LOS ANGELES – You could call it a business built on enchilada and saved by the margarita. You could easily call it a Los Angeles institution. But more than anything else, 100 years later, El Cholo is a family affair.
Ron Salisbury, 89, heads the venerable Mexican restaurant opened by his immigrant grandparents – as he has done since 1954. Lineage is also evident among the staff. The head chef of the flagship Western Avenue location, Gerardo Ochoa, started 27 years ago as a dishwasher. His brother Sergio, a 40-year veteran, runs the downtown kitchen; their father, Ignacio, was an El Cholo cook in the 1970s and ’80s before moving to Michoacán.
And in an industry known for turnover, 54 employees – more than one in 10 at the restaurant’s various locations – have worked there for 20 years or more.
Their collective memories were crucial to perpetuating the traditions and tastes that have made El Cholo a destination for celebrities, college students, and Southern California families for generations.
A converted bungalow on Western Avenue housed the restaurant from the 1930s. Credit… el Cholo
“It’s too late,” Mr. Salisbury said of the restaurant’s ethos, examining the 280-seat dining room one morning, as the kitchen crew had already spent hours making gravy and other chores. “There is a cookbook out there, but they don’t pay attention to the cookbook. They know the nuances.”
In many ways, El Cholo reflects the evolution of American tastes in Mexican food, incorporating a wider range of dishes that have become familiar (or even emerging) north of the border.
But he said cooking still relies on his grandmother’s recipes, and Mr Salisbury said it’s a guiding principle for every dish, including those added or changed over the decades to reflect changing tastes: “Is what he’s going to do right? and is it up to his standards?”
Mr. Salisbury is not a cook. But he practically grew up in the restaurant.
Its roots were planted in 1923 by his grandparents, Alejandro and Rosa Borquez, in a small, long gone place near the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which also opened that year. They named it Sonora Café after their home state and then El Cholo in 1925.
Their daughter Aurelia and her husband, George Salisbury, whom she met while waiting at her desk, soon opened a five-cabin, 12-stool Western Avenue branch – closer to the burgeoning Hollywood studios and upscale Hancock Park neighborhood. It moved across the street to its current location, converted from a two-bedroom bungalow, in 1931. The front bedroom has become the cramped waiting room familiar to legions who have chilled their heels in decades when the restaurant received no reservations.
Two years later, Ron Salisbury was born. “My mom taught me how to count by counting coins in the safe,” he recalled.
After school and in the summers she moved on to culinary chores – seeding the peppers, assembling the tamales, sorting out the dishes to be washed. When he was 18, his father made him run the place for a day. Three years later, she had just graduated from college, working full time.
“My father was never really comfortable in the restaurant business,” she said. Rather, it “seemed very natural” to him.
Even for a restaurant defined by family tradition, maintaining a thriving catering business from 1954 to 2023 has been an innovation, not a conservation effort.
Take, for example, El Cholo’s signature enchilada sauce. “Spicy food was not the norm,” said Mr Salisbury in 1923 for Angelenos, and the sauce was calibrated accordingly.
But in the last century, American tastes have become more adventurous. “So without risking too much,” he said, “we added a little more chile” – so little that you might not notice, and I felt I was messing with something sacred.”
A menu of only a few main dishes for a long time, such as enchiladas, chili con carne, tamales, a combination dish with added rice and beans, has gradually expanded and now, in encyclopedic fashion, shows the date each dish was served (chimichangas, 1967). ; crab meat enchiladas, 1971).
When Nachos joined El Cholo in 1959, her knowledge of the food from Texas was added in secrecy, an attempt by long-time waitress Carmen Rocha, who followed her. a standard.
An alarming decision came in the late 1960s, when the margarita became a popular beverage. George Salisbury limited his alcohol offerings to beer and wine. “He felt that serving hard alcohol was just asking for trouble,” his son recalled.
Ron Salisbury added a margarita, which he admitted wasn’t very good until a restaurant owner friend gave him a few tips. The result – a rare spot that features a tequila mix, where the collection of details, El Cholo recipes and lore is shy – was a landmark.
“If we hadn’t had margaritas,” said Mr. Salisbury, “I doubt we would still be here.”
Since then, El Cholo has evolved and developed its image as an unchanging image in a centrifugal city. The walls are adorned with photographs reminiscent of its legacy – family origins, longtime chefs and waiters, evolving menus, and a cavalry of celebrities and athletes.
In its early years, the restaurant counted stars like Clark Gable, Loretta Young, and Nat King Cole as customers. In 1969, Jack Nicholson brought in singer Michelle Phillips, whose voice now provides the outgoing message in restaurant voicemail. Tom Seaver discovered the restaurant as a college student and introduced him to a rookie pitcher named Nolan Ryan, who later became a Salisbury business partner in a different dining venture.
At the same time, the universe of Mexican food has expanded from many parts of Mexico, from Los Angeles and beyond, to waves of creativity and a flourishing dialogue about what qualifies as authentic.
From one perspective, El Cholo is a throwback to when Mexico was a dish that didn’t dare mention its name. The old neon sign proclaims a “Spanish Cafe,” evoking 1920s California that retains colonial-era Spanish place names but whose largely Anglo population often disdains Mexican things.
“In those days, ‘Mexican’ had a bad connotation,” said Mr Salisbury, and it was associated with unsanitary conditions. “That’s why people called it Spanish food.” (He kept the door to the kitchen open so you could see how clean it was, his father said.)
Natalia Molina, professor of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California and who has written about immigration and race issues in the city’s history, sees the sign as a curiosity – “a remnant of early 20th-century Los Angeles,” but El Cholo is a local It is a mainstay in the food landscape.
His latest book “A Place at the Nayarit: How a Place at the Nayarit: How a Place at the Nayarit: How a Place at the Nayarit: How a Place at the Nayarit: How a Place at the Nayarit: How a Place at the Nayarit : How a Place at the Nayarit: How a Place at the Nayarit Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community” is about the restaurant his immigrant grandmother founded in the 1950s in the Echo Park neighborhood.
“There’s food that’s familiar, comforting and accessible,” he said of El Cholo. Most of the menu is Americanized Mexican food, which we consider. But that doesn’t make it any less special.”
Its cabins and spaciousness make this a favorite place for families to gather, including their own, as well as a cultural crossroads with Anglo, Latino, Black and Asian clients. For many, she said, it was a kind of “urban anchor”, as it was once her grandmother’s restaurant. “That place you can go back to again and again – it’s there. yoursLocation.”
Whether this will hold true 100 years from now is not something Mr Salisbury will leave to chance or inertia.
“Things have never been better right now, really good,” he said. However, there are many difficulties. The pandemic, which reduced operations to takeaway for months, left a shortage of employees to meet demand while restaurants were in effect. (Where there were 44 people in the kitchen of the main venue before the pandemic, there are now 23. “We’re running faster,” said head chef Gerardo Ochoa.) Inflation has put pressure on costs and thus menu prices. A recession fear looms.
Still, Mr. Salisbury remains focused on the future. He said Brendon, 34, the youngest of his seven children, will eventually take over. (Another son, Blair owns and operates an independent El Cholo in Pasadena with six other locations.)
After doubling its current size in the 1970s, the Western Avenue dining room was set up to incorporate an adjacent 3,300-square-foot warehouse as a roofless garden patio area for events. An El Cholo is under construction in Salt Lake City.
“He says we’re not going to limp to the finish line in 100 years,” said Mr. Salisbury. “We’re doing more aggressive things, positive things.”
A few of his adult grandchildren are turning to this business. So might his great-grandson, who is now in college. But Mr. Salisbury, unlike his father, is in no rush to hand over the keys. They represent your life’s work.
“I don’t want it to end,” she said.
recipes: El Cholo’s Sonora-Style Enchiladas| Red Enchilada Sauce| Green Enchilada Sauce
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