At 7 p.m. on a Friday at the original El Cholo location on Western Avenue just south of Olympic Boulevard, East LA natives sit in the lounge next to the busy bar with its massive blue-tinged fish tank. It’s date night, so the couple adjusts their chairs and sits shoulder to shoulder while watching the Boston Celtics lose to the Phoenix Suns. El Cholo staff in white shirts and black ties deliver the Borquezes’ order — a tray of classic dishes that have been on the El Cholo menu for anywhere between 47 and 100 years. Borquez immediately digs into his favorite El Cholo item: the green enchiladas.
“Sometimes we get the nachos or the green corn tamales. But my favorite is the enchiladas suizas.” Those enchiladas were introduced in 1978, while the green corn tamales were on the original menu when El Cholo first opened in 1923.
Barely 10 minutes after the Borquezes start dinner, El Cholo’s front lounge is packed. Expediters fly out of the kitchen to drop a plate of Carmen’s Original Nachos to a group of cheerfully tipsy Latinos in their 20s; a pair of Black parents arrive with two preteen children in tow who ask about quesadillas; a middle-aged man wearing a flannel shirt downs a shot of tequila before his date and tamale arrive; and a Black couple enjoys their chimichangas while sitting side by side in a booth. The bartenders hastily prepare margaritas and open beers at the packed bar. The host informs a well-dressed Asian family about the hour-long wait for a table, which they accept without objection. The Borquezes — who visit the original El Cholo at least twice a month — pay their bill before the Friday night rush gets in full swing.
Whether the aforementioned dishes, chile relleno/rolled beef taco combination platter, or chile con carne, El Cholo’s menu items can trace LA history that spans from 1923 to the present day. And through these dishes, the people of LA have gained a long appreciation for this restaurant.
Los Angeles’s oldest Mexican restaurant opened in 1923. That’s two years before Olvera Street secured La Golondrina which debuted in 1930, and Cielito Lindo. (The famous taquito maker started operations in 1933.) El Cholo also shares its centennial anniversary with another iconic LA landmark: the Hollywood sign. Their longevity is a testament to their stature in Los Angeles.
In the past century, El Cholo expanded to six outposts across Southern California and one slated for Salt Lake City, but loyalists are devoted to the Western Avenue original. Founders Rosa and Alejandro Borquez (no relation to Marcos and Rosalinda Borquez) moved from the Mexican state of Sonora to Arizona, then Los Angeles, before opening Sonora Cafe — El Cholo’s original name — in Exposition Park in 1923 with eight stools and three tables. In 1925, the family moved the restaurant into a Western Avenue storefront. While there, a returning customer drew a caricature of a man donning a sombrero on a napkin and called it “El Cholo.” When the Borquezes moved operations across the street in 1931, they installed a neon sign above the entrance using that same drawing, and renamed the restaurant.
Today, it’s run by Rosa and Alejandro Borquez’s grandson and current CEO Ron Salisbury, who turns 90 this year. Salisbury grew up inside El Cholo. He remembers barely reaching the cash register as his mother Aurelia Borquez-Salisbury taught him how to count using money.
Salisbury witnessed plenty throughout the decades, from El Cholo’s early days of labeling itself as a “Spanish” restaurant to battle racism and xenophobia, to temporarily closing during World War II. During the Great Depression, he recalls, people lined up on the steps to order Rosa’s 65-cent hot plates. Ingredients were limited, but Rosa served these meals on silver plates with cloth napkins. During the Los Angeles uprising in 1992, he raced over to close up the business. “I didn’t know if we were still standing,” he says. “[The rioters] left us alone, jumped over to Olympic, and kept going.”
Since its early days, El Cholo has developed regulars, even some with famous names. Salisbury says the legendary actor Gary Cooper was a regular and he often called before his arrival to request orange marmalade with his flour tortillas, which sent Ron’s father George Salisbury on a quick market run to fetch a jar.
Salisbury also recalls visits from Clark Gable and Nat King Cole. El Cholo became a regular 1960s and 1970s hangout for the likes of Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Anjelica Huston, and the Mamas & the Papas band member Michelle Phillips. Callers who get El Cholo’s voicemail message can still hear Phillips’s voice.
Nicholson and Phillips have long loved the nachos, introduced by the beloved employee and San Antonio native Carmen Rocha in 1959. There are even claims that she was the first person to bring nachos to the state of California, having learned how to make them from Ignacio Anaya García, who invented the dish in 1943. Today, a dedicated nacho table sits in the original restaurant, right by the kitchen where diners can get a free plate of the esteemed dish. Rocha’s granddaughter Lisa Rocha recalls how nachos debuted on the El Cholo menu.
“She was a great cook. She wasn’t at work one day, and someone came in requesting whatever she was making for them because there wasn’t a name for the plate yet,” Rocha says. “When she came back to work, Ron asked, ‘What are you cooking for people, because [they] are asking for it?’ She showed him, and he asked what they were going to name the dish. And she’s like, well, I guess we can name it after Ignacio. And history was made in LA.”
Though common now, the 1955 addition of guacamole and chimichangas was new for Los Angeles. Crabmeat enchiladas were an “exotic” thing to eat in 1971. Other additions include fajitas in 1984, taquitos in 1995, tortilla soup in 1991, and a chicken tostada as recently as 2008. The City of Los Angeles cemented El Cholo into its permanent fabric by renaming the intersection of Western Avenue and 11th Street as Alejandro and Rosa Borquez Square in March.
Will Free is another El Cholo regular who visits from Orange County once or twice a week. While eating with his girlfriend Felicia Leal, he shares what brings him back. “It’s always three ground beef enchiladas,” he says. “I’ve been getting the same dish since 1980 or 1981. I don’t know what they do to enchiladas or the sauce that they have. I’ve been to a lot of different mom-and-pop Mexican restaurants, but nobody even comes close. The enchilada is El Cholo.”
From Hollywood celebrities to locals, the walls at El Cholo are plastered with photos and images of the Borquez/Salisbury family and their customers. Like everyone who enters these doors, they gather at El Cholo for birthdays, anniversaries, celebrations, or just to eat.
Justin Lyons is a relatively recent El Cholo regular. He and his wife Bridget moved from Boston in 2005 and had visited the restaurant on and off for years, but they grew to embrace the history of the place during the pandemic, visiting twice a month without fail. Both wanted to give more attention to local businesses. “We like the fact that everyone knows us and we know them,” says Lyons. “We don’t really have to order, we just sit down and they know what we want. Herbert the valet guy doesn’t even give me a ticket anymore. He knows my truck and says, ‘Here you go.’”
Lyons sometimes goes with neighbors or friends to order margaritas, fish tacos, and quesadillas. When asked about the secret to El Cholo’s longevity, he doesn’t hesitate. “They’ve got good food and good people. They’ve been doing this for a long time. When you have a good mom-and-pop place, that’s good for the soul.”