Let’s face it, mariscos, mole, carnitas and cochinita pibil all taste better when a band of mariachis enthusiastically performs in front of you. Dressed in the vibrant traje de charro, you can’t help but be mesmerized as each vocalist takes turns showing off their musical prowess, whether onstage or weaving through the restaurant’s tables.
Using instruments like the Mexican vihuela, a bass guitar called a guitarrón, trumpet and guitar, the music aims to draw in all ages. It's traditional in big celebrations such as weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, quinceañeras and even funerals.
“Growing up, I didn't want to be so closely identified with the Mexican culture,” admits Juan Coronado, general manager at Frida. “But then as I got older, I realized it was time to embrace mariachi as part of my heritage.”
The life of a mariachi can be challenging, notes Juan J. Sanjuan, owner of Gloria’s Restaurant in Huntington Park. “The traje de charro is very respected and [the mariachi] can be reprimanded if not worn properly or not clean and on point. The botonadura (buttons) are very beautiful and worn with pride on the jacket and alongside the pants.”
For the mariachis who work with Gloria’s, the botonadura costs about $3,000 for each traje (suit), according to Sanjuan. “The total cost for one traje was $3,500 and that can run into tens of thousands of dollars depending on the material. Some people have even done it in gold.”
One of the biggest controversies in the mariachi world is how much to modernize the group.
“Do you stay traditional and sing a song like 'El Son de la Negra' (the most famous mariachi song ever), or do you modernize and do songs in English like “New York, New York” or even songs from The Beach Boys?” asks Sanjuan. “Personally, I like modernizing our music because it shows how diverse and amazing the mariachi musicians can be.”
Get ready to watch talented mariachis soulfully express all the feels at these seven Mexican restaurants.
Cielito Lindo is the only mariachi-owned restaurant in L.A. and the first to offer a mariachi brunch. In business for 32 years, its owner, José Hernández, has kept the restaurant going — even through the 2008 recession. “I am loyal to the people who work with me and their families,” he says humbly.
For Hernández, mariachi goes beyond age groups and ethnicity. “It’s happy and passionate. This is the only music that Mexicans can play and everyone from ages 10 to 90 know the words. Mariachi brings a unity to the family and culture, and has been around for at least 200 years.”
Hernández is a fifth-generation mariachi and a four-time Grammy Award nominee who has played with numerous big-name musicians (Tom Petty, Linda Ronstadt, Selena, The Beach Boys, etc.) He directs the restaurant’s in-house band, Mariachi Sol de México, and America’s first all-female professional mariachi ensemble, Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles.
When you drop by, check out the homemade corn tortillas with hot carnitas topped with salsa, onions and cilantro. Or try the menudo, a spicy beef tripe soup with onion, cilantro, radishes, oregano and lime. Wash it down with a tasty cucumber margarita.
“Mariachi goes with spicy food and comfort food. This is why customers love our tequila birria, pozole, menudo and churros,” he explains.
1612 Santa Anita Ave., South El Monte; (626) 442-1254, elcielitolindo.com.
Always a restaurant that supports diversity, Malo does a brunch the first and third Sunday of each month with Mariachi Arcoiris, the world's first and only LGBTQ mariachi group.
Since mariachis are still very traditional, with a focus on “machismo,” there are not a lot of restaurants out there that hire the group. In fact, they get a lot of backlash from fellow mariachis for being LGBT.
Choosing an LGBTQ band initially felt simply “appropriate” for Malo and Silver Lake, says general manager Bart Larson.
“The LGBTQ community is not ‘tolerated’ here but rather embraced. This is the recent history of Silver Lake, and Malo's personality has been formed from that. We are proud to have such an eclectic crowd,” Larson says.
This band is by far the “highest level of musicanship” the restaurant has ever witnessed, he adds. “Also, the best variety of songs, styles performed and presentation. And Malo has hired a lot of mariachis in 15 years!”
Carlos Samaniego originally created Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Angeles because he felt that there was a need to create a haven for mariachi musicians within the LGBTQ community.
“As an openly gay mariachi musician, I had to endure discrimination, bullying, rejection and being the brunt of jokes,” Samaniego says. “Our Mexican culture is one of a machista mentality. It’s even been difficult for women to break into mariachi. More so is the case for openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people.”
In the years since its start, the band serves as a role model for the community, Samaniego acknowledges. “We have inspired people to come out to their families, or even to come out to their fellow musicians. They say that we are a positive light in our community in a place that sometimes feels like a constant battleground.”
Malo's originals include items such as the chicken carnitas tacos, sugar pumpkin tacos and Ensenada bacon-wrapped shrimp.
4326 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake; (323) 664-1011, malorestaurant.com.
Gloria’s Restaurant & Bar
When you're at Gloria’s, ask Sanjuan to show you some photos of his family’s mariachi history.
“My grandfather was a mariachi, he used to play the vihuela. My uncle still has the violin my grandfather used to play. My father also was a mariachi. It’s in our blood.
“Listening to my father sing to mariachi songs since I can recall gave me the knowledge and respect that I now possess for our music.”
Gloria’s makes delicious home-cooked dishes that could take you back in time to your childhood, like the parrillada, which means grill or barbecue. It features seared steak, adobo chicken and tripitas (beef intestine) with fried plantains, deep-fried potatoes and grilled onion, all kept warm on a charcoal grill.
“I believe that when your heritage, roots and values are engraved under your skin, and deep into your soul, there is really no way to disguise your love and passion for good food and traditional music,” Sanjuan says.
“This is my life, day in and day out. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to share our home-cooked dishes, from my parents’ hometown of Mascota, Jalisco, to all of our patrons who grace our establishment with their visit.”
7823 Pacific Blvd., Huntington Park; (323) 581-4781, gloriashp.com.
Rarely do you visit a venue and feel as if you have been transported to another country. El Mercadito is one of the many hidden gems in Boyle Heights. The restaurant is part of a three-floor building housing many quaint shops.
“Hiring a mariachi band is expensive, so people like to come in for our shows. If they have a special music request, they can ask the musicians to play a song for $10,” co-owner Mercedes Lopez says.
Another fun thing — you can go onstage for “mariachi karaoke” and sing your own song with a real mariachi band.
Many of Lopez’s childhood memories are wrapped around mariachi music. “I remember my grandmother taking her family to eat upstairs after music and dance classes on Saturdays, and ordering the shrimp cocktail or breaded shrimp.
“I remember those times when I see really young kids eating shrimp at our restaurant. And, of course, mariachi was playing.”
3425 E. First St., Boyle Heights; (323) 262-4507.
La Golondrina Mexican Cafe
If you want a Mexican brunch with mariachis, head to Olvera Street's La Golondrina, the first Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles; it opened in 1924 at what is now City Hall in DTLA. At the time, it was called Casa La Golondrina (the House of Swallows), and it has been in its current location since 1930.
The restaurant hosts a mariachi trio every weekend from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and also some Friday nights. “Many places only offer brunch items during certain days at specific times. Ours are always available and people do like that they can get huevos rancheros at 8 p.m.,” general manager Jason Mosley says.
Other brunch items include chilaquiles con huevos, huevos Nuevo Mexico and burrito de carne asada con huevos.
“The roasted tomato salsa that chef Gilberto makes is out of this world and really ties the whole dish together. Add melted cheese and you just can't go wrong!” Mosley says. “Sometimes I do get the huevos rancheros burrito where he adds a homemade pork sausage. I'm getting fat just thinking about it,” he quips.
The horchata is made from scratch every day. “It is a rice-milk base with spices such as cinnamon and other combinations that the chef can't reveal. It's a very home-style recipe and many Mexican families take pride in their specific horchata recipes. Ours is the best!” Mosley declares.
The restaurant is so beloved that it still has patrons who visit with stories of their parents and grandparents.
One of Mosley’s favorite mariachi moments came one Sunday on the patio, with a young boy. “It was his birthday and something his parents did (or didn't do) put him in a bad state. And so he sat there in defiance, not touching his huevos rancheros. We usually save the birthday song for after the meal, but I asked the mariachis if they could do it to lighten him up.”
The mariachis performed their usual amazing take on the song — loud, entertaining and so much fun. “The boy couldn't keep his frown for too long and before the song ended, he had the biggest smile! There's nothing like getting serenaded by a mariachi band. He finished his huevos with nothing left on his plate and scarfed down a homemade flan to boot!” Mosley adds.
17 Olvera St., downtown; (213) 628-4349, casalagolondrinacafe.com.
If you are looking for mariachi on the Westside, Casa Sanchez offers authentic dishes like mole poblano, chamorro de puerco (baked pork shank) and cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork, marinated in achiote paste and bitter orange juice and baked in banana leaves).
“We really want to uphold the culinary traditions found in the various regions in Mexico. We have dishes here you are just not going to find anywhere else,” boasts general manager Roberto Chavez.
Casa Sanchez likes to keep up with the times and has added several vegan and vegetarian options to the menu.
The restaurant’s impressive in-house group, Mariachi Voces de Mexico de Raul Sanchez, can sing in four languages; they perform Thursdays through Sundays.
4500 S. Centinela Ave., Del Rey; (310)397-9999, casa-sanchez.com.
Frida Mexican Cuisine
For a reasonably priced Sunday brunch buffet, check out Frida, the Mexican restaurant mini-chain, which just lowered its brunch prices ($22.95, $12.95 kids).
Vicente Del Rio, CEO and president of Frimex Hospitality Group, has had positive feedback from attendees, so much so that the group is working on launching mariachi night at all of its locations.
“We have had great feedback from customers who love the mariachis. They are especially popular with families and kids,” Del Rio says. “It’s just a fun way to relax with food and drinks.”
Highlights from Frida's extensive brunch menu include a taco and quesadilla bar, guisados, and omelet and pancake stations. For lunch, there is camarones al ajillo (shrimp with garlic), pescado baja (mahi mahi) and molcajete Frida (skirt steak).
“All of our food is handcrafted with fresh products including handmade tortillas,” Del Rio says. “We want everything to be very authentic.”
Del Rio has fond teenage memories of listening to mariachis in Mexico. “We were in high school, and would go for a late lunch with friends, listening to fantastic bands and eating Mexican food.”
Locations in Sherman Oaks, Cerritos and Torrance; fridarestaurant.com.