By opening new restaurant Chiguacle, Sabor Ancestral de Mexico, on Olvera Street this year, owners Alonso and Elsa Arelleno have achieved two notable feats. One is offering a menu that includes pre-Hispanic “ancestral flavors of Mexico,” such as mole made from huitlacoche. It is also one of the few restaurants to open on the historic street in decades: its nearest neighbor, La Luz del Día — a relative newcomer in Olvera Street terms — has been there since 1959. While Olvera Street’s long-lasting restaurants occasionally are dismissed today as tourist traps that serve mediocre Tex-Mex fare, at their inception they were seen as innovative and groundbreaking, adding something new and important to L.A. culture.
The story of food on modern-day Olvera Street begins with the magnetic restaurateur Consuelo Castillo de Bonzo. Called “the spirit of Mexico, the patron saint of Olvera Street, the ideal of Mexican charm and culture for many thousands of us” by columnist Lee Shippey in a 1932 L.A. Times article, Consuelo was born in Mexico before her mother brought her, still a baby, to Los Angeles around 1899. She grew up enamored of her Mexican heritage and determined to revive Mexican culture in an increasingly whitewashed Los Angeles. “At that time everything was called Spanish, even though it originated in Mexico,” she told the Times in 1955. “There’s as much difference between the two as English and American!”
In 1924, the effervescent and enterprising de Bonzo, whose Italian husband had recently fallen ill, decided to open her first restaurant at 123 S. Spring St. She planned to serve traditional recipes passed down from her mother and others in the community. She also insisted on honoring her Mexican heritage, and faced discrimination and skepticism as a result. According to a 1932 profile in the Times:
"She decided to open a Mexican restaurant where the City Hall now stands. Everyone advised her not to do it. Some urged her to call it a Spanish restaurant. The health department eyed her suspiciously. She couldn’t even get a license at first but operated under a temporary permit, for authorities believed her venture couldn’t last more than a month. But she showed such a desire to have just the place the health department would approve that she aroused interest. When she opened the restaurant a big banner announced 'Mexican Cooking.' It was good because she did most of it herself. She had good crowds from the first."
And so the first contemporary Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles was born. When a few years later de Bonzo was forced to move due to the construction of the new City Hall, she opened a new restaurant, La Mision, which became enormously popular with both city officials and popular film stars like Ramon Navarro. So it was no surprise that when socialite Christine Sterling began to lay out plans to transform Olvera Street, the site of the original pueblo of Los Angeles, into a romanticized living-history replica of pre-U.S. Los Angeles, she went to her friend de Bonzo for support. De Bonzo told the Times, "It looked like an impossible dream, but it was the first important effort to give Los Angeles and its visitors a new vision of Mexican arts and customs. I wanted to aid such a movement as that, whether it succeeded or not. And Mrs. Sterling was so ardent about it that it seemed possible when she talked — though it seemed impossible when I went and looked at the squalid street as it then was. So I was the first to move in."
On April 19, 1930, de Bonzo’s new restaurant, La Golondrina Cafe, made its debut. Situated in the historic Pelanconi House, L.A.’s first brick home (built circa 1855), the warm and inviting cafe served as the anchor of the new Olvera Street. A banquet was held, with de Bonzo’s mother offering the blessing, and the doors were thrown open to L.A.’s social elite. The next day, Olvera Street was officially opened to the public.
La Golondrina and its charming owner, who also acted as the restaurant's hostess, were an immediate hit. De Bonzo championed Mexican dancers, singers, musicians and artists at La Golondrina. Mexican superstar Dolores Del Rio was a regular. There were nightly concerts and dances featuring traditional Mexican performances, and whenever possible, de Bonzo attempted to introduce her (mostly white) patrons to her culture’s customs. The same 1932 Times article said:
"Last New Year’s Eve, when midnight struck and throughout the city people were shooting, ringing bells and making outlandish noise, Señora Bonzo cried, 'Friends, I have asked you here to follow Mexican customs, and in Mexico at this moment we always say a little prayer.' And her crowd, including Hollywood actors, reverently followed her lead. Where else can you find a restaurant with that kind of atmosphere?"
Other restaurants soon joined La Golondrina. Elena Pelufo and Frank Webb opened El Paseo Inn in 1930. In 1934, a Mexican woman named Aurora Guerrero, who had come to Los Angeles with her children in search of her husband a few years before, asked Sterling if she could open a food stand on the corner of Alameda and Macy Street (now Cesar Chavez Avenue). Sterling agreed, but only if she would “sell something different” from the other food vendors on Olvera Street. Guerrero accepted the challenge, and after numerous test runs her world-famous taquitos with avocado sauce were born.
The Guerrero family soon was selling the taquitos out of their food stand, which they named Cielito Lindo. With no kitchen or running water, they initially cooked the food at home and drew water from a nearby gas station. In 1947, Aurora’s daughter Ana Natalia opened the perennially popular Las Anitas Restaurant across Olvera Street from her family’s iconic stand.
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But despite the success of families like the Guerreros, de Bonzo remained the Olvera Street food scene’s undisputed grand dame. As is tradition on Olvera Street, de Bonzo’s family worked with her at La Golondrina. “My parents met here; they fell in love,” her granddaughter Vivien recalled. “My mother was a singer and worked for my grandmother, and my father used to sweep. We learned a work ethic in our family.”
The hardest worker may have been de Bonzo herself. She continued to team with Sterling in their shared mission to keep Olvera Street thriving. According to Vivien, “They were both bossy females and they were too big for their britches. They had some good fights, I've heard. They ended up friends.” Throughout the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, de Bonzo could be found “holding court nightly” at La Golondrina. During the day she was often busy with one of the many charities she was involved with, including the Mexican Welfare Committee, the Latin American Civil Defense Corps and the National Conference of Christians and Jews. When she died in 1977, Señora Bonzo was hailed as the “Queen of Olvera Street.”
Today, visitors to Olvera Street can still eat at La Golondrina, El Paseo Inn, Cielito Lindo and Las Anitas. Or they can patronize other long-running Olvera Street eateries such as Juanita’s (established in 1944), which have occupied smaller stalls for decades. And if they are in the mood for something both new and old, they can venture into Chiguacle for some pre-Hispanic home cooking.