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A Combination to Drive For

Eats | FIRST IMPRESSIONS

El Cholo, famed for its heaping Mexican plates, opens in Santa Monica.

June 26, 1997|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

After three tries got only the busy signal, I decide to chance it and head anyway to the new El Cholo in Santa Monica. At 1:40 on a recent weekday afternoon, cars are still idling at the curb, waiting to enter the parking lot. Two surfer types who have aced a parking spot on the street race toward the door--and one of El Cholo's humongous combination plates.

To celebrate the L.A. institution's 70th birthday, El Cholo's owner, Ron Salisbury, whose parents, George and Aurelia, opened the original Western Avenue restaurant in 1927, has gussied up the former Tampico Tillie's at Wilshire and 11th with bright washes of color and painted garlands of fruit and flowers.

Waitresses rush about in long and pretty flounced dresses while waiters in crisp white shirts stagger to the tables with overladen trays of tacos, tamales and enchiladas. Everything served at El Cholo is muy grande, from the killer margaritas rimmed with salt and overflowing baskets of chips to the antojitos and those gigantic main courses that come, as a matter of course, with enough rice and beans to last you a week, let alone a single meal.

My tacos al carbon come on a plate that confers the kind of immortality most food writers can only dream about: It's emblazoned with a glowing quote from Esquire magazine's restaurant critic John Mariani. He, however, is touting the combination plates, like numero uno, a gooey cheese enchilada and fried beef taco, El Cholo's all-time bestseller. Right now, the kitchen is serving its famous green corn tamales. These may be something of an acquired taste, so sweet they could take the enamel right off your teeth.

Fortunately, the back of the menu now features a trio of "even healthier dining choices," namely vegetarian tostadas, tacos and a vegetarian platter, which is what I plan to sample next time around.

BE THERE

El Cholo Mexican Restaurant, 1025 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 899-1106. Open daily for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. on. Major credit cards accepted. Valet parking. Antojitos 65 cents to $15.50; combination plates $6.65 to $9.50; other main dishes $8.15 to $11.95.

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