Saturday, January 06, 2007

Review: El Cholo

So, I finally loaded all my cd's into iTunes, which of course means my iPod is now too small. Ah, the petty discontents of a suburban life. Anyway, I like to use the shuffle - it's like a radio station that only plays stuff I like, and the other day iTunes gave me one by Neil Young. I thought the next song was by Young, too, since it began with a jangly, slightly messy guitar riff. That was, at least until the singing began, and then I realized it was Radiohead's "The Bends".

It's an easy mistake to make. Just as there would have been no hip-hop without James Brown and no internet without Al Gore, there would have been no early 90's guitar rock without Neil Young.

I was thinking about this last week on my way home from El Cholo Spanish Cafe in L.A. on Western just south of Olympic.

El Cholo is the original Mexican restaurant. I mean, obviously, there had been restaurants owned by Mexicans who served the food of their home country or heritage, but El Cholo was the first restaurant that made its bones selling mild Mexican inspired food to white people. If you've ever enjoyed a meal at Chi-Chi's or Acapulco or any other chain Mexican place, almost every element of your meal got it's start at El Cholo.

They keep it old school here. Like many L.A. restaurants, the walls of the waiting area are covered with head shots. The servers wear guayabera shirts or full, off the shoulder dresses in a floral pattern. The salsa is the weak, spicy ketchup style favored by generations of white people, and the chips were such a throw back that they were fried in lard. (I'm just now getting the coating out of my mouth).

I ordered the oldest item on the menu (everything is listed with the year they first served it) - the Sonora Style Enchilada (1923). Rather than rolled, this is a stack of tortillas with chicken and cheese in between, with sauce, black beans, and a fried egg on top. Completely old school and really good. As a plus, it's goodness helped make up for the time I ordered something similar at La Fiesta Grande or some such place in Grand Junction, Colorado - the worst Mexican meal of my life. Wendy ordered - to make "a proper comparison" she said, the Number One Combination (1938) - which as always, was a beef taco in a hard shell and a cheese enchilada with rice and beans. She gave it her approval.

At the end of the day, it was better than the chain restaurants and so if you can just think of Mexican places like this as a distinct cuisine from that served by taco trucks, carnicerias, or even King Taco, it may be one of the best. It's definitely worth the trip at least once.

Two other comments, first, the crowd that night was amazingly diverse - Koreans, blacks, Latinos, white suburbanites, Chinese, USC grads in Hawaiian shirts. That was really cool. Second, Wendy and I shared a Margarita, a first for us. (We figured we'd have the whole experience). I'd never had any kind of distilled liquor before, and I can't say I'm fan yet. I suppose if I were ever in a situation where I had to have a drink I could have another, but after a few sips I was wishing I'd ordered iced tea. Pretty weak, huh?


Jon Shoemaker said...

I noticed you didn't mention Taco King. Perhaps Taco King's superior customer service, 24-hour availability and french fries deterred you from even putting El Cholo and Taco King on the same playing field. If you dare say El Cholo surpasses Taco King, well then you will have a mutiny on your hands.

Bob Ramsey said...

Come on Jon, keep up. This is apples and oranges.

Places like Taco King and Tacos Tapatio are in a whole different category from El Cholo.

Jeff said...

I had the same dish the one time I went to El Cholo. Wasn't as impressed with the flavors, but liked the content of the meal. We have an El Cholo here in Pasadena, but I don't go there. Try Mijares here in Pasadena - good Mexican. Don't try Margarita Jones, which is probably obvious from the very "bleached" name.

Bob Ramsey said...

Mijares has been there forever, and we went there and liked when we lived in Pasadena in the late 80's. We also went to a dive place called Super Antojitos on Mentor next to the Ice House. But my favorite was the counter at the back of a careniceria on Washington just east of Lake. Killer carne asada burritos.

My real interest in El Cholo was as a cultural landmark rather than as an eating experience. In Pasadena, a comperable place would be Barney's on Colorado, the cafeterias or Pie and Burger.

Jon Shoemaker said...

I'm sorry Bob, but anytime I hear of fine dining Mexican, my mind instantly goes to Taco King and their bullet-proof glass.