This Is The Oldest Mexican Restaurant Still Operating In LA

Los Angeles is a vibrant city, ripe with diversity and full of contradictions. To really know the soul of this passionate city means understanding the people and things that helped to shape it, including its culture and its history. A city of dreams, L.A. was born on the backs of Mexican immigrants who came looking for something better. It's a place where filmmakers sought to make silver screen magic in California's sunny, warm, and varied terrain (per History).

Rooted in its juxtapositions, L.A.'s history is a combination of old Hollywood glamour, Spanish influence — missions dot the California coastline from San Diego to San Francisco — and the fruits of hardworking Mexican immigrants, who not only formally established the town itself but who infused their culture and their flavors in the bellies and hearts of all who live there. And there is no place that better exemplifies the history, culture, and tastes of L.A. than its oldest Mexican restaurant, El Cholo.

The heart of the city beats at El Cholo

El Cholo's long history is inextricably bound to the city and state in which it was born. Los Angeles, California is a place of great diversity; home to people from over 140 countries, speaking more than 200 languages, according to Discover Los Angeles. Markers of its indigenous, Mexican, and Spanish influences — from the historic Mexican marketplace Olvera Street to the art of LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, to its Spanish Colonial and Mission Revival architecture, and Latinx-influenced cuisine — all point to the interwoven cultures permeating nearly everything LA.  

Discover Los Angeles explains that Los Angeles was settled in 1781 by 11 Mexican families (44 people in total from Sonora, Mexico) under the guidance of then Governor of Spanish California, Felipe de Neve, but more accurately, it was re-settled, according to Indigenous Mexico, which notes that the Gabrieleno/Tongva Nation has been living in the area for centuries. de Neve, a Spanish soldier largely credited as one of the founders of Los Angeles, christened it El Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles Sobre el Rio de Porciuncula or something to that effect; according to The Los Angeles Times, the original name is still debated today. 

Later shortened to Los Angeles and now colloquially known as L.A., that origin story conveys a truth that would be mirrored in El Cholo's humble beginnings and in the stories of California's other early Mexican restaurants — a Spanish name, which obscures a fuller history.

Generations of flavor: A 100-year-old tradition

At nearly 100 years old, Eater names El Cholo the oldest Mexican restaurant still in operation in Los Angeles, representing the very spirit of what makes L.A. great — a merging of cultures and flavors side-by-side, creating something complex, beautiful, and lasting. Opening the door to El Cholo is entering into not only its rich individual history, but also an understanding of the tenacity and triumphs of early Mexican immigrant restauranteurs in the face of racist and xenophobic barriers in early 20th century California.

El Cholo welcomed its first diners in 1923. Current owner Ron Salisbury told Culture Trip, "My grandfather thought that my grandmother's cooking was so great that people would pay to eat it." It was the same year that the now-famous Hollywood sign (then "Hollywoodland") went up.

Los Angeles in 1923 was a place of opportunity and possibility, perched on the precipice of greatness. As the Golden Age of Hollywood was gearing up for its peak in the '30s and '40s, L.A. was also in the middle of one of the largest Mexican migrations in its history. From 1920 to 1930, L.A.'s Mexican population grew from 33,644 to 97,116, earning the city the title of the "Mexican capital" of the United States, according to Ricardo Romo's history of Los Angeles Mexican-Americans, "East Los Angeles: History of a Barrio."

But not everyone was happy to see these newcomers. El Cholo would help pave the way for this population's eventual acceptance in L.A.

Why El Cholo hid its Mexican origins

L.A. Times columnist Gustavo Arellano, told Eater, "To identify as Mexican in California during the first part of the twentieth century was a dangerous proposition ... The earliest Mexican restaurants in Southern California, therefore, called themselves Spanish or Sonoran — anything but Mexican." Labeling themselves as "Spanish," allowed these early Mexican restaurant owners to create a model for success in a time when racial hostilities might have otherwise made it impossible for them to survive. 

This was true for El Cholo as well. Originally called Sonora Cafe, the eatery adopted a new name in 1925, along with its synonymous hand-drawn character, hastily designed by a customer who dubbed him "El Cholo," after the name Spanish settlers gave their field hands, according to the restaurant's website. By 1927, El Cholo had opened a secondary location — the current flagship location — run by Ron Salisbury's parents on Western Avenue, which would later move across the street in 1931. Eater explains that with this new moniker and a new location, El Cholo was marketed as a "Spanish Cafe," rebranding with a hand-painted sign that read, "Spanish food exclusively," even though its small menu featured only eight dishes — all of them Mexican.

El Cholo: A taste of history

Ron Salisbury, like his parents and grandparents before him, is proud of the restaurant's longevity and success serving traditional Mexican fare and Americanized favorites including enchiladas, albondigas (meatball soup), tacos, chimichangas, and fajitas. In its nearly-century-long tenure, El Cholo has served over a million fluffy handmade flour tortillas, grown to seven locations (including the still thriving Western Avenue location), and even boasts employees with 40 years on the books (via El Cholo).

Its deep sense of history in Los Angeles is also a point of pride. The original stove is still on display at the Western location and El Cholo's website features a thorough history of its 100 years in business, including charming anecdotes about Hollywood stars like Gary Cooper, calling ahead to ensure there would be strawberry jam on hand to top his order of fresh flour tortillas. The menu itself displays the year each dish was added next to its offerings and there is even an epic dish called "A Taste of History," (created in 1996), which features many of El Cholo's favorites throughout the years.

The eatery, whose growth paralleled the birth of old Hollywood, and as the restaurant is proud to share, is a treasured favorite among the stars, hosting the likes of not only Cooper but also "Mambo King" Perez Prado, legendary actors Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas, The Beach Boys, and current-day celebs like John Legend and Chrissy Teigen among many others.

The El Cholo Legacy

As the restaurant's website reads, "Through prohibition, the LA Riots, true Hollywood glamour and into the 2000s, El Cholo continues to bring back memories for our guests." 

And maybe, even more than the food served, that's the true legacy of El Cholo, one of enduring tenacity, community, and pride. A dream made possible through hard work, ingenuity, and tradition, married with the very best of intentions and the confidence to trust those instincts. Though El Cholo's modest beginnings found it necessary (like many of its peers at the time) to play with labels in order to be given a real chance to forge a place for themselves in California's rich cultural and culinary landscape, they never let it sour them to the community they've served all these years.

Salisbury told Culture Trip he feels like the "caretaker" of this legendary hotspot. "I want to continue until I can't step through the door," Salisbury said. "That's really important to me. I want to carry on the tradition my grandparents started, my parents started. Rather than sell it, I'd pass it on to my children."