Old-school Mexican is a state of mind. Far, far away from farm-to-table, diet fads or the latest trends, this style of cuisine celebrates comfort, plenty and lots of lard.
Some of the places serve Cal Mex, others serve Tex Mex. No point making a big distinction; the cuisines are pretty similar. Both feature combination plates with a choice of enchiladas, tacos (hard shell please!), tamales, burritos and chile rellenos, filling the plate with sides of cheesy refried beans and “Spanish” rice. The whole, hot plate is smothered in sauce and more cheese. Any resemblance to “authentic” Mexican food, like Guelaguetza's moles or Border Grill's black beans topped with crumbly cotija cheese, is purely accidental.
The cuisine at these restaurants was shaped at a time in the last century when ingredients like cilantro were much more difficult to come by, when places like Long Beach earned the sobriquet “Iowa by the Sea.” California's huge growth in these years came from an Anglo population unused to spicy or “exotic” food, which could mean something as basic as corn tortillas. But even though our palates have come a long way, even today a meal at a great old-school Mexican restaurant leaves us sated, content and maybe even a little drunk. – Angela Matano