El Cholo




Contributing Reporter

El Cholo is not your typical Mexican restaurant.

Located for 70 years in a gritty Mid-City neighborhood, the hacienda-like eatery hosts a grand mix of Angelenos from Hollywood high rollers to hipster wannabes, from nuclear familes to dating divorcees.

It’s the kind of place other Mexican restaurants aspire to when they try to call themselves authentic.

And now, it’s heading west.

Ron Salisbury, who has operated the El Cholo at 1121 S. Western Ave. since 1966, is planning to open a sister restaurant next month at 1025 Wilshire Blvd. in Santa Monica, the former site of Tampico Tillie’s.

The decision, he said, was formed over a long series of chats with the restaurant’s margarita-sipping clients.

“As we talked with people, some of whom would say that they hadn’t been here in a few years, half of them said they lived on the Westside and this was kind of far for them to travel,” Salisbury said.

As Salisbury went on to explain that the decision was not born of any formal research, his son Creed interrupted.

“His market studies are done in there,” Creed Salisbury said, reaching over and tapping his father’s mid-chest.

It’s a family business, one that dates back to 1923.

In that year, Alejandro and Rosa Borquez Ron Salisbury’s grandparents opened a small restaurant near what is now the Coliseum and called it the Sonora Cafe.

They changed its name to El Cholo in 1925 when a diner doodled a figure of a man in a sombrero on his menu and dubbed him “El Cholo.”

At the time, Mexican-Americans commonly used the term “cholo” to refer to field hands or recent immigrants. The word was later adopted into the street culture to describe young Latinos, especially those in gangs or car clubs.

Two years after the original El Cholo opened, the Borquezes’ daughter Aurelia and her husband, George Salisbury, opened their own El Cholo on Western Avenue.

In 1931, they moved across the street to 1121 S. Western, where it has been ever since.

Even its increasingly graffiti-marked neighborhood surroundings haven’t managed to spook the thousand or so clients a day who come for its renowned margaritas (voted the city’s best in various polls), nachos and green corn tamales.

Merrill Shindler, a food critic and co-editor of the Los Angeles Zagat restaurant survey, said the real appeal is the food.

“Trends come and go but this is bedrock cooking, basic food done very, very well,” Shindler said.

“I expect them to do remarkably well (in Santa Monica),” he said. “There is virtually no competition nearby as the Westside is virtually devoid of good Mexican restaurants.”

In addition to its cuisine and its drinks, El Cholo is known as a place where customers come to spend hours in its lived-in, hacienda-like surroundings. Shindler said that on many occasions he had such a pleasant time waiting for a table that he ended up spending the evening having chips and margaritas in the lobby and turned down the waiter when he was offered a table.

El Cholo is not the first East Side Mexican restaurant to venture west. Boyle Heights-based La Serenata de Garibaldi has been packing diners at its new location on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles.

Marco Rodriguez, whose parents own the 10-year-old restaurant, said nearly all the diners in Boyle Heights traveled crosstown, and he had numerous offers for financial backing to open one closer to the Westside and in San Francisco and New York.

“We’ve done so well that we’ve had to expand, breaking throught the wall into the Thai restaurant next door,” said Rodriguez, who explained that La Serenata is in the process of expanding from 45 seats to 95 seats and adding a full bar.

He said that weeknight business at the original restaurant has dipped since the Westside opening a year ago, but weekday and weekend traffic have remained constant.

In addition to marking El Cholo’s 70th year by opening the new restaurant, Salisbury, who is president of parent company, The Restaurant Business Inc. in La Habra, will pass over day to day operations to sons Creed, 34, and Blair, 37.

Also this year, The Restaurant Business is licensing and overseeing a small Mexican food outlet at the Los Angeles International Airport and launching a service whereby people can dial a toll free number to order margarita mix and frozen tamales (delivered via overnight post).

The company also owns the 35-year-old El Cholo Cafe and The Cat & the Custard Cup (opened 1981), an old English inn type restaurant serving California and continental cuisine, both in La Habra.

In 1986, the company opened the Sonora Cafe in the Gallery District along La Brea Avenue, which features Southwestern cuisine and was named after the Borquez family’s first restaurant.

Creed and Blair, who have been around and worked at the restaurant all their lives, say they plan to run the original restaurant with the same glacial pace of change.

“For me having grown up here, there might be other new managers who would come in here with grand new ideas, but there’s really not that for me,” said Creed.

As Blair and Creed take over the family business, Blair’s daughter and some of Ron Salisbury’s other grandchildren are growing up working summers and vacations in the family business.

“We’re definitely grooming the fifth generation,” Ron Salisbury said.

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