Eighty-five years ago, Encarnación Elias Gomez took a huge risk — opening the doors on her new taqueria, El Carmen, at La Brea and Third. Back in 1929, this was about as far as the trolley cars went, and for the widow Gomez to open up her own business? Well, that was a scandal.
But Gomez didn't just succeed. El Carmen was a smash hit of a restaurant, one whose regulars — who later included D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, Boris Karloff, Ricardo Montalban, Nat King Cole, Loretta Young, Diego Rivera, Busby Berkeley, Mario Lanza, Vincent Price and a young actor named John Wayne – came to know her as “Mama.” Even today it still has a strong presence in the neighborhood, a rarity in ever-changing Los Angeles.
Today, some people believe Mama — and maybe someone else from the family — still have a presence at the darkly-lit, romantic restaurant. But who was Encarnación really? And how did she come to open El Carmen, as a woman alone?
Like many women of her era, Encarnación's business venture came from necessity. A Mexican national, she was married to General Arnulfo R. Gomez, and was ready to return to Mexico as First Lady when the man known as el hombre sin vicios (the man without vices) was captured and condemned.
His death in November 1927 made Time magazine and was greeted with a great outpouring of public emotion. But for Encarnación and her kids, it meant they were stranded in L.A. – and had to literally sell the family jewels to survive.
Survive they did. They outlasted the Depression, and 1951 El Carmen moved west along Third Street, with its customers happily following along – perhaps because one of Encarnación’s family recipes was said to be the originator of the now-ubiquitous combination plate.
Many generations of the family worked there, including Encarnacion's stepdaughter Martha and grandkids Paulino and Montserrat. The pair remember shooting .22 guns in what was then empty ground behind the bar. But though many things changed when it was sold in 1997, some things — and some stories —stayed the same.
New owner Sean MacPherson of Committed, Inc. (Bar Lubitsch, Olive, New York's Waverly Inn) turned El Carmen into a dark and cozy tequila haven, but there have still been reports of strange happenings: unidentified electrical problems like the CD player suddenly switching off, boxes falling off shelves in the upstairs office, and workers feeling blasts of cold air. Several years ago, eerily, a new employee reported finding a gift of candies in her hoodie after work.
A kind gesture from a co-worker? Perhaps. But years back there was always a bowl of candy by the till, and Mama would hand out treats to her favorite customers: Could it be that she was making her sweet gesture from beyond the grave?
In another dimension, maybe the ghost is Encarnacion's stepdaughter, Martha. Paulino, a member of the Magic Castle who worked as manager at El Carmen for 30 years until the sale to MacPherson, felt sure if there was any ghost there causing trouble it wasn't the kindly Encarnación: it was more likely to be his Aunt Martha. “She was a force to be reckoned with,” he says.
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At El Carmen, combo plates are still a menu staple and mixologist Nicky B’s new “Bloody Maria” is a good Sunday alternative to a Bloody Mary, while real horror fans could perhaps try a True Blood or some of the other several hundred tequilas on the menu.
On Oct. 31, the mysterious and suave lucha libre wrestler Tito LaBrea will be at El Carmen to celebrate both the Day of the Day and Halloween. But there may be someone else too. Encarnacion's stepdaughter Martha? Or the pioneer restaurateur herself, still keeping an eye on her cantina? Check your purses, bags and hoodies, and wait for the chill to creep across the back of your neck....