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Cinco de Mayo Is Coming... Time for Mexican Food at El Cholo!

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el cholo logo

The festival of Cinco de Mayo is on Saturday, May 5, but I celebrated it early, at Monday evening's EL CHOLO annual party of Mexican food and drink. My old friend Ron Salisbury invited me to his Western Avenue outpost (1121 S. Western Avenue, one block south of Olympic, valet parking $4.50, (323) 734-2773) and while there I experienced the Mexican delicacies which have sustained me for years. I 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 chiles rellenos, whole chiles stuffed with cheese and then dipped in egg batter before being quickly fried. 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. 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.

Four years ago they opened Café Maiz in Mission Viejo, an upscale taqueria, possibly the forerunner of more to come. An amazing family! Thanks to Ron's new book, A Taste of History, I learned that 88 years ago Mexican immigrant Alejandro Borquez and his wife, Rosa, a native of Arizona, opened the Sonora Café in downtown Los Angles. 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, 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 chiles were limited to a few dishes. El Cholo began attracting attention from nearby Hollywood, and guest included Gary Cooper and Bing Crosby; later Jack Nicholson, who turned 75 today ("all I want is my cheese enchilada") and Michelle Phillips were regulars.

Ron Salisbury of El Cholo

El Cholo's Ron Salisbury

Guacamole before mixing

Guacamole before being mixed at the table to tour choice of spiciness.

green corn tamale with sauce

Green corn tamale with sauce, perhaps the best-tasting food on the planet!

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 this 'salad' were seen in the '30s. Ron tells me that when the corn-chip revolution hit the country in the '50s, guacamole began being served as a dip and was then added to his combination plates.

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 chile 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. Ughh. 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 madly in popularity. My favorite, which I regularly pick up at a truck in front of my building on Spalding, 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.

filet mignon tacos

Filet mignon tacos come with rice and beans. Fresh fish tacos are also very popular.

dancers and mariachas perform

Dancers and mariachis play here many nights, Music is always on tap.

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 have even traveled 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. 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.) 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 Islands, who developed a taste for the pungent spice from the Berber people because of the island's proximity to Morocco.

Cadillac Margarita

The Cadillac margarita is made with premium tequila; my choice is Patron.

Chef Gerardo is a force of nature in the kitchem always developing authentic new dishes.

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. 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 chiles of all hues. And 'chile' does not only mean the actual peppers but the class of sauces used to 'smother' burritos, which are stacked or rolled enchiladas.

'Smothering' refers to the Southwestern practice of liberally covering the food with rich sauces made from either roasted green chiles or red chiles, stock or water, onion, garlic and spices. I've encountered some sauces with small pieces of cooked pork, chicken or lamb... usually in chile 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 chiles. 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 Jay Weston's Restaurant 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') chile, with beans and rice. As I mentioned, I often go to El Cholo for a great chiles relleno, a roasted green chile 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.

fajitas

Fajitas are made with skirt steak, served with rice and beans.

dessert flan

Flan is the dessert of choice.

Western's Chef Gerardo is 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 chiles relleno sauce and the chipotle cream sauce, chile Colorado and tacos al carbon." Mine, too! As I entered El Cholo Monday with several friends, including Serge Taboul from Paris, where there is no great Mexican food, fabulous waiter Antonio saw me walk in the door and immediately prepared a margarita on the rocks, no salt, Patron tequila. We followed that with a luscious dinner of green corn tamales (now in season for the next six months), a filet mignon taco, a fresh fish taco, a shrimp fajitas, crabmeat enchiladas in the original Sonora style, chile rellenos, and a pitcher of Cadillac margaritas. Heavenly.

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 50+ 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. They are open Monday to Thus. from 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.; to 11 pm on Friday-Saturday. Sunday brunch is served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Private dining rooms, a full catering service, take-out and delivery, and valet parking.

To subscribe to "Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter" ($70 for 12 monthly issues), email him at jayweston@sbcglobal.net.