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. These retro-minded dishes wouldn’t be caught dead featuring chia seeds or kale – although it’s amusing to remember that the avocado once was as exotic as a cherimoya.
Some of the places on our list of 10 great old-school Mexican restaurants serve Cal-Mex, others 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.
These restaurants’ cuisine was shaped in the last century, when ingredients such as 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 unaccustomed to spicy or “exotic” food, which could mean something as basic as corn tortillas.
Although 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.
Just how old-school are we talking? Well, the newest place on this list was established in 1984, and the oldest, El Cholo, is closing in on a century. Clearly, they’re doing something right.
El Arco Iris
Another family-run operation, El Arco Iris (“the rainbow”) was opened by Gustavo and Irene Montes in 1964. A mainstay of Highland Park, the restaurant moved in 1981 to a much larger space. It’s now run by the couple’s daughter, Angie Montes, and her successful restaurateur son, Jesse Gomez (Mercado, Yxta Cocina Mexicana), and the younger generation has been careful not to mess with perfection. The fresh guacamole and duo of salsas come in molcajetes (mortars), summoning visions of Old Mexico, and the enchiladas are served with a choice of either traditional ranchero sauce or a zesty salsa verde. The burritos are juicy and gigantic, and the shrimp burrito comes with “beans from the pot” rather than refried. Such details make all the difference. 5684 York Blvd., Highland Park. (323) 254-3402.
What began as a mere shack in 1963 in the backwater of Venice Beach has become an institution, and one of the few remnants of this once-seedy neighborhood now legitimized by Whole Foods and stuffed with trendy restaurants. La Cabana’s unpretentious combination platters epitomize old-school Angeleno Mexican with crunchy tacos, cheesy enchiladas and greasy chile rellenos. The creamy, basic guacamole (not the fancified “tableside” version augmented with onions and cilantro) melds almost symbiotically with the hot, crunchy corn chips and acts as a perfect setup for the strong margaritas. The restaurant serves things like posole and peach pizzazz margaritas, but why monkey with pure bliss? 738 Rose Ave., Venice; (310) 392-7973.
Recently “refreshed” by Flipping Out’s Jeff Lewis with the architectural equivalent of Restylane and Botox, Casa Vega looks better than ever – more sophisticated and paradoxically more authentic. It has been family-run since 1956, with Ray Vega recently passing the mantle to daughter Christy. A hidden gem embedded in the endless stretch of Ventura Boulevard, Casa Vega dresses up nicely for a date night, whether blind or perennial. In addition to the classic corn chips, the flour tortilla chips pair well with the fresh guacamole. You won’t go home hungry. 13301 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 788-4868.
One of the oldest Mexican restaurants in Southern California, with roots extending back to 1923, El Cholo embodies the feel of Old Mexico à la 1940s musicals featuring Carmen Miranda. That feels especially anachronistic sitting as it does on a stretch of Western Avenue that’s pretty hard to feel nostalgic about. The food at El Cholo is hearty and slightly more original than you might expect. The tacos al carbon combining top sirloin and bacon would be right at home on a top-flight taco truck. The seasonal (May to October) green corn tamales are remarkably light and flavorful, with a fresh-tasting sweetness. 1121 S. Western Ave., Harvard Heights. (323) 734-2773. Locations also dwntwn., La Habra, Irvine, Santa Monica and Anaheim Hills.
Half the fun of Cielito Lindo is its location, at the end of historic Olvera Street. Serving taquitos with “guacamole sauce,” the iconic flavor of Cielito dates back to Aurora Guerrero’s original recipe, developed in 1934. Now run by Aurora’s three granddaughters, Diana and Marianna Robertson and Susanna MacManus, the taquitos remain the same. While the sauce’s resemblance to guacamole is fleeting (it’s really more like an avocado salsa), the corn tortilla shells are crisp and hot, and the beef is chewy. They offer other options, such as burritos (soyrizo is available) and tamales, but choosing anything other than the taquitos is like going to a shrimp shack and ordering chicken. Eat them standing up and then walk it off perusing old-school merch, like huaraches and confetti eggs. 23 Olvera St., dwntwn. (213) 687-4391.
A bona fide institution (the first incarnation opened in 1931), El Coyote is the last word in Mexican food for Angelenos of a certain generation. The booths, colored glass windows and strong margaritas defined South of the Border cuisine for a long time. Even today, El Coyote sticks to its culinary guns, serving the same tacos in hard shells, the same soupy, refried beans and “Spanish” rice, and the same limp cheese enchilada in its Combinaciones No. 1. It serves as a time machine to our collective culinary past, suspended in amber. With enough tequila, the atmosphere and history are almost convincing enough to make the food – salty, greasy, melty – hit the spot. 7312 Beverly Blvd., Fairfax District. (323) 939-2255.
First off, sit in the cave. The room is dark and the walls are covered with something that simulates mud – kitschlove. For some reason, this is extremely cozy. Opened in 1982 by Antonio and Amalia Hernandez (who previously owned Gilbert’s El Indio), the decor is delightfully unchanged, with red Naugahyde booths and a strangely relaxing celestial motif. Anything with melted cheese on top, like the yummy refried beans, gets those toasty brown spots from the broiler, while the margaritas are predictably fuerte. 11755 W. Pico Blvd., Sawtelle. (310) 312-2090.
Manuel’s Original El Tepeyac Café
Since 1955, when Manuel Rojas first opened El Tepeyac, gargantuan burritos helped this Boyle Heights café establish itself. You could call it the house that burritos built. The Hollenbeck, which easily feeds two, comes chock-full of beans, rice, guacamole, lettuce and a choice of pork, chicken or beef (machaca or carne asada). The burrito then gets a generous portion of “red tomato – based chili verde” poured over it and more meat sprinkled on top, just for good measure. There is also a larger version of the Hollenbeck, which feeds four or more and just might make you cry with its husky beauty. El Tepeyac now is run by Manuel’s daughter, Elena Rojas, and grandchildren Ariel Rojas and Carlos Thome. Lines on the weekends can stretch down the sidewalk, but don’t let that deter your pursuit of happiness. 812 N. Evergreen Ave., Boyle Heights. (323) 268-1960. Also 13131 Crossroads Pkwy. S., City of Industry. (562) 695-2277.
Marix Tex Mex Cafe
Opened in 1984 by Mary Sweeney and Victoria Shemaria with the goal of bringing a little Texas to California, Marix Tex Mex is invitingly situated around the corner from Largo at the Coronet. The restaurant is perfect for a night out with friends in the mood for stiff margaritas, spicy queso fundido dip and fresh chips and salsa. The queso comes with house-made chorizo (substitute soyrizo if you’re a vegetarian) and chile rajas, or strips of poblanos. Tucked into a side street and covered in greenery, Marix feels like an insider secret, and the patio, with its retractable roof, can feel cozy or sophisticatedly en plein air, depending on the weather. The food comes fast and hot. 1108 N. Flores St., W. Hlywd. (323) 848-2458. Also 118 Entrada Drive, Santa Monica. (310) 459-8596.
Back in the day, when the world was flat and the moon made of green cheese, tacos came in hard shells with shredded beef of unknown origin, orange cheese of dubious provenance and a ketchup-y “salsa” with no pretensions to freshness. Those days can still be experienced at Tito’s Tacos in Culver City. Founded in 1959, when enchiladas could be bought in a can, Tito’s food is, in its owners’ words, “flavorsome.” Go for the namesake tacos with the classic grated cheddar cheese and iceberg lettuce, and experience the time warp for yourself. The underpass locale provides its own measure of authentic Angeleno cred. 11222 Washington Place, Culver City. (310) 391-9655.
Check out Jared Cowan’s slideshow of old-school Mexican restaurants