In 1923, Alejandro and Rosa Borquez opened Sonora Café, named for their home state of Sonora, Mexico. The site of the two-room restaurant was in Downtown LA, on Broadway and Santa Barbara Avenue, which is now Martin Luther King Boulevard. It was near the LA Memorial Coliseum,  which also opened in 1923. The original menu featured early California plates, including the legendary green corn tamales that are still a highlight today.

The dusty cafe was a favorite among the local workforce. As the story goes, two years later, a guest wandered into the cafe and, while waiting for dinner, doodled the figure of a man on the menu and captioned it “El Cholo,” the name given to field hands of the Spanish settlers in California at the time. 

Alejandro loved the man’s scribble and changed the name of his restaurant. By 1927, the family had expanded to an old Craftsman bungalow at 11th Street and Western Avenue, and the rest is Los Angeles history. 

El Cholo

Courtesy El Cholo

“Some of my earliest memories are from this building, like washing dishes and making coffee,” 90-year-old grandson of the founders Ron Salisbury tells L.A. Weekly in the dining room of the expanded bungalow at Western Avenue and 11th Street. “Part of the rite of passage for my own children  was that they had to spend their summers making green corn tamales when they were young. To make extra money, I sent them out to the country to buy the corn cheaper and then I’d buy it from them, which really taught them how to hustle.”

Salisbury has been in the family business for 68 years, which has expanded to six El Cholos and two fine dining restaurants in Newport Beach, Louie’s by the Bay and The Cannery. A seventh El Cholo will open in Salt Lake City Utah in the summer, where Salisbury still spends his winters skiing.

“Everybody has their own El Cholo story,” says Salisbury. “There are generations of memories here. Actress  Michelle Phillips, who started her career with the Mamas and The Papas, sent us a thank you letter with her own story. She wrote: “I was driving along on a date with Jack Nicholson back in the ‘60s and he asked me if I like Mexican food, and I told him I don’t know what it is. He said ‘I’m going to take you to the best Mexican restaurant there is,’ and we wound up at El Cholo.”

El Cholo

Michelle Phillips with El Cholo Owner Ron Salisbury and Restaurant Manager Alma Corona March 30 (Courtesy El Cholo)

Decades later, Phillips returned to the intersection of Western Avenue and 11th Street, the site of the oldest El Cholo restaurant, as it was renamed Alejandro and Rosa Borquez Square on March 30 by the City of Los Angeles, in honor of the original founders.

“When they named the street corner, it was really a time for me to go back and contemplate,” says Salisbury, who has seven children, 18 grandchildren, six great grandchildren, and still pilots his own plane. “I thought of my grandparents. They were just humble people trying to create a living, chasing the American dream. I can’t imagine what they would think if they knew the city of LA put up a plaque remembering them. They wouldn’t believe me if I told them. And yet, it happened.”

But back to the green corn tamales, which are only available on the menu from May to October. While El Cholo is most famous for it’s enchiladas, Salisbury has made a lifelong commitment to keeping the cheese-stuffed specialty steamed in raw green husks on the menu for 100 years.

El Cholo

Alejandro and Rosa Borquez 1922 (Courtesy El Cholo)

“If you go back to Arizona in its early days, worms would get into the corn and the farmers would cut that part off and throw it away,” he says. “Now you have a smaller piece of corn, but it’s fresh and clean. In those days you didn’t waste anything, so you’d make tamales out of it. We’ve always had ladies cutting the kernels off the cob. Sometimes they’d cut it evenly, sometimes it’s not enough, sometimes too much and sometimes they’d cut their fingers. So one day I walked into Ralph’s market and was going through the canned goods when I saw the processed Del Monte corn kernels. I figured they don’t have a bunch of ladies sitting around cutting their fingers, I’ll bet they have a machine. I located one in San Jose, and we flew up and brought it back down to L.A. That machine finally wore out and we tracked one down in China that we still use today. We make all the tamales here in the building next door and they are driven to all our locations. We go through 30 cases of corn a week, mainly from Central America, which contain 48 fresh cobs that we end up shucking from May to October.”

The rest of the menu hasn’t changed much over the years, and that’s intentional. There may be an occasional special like the spicy camarones diablo and other tweaks like spicing up the chili sauce, with a conscious effort not to be trendy. Still, the most popular item still remains the No. 1 combination plate (cheese enchilada, signature crispy rolled beef taco, Spanish rice and refried beans).

El Cholo

Green corn tamales (Courtesy El Cholo)

The year’s festivities include people who are 100 years old or older can eat for free throughout the 2023 calendar year and the special $100 Margarita, served in a hand-blown, collectible glass. Insider tip: if you want a free order of nachos, request to sit at the worst table in the house at the Western Avenue location, the El Cholo Famous Nacho Table. 

For Salisbury, who still regularly zips from his home in Newport Beach to the various El Cholo locations in his frisky little electric Porsche sports car, retirement is not on his radar.

“What for?” says Salisbury, who recently lost good friend and contemporary Richard Riordan, former mayor of Los Angeles. In spite of the current tumultuous state of the restaurant business, he powers on.

This is the best age of all the different decades, because at this point you can sit back and not worry if you’re making enough money. Now you’re just reflecting back on how everything worked out and the lessons learned. You think about the people who have impacted your life and the experiences that molded you. I have nothing left to prove. I want to enjoy what I have.  We look back at what got us here and what the trip was like, and I can’t believe how good it turned out. Not in my wildest dreams did I think it would turn out this good.”

El Cholo

Courtesy El Cholo

El Cholo

Aurelia Borquez, the daughter of Alejandro and Rosa (Courtesy El Cholo)

































































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