El Cholo -- Delicious Mexican Food for Cinco de Mayo

The festival of Cinco de Mayo is Thursday, and it begins my celebration of Mexican food and drink. Twice a year, in May and October, the UPS man delivers a precious package to me. (He came a week early this year.) It goes right into my freezer, minus a piece or two. Sent by my old friend, El Cholo's Ron Salisbury, it contains a dozen Green Corn Tamales, with mole sauce, a delicacy only in season in his restaurants for that six month period. Then, whenever I am in need of something extra-delicious to sustain me (often), I pull one out and steam it until piping hot... then I cut the string and pull off the corn husk, inhaling the sweet corn vapors as the aged cheddar cheese and Ortega chilis ooze out of the six-inch long corn masa. While I add a dollop of sour cream or crème fraiche to cool it. Heavenly. At which point, I always make a reservation to visit his Western Avenue outpost (1121 S. Western Avenue, three blocks south of Olympic, (323) 734-2773) and experience the other Mexican delicacies which have sustained me for years. Alternately, I will often drop in to the even more convenient El Cholo at 1025 Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica (310) 899-1106, for a fix of my beloved chilis relleno, whole chilis stuffed with cheese and then dipped in egg batter before being quickly fried.

El Cholo's Ron Salisbury.

Ron Salisbury is quite a guy, quietly charitable and a pillar of our community. He has broadened his personal horizons by flying an airplane, sculling, skiing and coaching youth baseball, reflecting his one-time dream of being a professional player. He recently completed a life-long dream of traveling around the world with just a backpack, taking a seven-day Trans-Siberian rail journey that passed through Outer Mongolia. Together with his sons, they run the five El Cholo restaurants as well as The Cat & The Custard Cup in La Habra and The Cannery, Seafood of the Pacific, in Newport Beach. An amazing family! Thanks to Ron Salisbury's new book, A Taste of History, I learned that 87 years ago Mexican immigrant Alejandro Borquez and his wife, Rosa, a native of Arizona, opened the Sonora Café in downtown Los Angeles. They served foods -- enchiladas, tamales and 'fried beans' -- which would have been common in their home state of Sonora, in northwestern Mexico. One day a customer sketched a figure of a field worker on a menu and captioned it "El Cholo," Spanish slang for field hand. Alejandro and Rosa liked it so much that it became the logo of their restaurant, which they then renamed El Cholo. Their 'combination' plates of tacos or enchiladas with a side of both 'Spanish' rice (basically a pilaf made with tomato sauce) and beans was adopted by other establishments. Today, that platter is the linchpin of Mexican-style restaurants all over the country. Aurelia Borquez, the daughter of Rosa and Alejandro, fell in love with George Salisbury and, when they married in 1927, they opened a branch of El Cholo on the south end of Western Avenue, then the longest street in the city. They anglicized the menu: out went the lard and in came the vegetable oil; hot chilis were limited to a few dishes. El Cholo began attracting attention from nearby Hollywood, and guests included Gary Cooper and Bing Crosby; later Jack Nicholson ("All I want is my cheese enchilada") and Michelle Phillips were regulars. In 1955 the restaurant started serving guacamole and offered warm tortillas with butter as an appetizer. Guacamole was originally made by the Aztecs and other pre-Columbian people; Spanish and Mexican settlers introduced the avocado to California, and the first recipes for the salad were seen in the 30s. Ron tells me that when the corn-chip revolution hit the country in the 50's, guacamole began being served as a dip and was then added to his combination plates.

An enchilada at El Cholo, which comes in several variations.

The green corn tamale is only available for a few months in the late spring and summer.

He explained that the enchilada is one of the national dishes of Mexico, with many regional variations... but essentially it is a handmade corn tortilla filled with well-seasoned chili sauce, chopped onions and some cheese -- queso blanco, for instance, a mild white cheese. In many California spots, it has become something else... the handmade tortillas gave way to the bakery ones, the sauce was toned down and the cheese was replaced by processed cheese. In Mexico, a taco -- the word means 'wad' or 'plug' but also 'snack,' is eaten as a snack or an appetizer. A standard Mexican version is a small soft tortilla wrapped around a filling, then fried and eaten as finger food. In our local version, the tortilla is folded into a U-shape and fried to form a crisp shell. A common filling is meat or chicken slow-cooked in sauce and then shredded, although fresh fish tacos are gaining in popularity. My favorite, which I regularly pick up at a truck in front of my building, is sautéed ground beef seasoned with a mild sauce, then topped with cheese and shredded iceberg lettuce. I always ask for another spray of the taco sauce! These taco trucks have spread to every neighborhood in L.A., and many have built up enthusiastic followings who rave about specific dishes. The breakfast taco is a staple of all the workmen in my neighborhood (and me): scrambled eggs and potatoes, refried beans, sausage or bacon, rolled inside a hot flour tortilla. Forget your breakfast Big Mac, this is the real thing. I learned the origin of the fajita from the El Cholo people: it was the idea of Juan Antonio "Sonny" Falcon, a native of the West Texas town of Mercedes, who moved to Austin in 1959. Working at a local meat market, he looked for a way to prepare throwaway cuts, experimenting with skirt steak. He debuted the first fajita at a concession stand at the Mexican Independence Day celebration in the city of Kyle, just south of Austin, in September 1969. It immediately caught on... sliced grilled marinated skirt steak rolled inside a flour tortilla with grilled onions and green pepper slices. These days I see all variations, but the word fajita is Spanish for the belt-like shape of the skirt steak, and that's the one for me. I travel to the mid-Wilshire district to a truck famed for its carnitas -- tender pork chunks either deep-fried or, better, roasted... and then a bowl of birria, slow-stewed shredded goat in a rich broth. In the 30s El Cholo introduced a Caesar salad, which actually originated in Tijuana, Mexico, at Caesar Cardinali's restaurant catering to Americans. In 1959, waitress Carmen Rocha, a Texas native, introduced one of her favorite dishes to El Cholo customers, a combination of cheese, jalapenos, and tortilla chips, which she called "nachos." As you well know, it caught on quickly. The margarita was invented in a bar in Mexico which catered to American tourists, becoming a foundation stone of the Cal-Mex culinary tradition and a fixture in restaurants and bars through the U.S.

My favorite dish, a chili relleno, oozing melted cheese and topped with a spicy sauce.

In fact, much to my surprise, I learned that much of the Mexican food we eat in the United States was actually invented here. Which does not make it unauthentic... after all, large parts of the Southwest were Mexican and the native population remained after we took it over. Plus millions more have immigrated here and leave their stamp on the rich, spicy food of the area. Texas was a state of the Mexican Republic until 1836, and the people were a fiercely independent mix of Czech and German immigrants, Anglos, Mexicans and Indians... and their food was America's first original regional cuisine. I just learned that chili powder does not exist in Mexican cooking... it was invented by a German immigrant, William Gebhardt, in New Braunfels, Texas in 1890. Today, Gebhardt's Chili is the best-selling brand, though I remain loyal to my favorite canned version, Wolf's Chili from Terlingua, Texas, which I buy by the case. I was curious as to why cumin was so prevalent in Tex-Mex cooking, and Ron Salisbury told me that it was introduced by immigrants from the Canary Island, who developed a taste for the pungent spice from the Berber people because of the island's proximity to Morocco. We talk about Tex-Mex food but the more I think about it, it is actually Cal-Mex cuisine, from crumbly hard-shell tacos to velvety-rich guacamole to the eye-opening margarita, that has shaped our preferences for south-of-the-border fare. I read an article by Austin's Claudia Alarcon which detailed how the cuisine of Texas varies from one part of the state to the next... from queso dip and Frito pie to fajitas and chili con carne, plus fancier dishes like coffee-glazed quail tamales.

No meal is complete without a plate of refried beans and rice.

Many years ago I was stationed at an Army post in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and I came away with a memory of it being the only state with an official question: "Red or Green?" Old Spanish traditions blended with ancient Pueblo practices, as well as current Mexican and Anglo-American ways of eating. The New World holy trinity of eating: corn, beans and squash aligned with chilis of all hues. And 'chili' does not only mean the actual peppers but the class of sauces used to 'smother' burritos, stacked or rolled enchiladas. 'Smothering' refers to the Southwestern practice of liberally covering the food with rich sauces made from either roasted green chilis or red chilis, stock or water, onion, garlic and spices. I've encountered some sauces with small pieces of cooked pork, chicken or lamb... usually in chili stews incorporating potatoes and beans. Wheat is made into flour tortillas, significantly more common than corn tortillas in New Mexico and northern Texas. Who hasn't enjoyed consuming a huge burrito wrapped around morsels of roast meat and sauce? Sopapillas are rolled, cut, fried and then stuffed with cheese, beans and meat before smothering with red or green chilis. Pinto beans are by far the most frequent legume used, and I vividly remember a visit to a Native American home where a pot of Frijoles de la olla was slow-cooking in the oven, a bit of onion, garlic and cumin until the beans took on a creamy consistency, eaten with a scoop of rice seasoned with cumin and tomato. Remember my writing in my newsletter about posole, a thick stew made from whole hominy corn with meat and spices? It's a traditional hangover remedy. Breakfast at a diner on the highway to El Paso: a steaming plate of stacked enchiladas served with a single fried egg on top, smothered in red and green ('Christmas') chili, with beans and rice. As I mentioned, I often go to El Cholo for a great chilis relleno, a roasted green chili stuffed with fragrant picadillo or gooey cheese, then lightly battered and deep-fried until golden brown, smothered with either red or green. Filling. Delicious. As is all of the Cal-Mex food in my life.

Chef Gerardo is the El Cholo Chef at Western Avenue.

Roberto Juarez, the Executive Chef of El Cholo for the past eleven years, started there as a dishwasher in 1980, becoming a cook two years later. Joe Reina trained him; he had been a dishwasher in 1932 and cooked there for the next 54 years! Roberto and Western's Chef Gerardo are constantly introducing new 'specials' at El Cholo; traditional, authentic Mexican dishes which he feels the diners will like. "The Cal-Mex food we are serving at our restaurants is very healthy: we use lots of fresh vegetables and fish, make our own tortillas, prepare our fresh salsa cruda and cook our sauces daily. No compromising on them, they are the cornerstone of all Mexican cooking... we start at 6:00 a.m. and they're ready by lunchtime. My favorites are the chilis relleno sauce and the chipotle cream sauce, chili Colorado and tacos al carbon." Mine, too! I'm off to El Cholo tonight for a fix, where fabulous waiter Antonio will see me walk in the door and immediately prepare a margarita on the rocks, no salt, Patron tequila.

Imagine the blandness of Los Angeles without the influences of its large Latino population, without the music of that soft, melodic language in our cars... no tortillas, tacos, burritos... no salsa to eat or to dance to. In the fifty+ years that I have been here, I can't imagine this city without the old-fashioned romantic Mexican-style hacienda of El Cholo. These wonderful restaurants remain in the same family and, though the menus may reflect some changes in our culinary tastes, the favorite dishes haven't changed at all since 1923. (I'm salivating just thinking of the combination plate of beef tacos and cheese enchiladas, with its salsa of tomatoes and and dried green-and-posilla chilies. Here, we are eating the original California cuisine in all its glory.

Open Monday to Thurs. from 11 am - 10 pm; to 11 pm on Friday-Saturday. Sunday brunch is served from 11 am to 2 pm. They have private dining rooms, a full catering service, take-out and delivery, and valet parking.