You can learn a lot from listening to other people.
Start by listening to your spouse.
The El Cholo story began back in 1923 when Alejandro Borquez pushed away from the dinner table and said to his wife, Rosa, “You are such a good cook we should open up a restaurant.”
Listen to your customers.
It’s how El Cholo came by its name.
As the story goes, a guest came in for dinner and drew a figure of a field hand with a big floppy hat—known in California as El Cholos. Alejandro liked the name and immediately changed his Sonora Cafe to El Cholo Cafe.
And, it’s how El Cholo came by its popular margarita recipe. “A guest showed them how to make a good margarita in the 60s,” says Rand Salisbury. “That’s how they got it.” The “they” in this story is Salisbury’s grandparents and parents, who preceded him in running the restaurant. Salisbury says the restaurant now serves 30-40 gallons a day of margaritas.
They also serve some other terrific food and drinks.
Such as Guacamole, Molcajete Style, served in a bowl with fresh ingredients for your to mix and mash as you choose.
And Joe’s Traditional Albondigas, a meatball soup that has been served at the restaurant since 1923, and named after Joe Rena, the original chef.
The Green Corn Tamales, another 1923 recipe that is served seasonally and made with fresh corn off the cob, corn masa, cheddar cheese and ortega chile, steamed in its own husk.
The L.A. Lemonade, made with 1800, Sauza Conmemorativo, Herradura Silver, and Cointreau hand-shaken.
The all-time best seller known as “Combinaciones No. 1,” with a cheese enchilada, beef taco, Spanish rice and refriend beans.
An amazing Mexican Hot Chocolate. Sonora Style Nachos. Combo Fajitas. Sonora Enchiladas. Chocolate Chimichangas. And lots more.
And it all started back in 1923, when Salisbury’s great-grandparents (Alejandro and Rosa) opened a restaurant in Los Angeles near the Coliseum. “My great-grandmother Rosa was the chef,” says Salisbury. “She had the biggest impact on the menu.”
Then, as the story goes, George Salisbury went in for dinner and met a waitress, who turned out to be the owner’s daughter, Aurelia. “They married and opened their own restaurant,” says their grandson. “They had my father, and one store. My father, Ron Salisbury, grew it in the 60s.”
Salisbury adds, “He’s still active and goes into the restaurant daily.”
The family tradition now extends into the fifth generation. Says Salisbury, “I met my wife when she was a server at the El Cholo in Orange. Now our children are in the business, too.” He adds, “It’s a good place to work. We’ve grown, but still have the personal touch.”
That family involvement means the personal touch is still in play at all of the El Cholo locations. “My father walks right into the line and tastes the food,” he says.
“From the very beginning,” explains Salisbury, “we’ve always used quality ingredients, and that’s important to us. Our cheddar cheese is aged six months before we pick it up. The Carne Asada is a New York strip steak. We use culotte steak for the fajitas. Our marjaritas are made with 1800® Tequila. We’ve had the same tortilla vendor for 60 years. We use top of the line products.”
They also use cloth napkins—unusual in a Mexican restaurant—because, as Salisbury says, “All those little things make a difference.”
Salisbury himself started working in the family business at age 14, washing pots, and worked his way up to management. It’s the same way their current Executive Chef, Roberto Juarez, started.
Says Juarez, “I came in 31 years ago and applied for a job. I cleaned pots, and they made a place for me. Food, for me, is passion.”
Juarez has retained the traditional recipes, saying, “I like that people know those dishes. For me, it’s important that people taste the original recipes.”
The Mexico City native also considers it important to expand people’s tastes beyond tacos and burritos.
“Now they know Mexican food is so many different flavors,” he says. To ensure the quality of those flavors, they make their own salsa in house, and all sauces are made fresh daily.
The restaurant has made concessions over the years to changing tastes—for example, Salisbury says, “We used to give hot corn tortillas, butter and salsa and set it on the table. Over the years, other restaurants started with the chips. Now, if we don’t have chips, people want to know where they are. But, if they are regulars, they ask for the tortillas.”
Much of their business is repeat, says Salisbury. “Parents brought their kids; their kids brought their kids. People don’t always know why they come back, but we think it’s the memories and the quality. The difference is we are authentic.”
El Cholo also serves the community, with things such as a “Heroes Dinner” where they show appreciation to police, firefighters and teachers each year. “We’re high on education,” says Salisbury. “We support schools and learning centers.”
It’s just part of what sets El Cholo apart—that feeling of community and family.
After all, you never know who will walk through the door with a new idea.
For more history and great recipes from El Cholo, get the El Cholo Cookbook: Recipes and Memories from California’s Best-Loved Mexican Kitchen.
See our video from El Chollo here.
See our blog from the Los Angeles tour, Simple Pleasures, Quality Ingredients.
Visit El Cholo when you are in the Irvine/Los Angeles area:
5465 Alton Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92604
1025 Wilshire Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90401
840 E Whittier Blvd
La Habra, CA 90631
1121 S Western Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90006
This is a Raves & Faves Featured Restaurant.