It’s Saturday evening, and this large restaurant is busy. And lively. So lively, in fact, that the impressive mariachi band can be heard across the parking lot. But it’s also surprisingly cosy, with an interior resembling an informal courtyard, including tiled veranda, ‘vines’ and adobe-style walls decorated in vibrant colours, reds and greens. It’s filled with a diverse clientele – families, friends, young, old, small groups and large parties – who are clearly enjoying themselves. The atmosphere is loaded with chatter, laughter and the sizzling of fajitas. We are presented with an overflowing bowl of tortilla chips – lightly seasoned and still beautifully warm – accompanied by a tangy salsa dip. I order a margarita (on the rocks with salt; $7.75) and open the menu.
Located in Santa Monica (at Wilshire and 11th), this is one of five restaurant sites across Los Angeles. The first was opened in 1923 by Alejandro and Rosa Borquez, so this one (established in 1997), is definitely the newcomer. I know this –and much more– because the menus and walls are covered in family stories and photographs, as well as paraphernalia from over 80 years of trade. I know, for example, that the restaurants are now run by the 5th generation of the family; that they sold their first margarita in 1967; and that 1996 was the year in which they sold their 1 billionth tortilla. I also know that Joe Reiner worked his way-up from dishwasher to head-chef in a relationship with the company that lasted 54 years, while Raymundo Vicente left in 1996 after 50 years of floor-service.
And the original ‘El Cholo’ neon sign from 1931 –which is bright pink and fabulously gaudy– is hanging on the wall behind me.
The menu – although neither vast nor particularly adventurous – is well-stocked with classic Mexican fare: enchiladas, fajitas and tamales, as well as specialty dishes. It lists not only the price (entrees range from $9.95 for the tostada compuesta, to $16.75 for the shrimp fajitas), but also the date on which each item was originally added to the menu (1923-2009). It’s a nice touch. I start with a cup of tortilla soup (1991; $4.95), which is simply wonderful – thick and bold, full and spicy; its tomato base crowded with peppers, onions, black beans and chicken. I follow this with Chile Colorado (1923; $10.95), described as ‘savory chunks of tender beef in a rich traditional chile sauce with beans, rice, a cup of guacamole’, and either flour or corn tortillas. The beef really is tender, and has a deep taste to it which is incredibly satisfying. The accompaniments are generous, and although Mexican food doesn’t always lend itself to the most attractive staging, the dish is well presented (I adore the miniature tortilla cup filled with guacamole). But this isn’t gourmet food. It’s comfort food. Family food. El Cholo is a restaurant with a heritage, visibly proud of its history and accomplishments. And yes, this does seem to make the food taste better.