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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

FOOD—Comfort Food

After 75 years and four generations, the owners of El Cholo are still serving up authentic Mexican cuisine to a Los Angeles hungering for a taste of the real thing

The roots of El Cholo, L.A.’s most famous Mexican restaurant, can be traced back to 1922, when Alejandro Borquez told his wife Rosa, “You are such a good cook, we should open up a restaurant.”

Out of such simple statements are legends born.

In 1923, Alejandro and Rosa opened a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, named the Sonora Cafe, not far from the Los Angeles Coliseum. The menu was the very essence of simplicity albondigas (“Spanish meatball soup”) and vegetable soup; salads of sliced tomatoes, hearts of lettuce and “Mexican pickled peppers;” all of eight entrees; and a combination plate of an enchilada, a chile relleno, a tamale, chile con carne, fried beans and rice.

The clientele reflected the population of Los Angeles at the time (much as it does today). At any given time, diners would range from immigrants hungry for a taste of home, to businessmen grabbing a quick lunch, to shoppers enjoying the stylish stores that were a big attraction in the downtown of 75 years ago.

The attraction for all was simple big portions of tasty food served at reasonable prices. Once again, much as it is today.

Power dining

In time, and not a long time, El Cholo became the place of choice to go the Spago of its age. The rich residents of Hancock Park would be driven over in their chauffeured limousines. Prominent city leaders became regulars. And it’s worth noting that they were spending about 80 cents for a full meal.

Many an evening, El Cholo could claim much the same clientele as expensive and very posh Perino’s a few blocks away, where a cup of coffee alone was a dollar.

The food at El Cholo gives us a fair idea of what Mexican cooking was like in Southern California back in the 1920s, when it was referred as “Spanish cuisine.” (The original neon sign at El Cholo still says “Spanish Cafe” on it.)

The history of El Cholo actually begins in Arizona, rather than in Mexico. Aurelia Borquez, mother of current El Cholo owner Ron Salisbury, was born in the tiny town of Globe, Ariz. His father, George Salisbury, was born in equally small Safford, Ariz. two little towns down the road from each other. Though they didn’t know each other at that time, both families moved to Los Angeles when Aurelia and George were in their teens. Aurelia’s parents, Alejandro and Rosa Borquez, were in their late 30s when they decided to open their first restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, at 4012 Broadway.

The Sonora Caf & #233; didn’t keep that name for long. In 1925, a guest walked in and, while he was waiting, he absent-mindedly doodled on a menu. He drew a figure of a Mexican peasant and over the picture, he wrote the words “El Cholo.” Rosa Borquez saw the drawing, and asked if she could have it. She took it to her husband, and he immediately decided to change the name of the restaurant to El Cholo. He used the drawing of the peasant as the logo. And El Cholo was born.

Shortly after that, George Salisbury came into the restaurant, met Aurelia, and, in the terminology of the age, began keeping company with her.

Inspired by the growing success and reputation of the downtown El Cholo, in 1927, George and Aurelia opened a storefront branch at 1107 S. Western Ave. They were married soon after, in 1929. And they moved El Cholo across the street to its current location in 1931.

Interestingly, George and Aurelia were warned by more than a few friends and customers that moving across the street would be a mistake that they’d kill a going business by doing that. The doomsayers were wrong. As of this year, the restaurant celebrates its 74th year across the street.

Next generation

Today, the restaurant is run by Ron Salisbury and his family, forming an unbroken chain back to the original owners. (Salisbury has further honored his family heritage by opening a new Sonora Cafe in the heart of Los Angeles, serving upscale Southwestern dishes. The name, like El Cholo, has been passed on from generation to generation.)

What’s now El Cholo was originally a small house, a California bungalow that was expanded, over the years, into the surprisingly large restaurant, bar and party room that it is today. Elements of the original house are still there the comfortable room adjacent to the bar was the living room; the fireplace from the original living room is still there. What’s now a long dining room was once two bedrooms with a bathroom in the middle.

Changes didn’t happen overnight. Back in the ’30s and ’40s, what’s now the ladies’ restroom still had a bathtub in it. And way back then, the kitchen door was always open so people could look in. There was a perception that Mexican cooking techniques weren’t sanitary, and the Salisburys wanted people to be able to look into the kitchen and see how clean it was.

Though El Cholo didn’t single-handedly popularize Mexican cooking in Los Angeles, it was in the forefront of the handful of eateries that made Mexican dishes all the rage in the 1930s. Immigrants knew about the food. But it was Anglos, newly educated to the joys of tacos and enchiladas, who queued up nightly in front of El Cholo on Western, forming a long line that would go down the sidewalk, and bend around the corner.

As Ron Salisbury points out, “It was the best advertising possible. We were packed all the time.”

The success of El Cholo inspired the birth of more restaurants. In 1931, Ron’s aunt and uncle opened El Coyote, which still exists, filled nightly with legions of students from UCLA and USC, who live on a diet of combination plates and margaritas.

But despite the family competition, the major destination for Mexican food in Los Angeles remained El Cholo.

“El Cholo is a cross-section of what Los Angeles is really about,” Salisbury says. “We have people coming in Rolls Royces, we have people taking the bus to get here. We have students, we have wealthy people, we have people who are barely getting along. To me, that’s always been a part of the charm that we have.”

That, and the restaurant’s sense of family. It’s family that Ron Salisbury always comes back to. “It was my mom and dad who were truly my mentors,” he says. “They taught me about the passion, the love of this restaurant, that hopefully will continue on in future generations. I’m very, very fortunate that I have sons who want to see this restaurant continue on. (Ron’s son, Blair Salisbury, recently opened a branch of El Cholo in Pasadena.) What it represents will be here when I’m long gone. And I know the next generation is taken care of.”

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