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EATS: Restaurant Reviews and News | COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

It's a Party at El Cholo

After 66 years on Western Avenue, the venerable Mexican restaurant expands to Santa Monica. Both the decor and the menu have retained a familiar look.

April 02, 1998|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Somebody I know fell in love with El Cholo the week she moved here, and not just for its margaritas. She never really warmed to another Mexican restaurant.

Not everybody responds that way, but El Cholo does have a special place in L.A.'s heart. That's how it survived for 71 years. (Hey, forget the billion tortillas El Cholo has moved in that time; how many floral print dresses have the waitresses gone through?)

Last year, with 66 years at its Western Avenue location under its belt, El Cholo gambled with success to the extent of expanding to Santa Monica. The new location understandably looks a lot like the old one. It's a huge Mission style place of squat pillars, heavy beams and cozy booths with the same wise Spanish sayings on the walls.

The menu is familiar, too. Dishes tend to be meaty, rich and colorful but never funky: El Cholo doesn't try the average diner's sensibilities with anything like menudo or birria. Though the Borquez-Salisbury clan has roots in Sonora, Mexico, it calls its cuisine Cal-Mex, by which it means basically Mexican in style but emphasizing the dishes that have proved popular here.

Whether what El Cholo serves is exactly your idea of Mexican food, it's been making it so long that the kinks were worked out decades ago; this is a very confident menu. So you have to figure a lot of people like the rather lightweight Caesar salad, topped with bland grated cheese and one anchovy.

The soups are really better. The albondigas is the classic beefy meatballs in broth. The tortilla soup, also a light broth (rather than the diluted enchilada sauce that's common elsewhere), contains chicken and mild peppers along with tortilla strips.

But if you're going to El Cholo, it's a party, right? You might as well start out with the fiesta platter, a big spread of nachos, quesadillas, chimichangas and both crab and beef taquitos that is the standard for Mexican appetizer combos. You may not be sure exactly what part of it you've plucked out, but it's all either cheesy, crunchy or both--hey, party food! If you feel like a quesadilla by itself, incidentally, the quesadilla con queso is more interesting than the regular one, with its addition of mushrooms, smoked corn and delicate cilantro sauce.

This menu gives the dates when certain dishes were introduced. Tacos, tamales, enchiladas and chile rellenos date from 1927, and you can get them in a number of combinations, including "A Taste of History," which is simply one of each. The tamale is smallish and on the dry side but nicely beefy, the chile relleno close to perfect with its light egg batter, the taco stuffed with shredded beef. The enchilada, filled with a nice tangy cheese and some green onions, is quite worth ordering on its own.

The tostada compuesta, also dating to 1927, shows its age--these days, nobody would mix diced beets with the jicama and greens. The chili con carne (also 1927) is big chunks of stewed beef in a sauce that has the pleasant earthiness of ground mild peppers and a suggestion of bean flavor, though no beans are visible. The same distinctive chili, or something a lot like it, dominates the filling of the huge burrito dorado that was introduced in 1977 for El Cholo's 50th anniversary.

The new menu has fajitas, of course, and even some vegetarian dishes, but the largest category is enchiladas. Apart from the plain cheese enchilada, there's the Sonoran-style enchilada (layers of tortillas, chicken and black beans in both a bricky red sauce and a slightly tangy green one), enchilada suiza (chicken in green sauce, sour cream on the side) and the meatier blue corn enchilada (chicken, blue tortillas).

One of the more recent additions is carnitas, a totally El Cholo version, meaty, moist and tender, served with pico de gallo and some cactus strips (which come off as sweetish, odd-textured Italian beans). These are the epitome of north-of-the-border carnitas. Personally, I'd eat them any day of the week.

At dessert, our waiter steered us to a rich flour-free chocolate cake deal and the capirotada, an El Cholo classic--a moist, sweet version of this Mexican cheese-stoked bread pudding topped with apples. He tried to talk us out of the flan, but it's actually a fine one of the firm sort with a rich, satiny texture.

That was his only misstep. The waiters generally know their business here; El Cholo didn't get where it is by making many mistakes.

BE THERE

Be There: El Cholo, 1025 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 899-1106. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. Valet parking. All major cards. Dinner for two, food only, $27-$40. What to Get: tortilla soup, fiesta platter, cheese enchilada, plato de carnitas, burrito dorado, blue corn enchilada, capirotada.

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