For this Taco Tuesday, I gotta pay respect to my preferred spot-to-bring-visiting-relatives: El Cholo. One of their newer locations is located downtown, and I try to go there every chance I get.
The El Cholo chain of Mexican restaurants has a rich history in Southern California. There’s a rustic vibe that seems timeless, classic dishes that have been on the menu for years, and every booth has signed glossies of celebrities that have visited the local favorite. With their first location opening in Los Angeles in 1923 (originally called “Sonora Cafe”), you have a pretty broad selection of glitterati flying through their doors over a 91-year period. Appropriately enough, on this visit, the celebrity at my table was Emeril Lagasse. I “kicked it up a notch”, and then some.
I love El Cholo, but the name always made me feel a little uneasy. In fact, there’s an underlying theme of the exploitation of Mexican culture on the ElCholo.com timeline:
It’s 1925, a man wanders into the restaurant and shows owner Alejandro Borquez a drawing of a man and calls him “el cholo”. Borquez loves it, so he renames the restaurant right there on the spot. Does the term “cholo” sound a little racist or demeaning to you? Back in those days, the (derogatory) word was used to describe the low-income farmers in the area. Unfortunately, within a few decades the word would be synonymous with drive-by shootings and prison-shankings.
In 1959, Carmen Rocha (think: Carmen Miranda meets the St. Pauli Girl) joins the El Cholo team. She introduces a quaint dish that she learned to make in her hometown of San Antonio: “Nachos”. Of course, the rest is history… A runny, gloopy 7/11 truck stop history.
In 1967, a customer says “Let me show you how to make a great margarita”. Instead of telling the pinche pendejo to “vaya con dios”, the El Cholo staff decide to humor him. And it’s a good thing, too: El Cholo is the first restaurant to introduce premium ingredients in margaritas (and the largest user of Cuervo 1800 tequila, officially claiming the title from my uncle Nestor). And now the evolution of the margarita has brought us, at long last, the Bud Light Rita (Straw-Ber-Rita, Cran-Brrr-Rita, Lim-A-Rita, Mang-O-Rita, and Raz-Ber-Rita). Full circle.
So what if commercial versions of margaritas and nachos have been rendered a barely palatable, bastardized version of the original creation? With the endlessly customizable nature of Mexican staples like these, at least you can “have it your way” with whatever you have handy in the kitchen – as long as you have the main ingredients of tequila and chips, you’re set.
They may take my nachos, but they’ll never get my carnitas (roasted pulled pork). El Cholo has the porky dish down to a science, and it is probably the best version that I’ve ever tried. Ask for the flour tortillas when you order: you’ll be able to make a half-dozen insanely satisfying carnitas tacos, with enough leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch, too.
While there aren’t that many vegetarian options at El Cholo, my wife stands by the seasonal Green Corn Tamales (which you can order from their webstore all year-round). Made with corn off the cob – steamed in the husk – the Green Corn Tamales are only available in the restaurant from May through October.
There’s no better feeling than settling down in a booth at El Cholo, digging into their chips and salsa, and eating some Mexican food that’s done in a way that actually feels classic and “exotic”. This is a refreshing experience for a cuisine that has been raped and pillaged consistently over the years.
If you’re starting to feel like Mexican food has become too dull and unexciting, you should pay one of the El Cholos a visit. Don’t just “drive-by”, let El Cholo gangbang your tastebuds.