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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE
| Sunday Brunch

Cafe El Cholo: Muy Especial

May 07, 2000|KAREN NEWELL YOUNG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Cafe El Cholo in La Habra is a throwback to the old, family-style Mexican restaurants popular in the '50s, before chains usurped their charm and trivialized their appeal.

The restaurant is run by the son of the owners, the Salisburys, who opened the first El Cholo in Los Angeles in 1926, and he has stuck to family recipes.

None of this is news to most long-time Southern Californians who grew up in the shadow of that L.A. institution on Western Avenue. L.A.'s oldest (and many say best) Mexican restaurant, El Cholo, is not only a fabled celebrity watering hole but a landmark that has launched the careers of its chefs and its green-corn tamales, made only during green-corn season, May through October.

La Habra's Cafe El Cholo, its little sister, opened in 1962 and has aged well. The rambling, hacienda-style building with cobbled patios and rustic wooden beams provides the perfect atmosphere for the restaurant's famous margaritas, Sonoran-style nachos and tamales.

Unfortunately, it was not time for green-corn tamales when we visited. But Sunday brunch--seven dishes offered along with the regular menu--is a fine introduction to the cafe's many old-fashioned dishes and tequila specials.

A good way to begin is with El Cholo's freshly made guacamole, with chips, and any of its fruity margaritas--prickly pear, pomegranate, blackberry, cherry, wild Maine blueberry--well, you get the idea.

More good starters are the Sonoran-style nachos with homemade tortilla chips; Mexican cheeses and sour cream; the delicious tortilla soup, thicker and creamier than most, made with chicken and vegetables; and the meatball soup, true to the original family recipe of the 1920s.

The brunch menu is a handful of Mexican brunch standards well made and of gargantuan proportions. They include huevos rancheros, chilaquiles, pork verde (a tender pork stew made with green enchilada sauce), chicken mole enchiladas and scrambled eggs mixed with stewed beef (mochaca). All are served with rice and beans and some with fresh flour tortillas. A choice of rice pudding, chocolate mousse or flan is included.

My favorites are the chicken mole enchiladas, partly because it's hard to find mole sauce in restaurants outside Mexico. This rich, dark sauce made of chocolate, chiles and almonds is one of the best items on the menu. It's served with tender stewed chicken and vegetables in corn tortillas with black beans and rice.

Two other good choices are the huevos rancheros, which feature huge poached eggs and sauce on a bed of soft corn tortillas, and chilaquiles, a pudding-like mixture of chips, grilled chicken and mild sauce that is a real kid-pleaser.

But it's not just the food that makes El Cholo special. It's that quirky family restaurant feel--yellowed photos on the walls, kudos to local teachers on the menu, young servers with discreet tattoos along the neckline and older waitresses with husky cigarette voices who call you honey.

On many days, balloons are seen bobbing from the patio next to nicely dressed women celebrating birthdays or anniversaries. It's that kind of place.

A final hallmark of El Cholo is the pile of oven-fresh pralines that accompany the check, a clever way to soften the blow. At about $8 a plate, it's an expense not too hard to swallow.

*

Cafe El Cholo, 840 E. Whittier Blvd., La Habra. (562) 691-4618. Brunch hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Brunch prices: $7.25 to $8.95.

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