s restaurant. He worked in insurance claims until a call from his mother, Angela Dispun, brought him into the fold. He’s spent the past few years working on streamlining the restaurant’s operations to allow for certain upgrades (a state of the art La Marzocco espresso machine, for one) without sacrificing consistency or overcrowding the tiny stucco space. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic closing indoor dining, the younger Dispun finds that pulling back even further to give the people just what they want has been good for business.
“We’re trying to serve the community while keeping everyone safe,” Dispun says. “It’s not about the money, it’s about doing our part.”
At the beginning of the lockdown orders in March, Dispun and his family made the tough decision to close the restaurant, out of concern for staff and customers alike. That lasted just three weeks, in part because matriarch Angela Dispun kept wanting to show up for her community. “She still comes in every day,” the younger Dispun says, despite the risk of COVID-19. Phanny’s is doing all it can to keep her safe, closing off the interior of the restaurant and only accepting orders via a window that opens onto PCH.
The photos in this story, taken before the pandemic began, do not show the full slate of safety precautions now being taken at Phanny’s (and all other complying businesses), from face shields and masks on down.
Meanwhile, the crowds keep coming. Dispun declined to share exact numbers with Eater when asked before the pandemic began, but he said then that the shop served breakfast burritos “by the hundreds” every week, particularly on busy Saturdays and Sundays. The restaurant closed for a few weeks at the beginning of lockdown orders and has since shifted to a Tuesday-through-Saturday model, but otherwise is doing similar numbers compared to last year, he says now.
The volume is easy to see. The tiny open kitchen is in a perpetual state of rushed commotion, as line cooks pull strips of par-cooked bacon from overflowing hotel pans and push for more room for eggs on the overloaded griddle. Tickets move fast for simple egg, cheese, hash brown, and meat combos. The occasional side item, like ham and egg sandwiches, grilled cheese, and burgers, have been scrapped for now, and maybe forever.
“I like the In-N-Out philosophy,” Dispun says. “If things don’t sell, or if we get an order for a dish and the kitchen looks at the ticket and says ‘ugh,’ then it shouldn’t be on the menu.”
Despite some menu reworking, the truth is that not much has truly changed in the 38 years since the Dispuns took over. The hanging menu board is still crowded with those old plastic click-in letters, and the (currently empty) dining room still offers the same worn tile and rays of sunshine as ever before.
Phanny’s doesn’t even push hard on Instagram with big, saturated photos and boastful posts — though they did succumb to the cult of the neon sign (theirs reads “in burritos we trust”), which are found in many brand-focused restaurants. They haven’t even posted since June 2, mostly because everyone is too busy cooking.
So what’s next for Phanny’s, the cult burrito classic? Dispun says “not much” with a laugh that belies the stabilized chaos of the place. He runs a coffee shop on the side and got into the hot chicken game with a restaurant called Pinky’s Hot Box in nearby Torrance. The trio of projects keep him running around the South Bay in his car most days, even before the pandemic. Dispun acknowledges that the uncertain timing means that the dining room will likely remain closed until there’s a suitable vaccine found for the novel coronavirus, but he’s happy enough keeping his employees — and his mother — working and safe.
The truth is that after nearly 40 years and more than a few cuts to the once-sprawling menu, the place runs smoothly, pandemic be damned. Andy would like to see his mother, Angela, who immigrated from Thailand when she was young, retire from working in the kitchen soon. And he had hoped that the pandemic would steer her in that direction. But he admits that it’s hard to push her out when she likes the work and loves the customers. Here in sleepy Redondo Beach, there are always more mouths to feed, more tickets, and more eggs on the plancha.
Phanny’s. 1021 S. Pacific Coast Highway, Redondo Beach, CA. Open five days a week from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. (closed Mondays and Tuesdays). Note: All photos were taken before the start of the pandemic.