3 Old School Los Angeles Mexican Restaurants

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As a Canadian who moved to Los Angeles many years ago, I was delighted to discover Mexican food, and I tried most of the established restaurants around the city. These were the places that introduced generations of Americans to this unique and fascinating cuisine. In recent years, however, I’ve been exploring some of the exciting regional cuisines of Mexico, as specialty restaurants have come on stream to serve a largely Mexican clientele.

It occurred to me that I needed to revisit some of the fine, enduring places where I learned about Mexican food in the first place.

El Coyote Cafe

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My friend Sid recently invited me to lunch at his long-standing favorite restaurant, El Coyote. Sid is not a young man, but he has been coming here since he was a kid. The waiters know him by name, and he has the menu memorized. El Coyote first opened in 1931, and is going strong.

I know I should have ordered something more elaborate, but the “Torta Mexican Style Sandwich” caught my eye. I have favorite tortas all over Los Angeles, and thought this would be a good test for El Coyote. What I got was a nice fresh roll, generously stuffed with grilled steak, red and green peppers, onion and melted white cheese. Sort of a Mexican Hoagie, the ingredients reminded me strongly of a dish called Alambre that I recently had in Mexico City… Definitely a success. Sid had the fajitas salad. Not strictly Mexican, perhaps, but it was large, and looked delicious.

El Cholo Spanish Cafe

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Everyone I know has a memory of El Cholo. “I used to go there with my grandparents” is a common memory. Others go misty-eyed thinking about the green corn tamales. I’ve had the green corn tamales, and I get it. Founded in 1922, El Cholo has been around almost forever.

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I went to El Cholo (the original location on Western Avenue) for lunch a couple of weeks ago with my friend Leili. She ordered the Carnitas, a dish that first appeared on the menu in 1989, and it was a huge plate of beautifully cooked pork, served with pickled onions and sliced orange. I had the Chile Con Carne (introduced in 1923) which was a rich, dark beef stew. It was delicious, but I had the distinct feeling the chef was holding back on the spices for the benefit of those who aren’t familiar with Mexican flavors.

Don Antonio’s

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Don Antonio’s is a youngster compared with the other 2 restaurants, opening in 1981, but the founders’ history goes back a lot further with other restaurants around L.A. I went with a woman friend who observed that the last time she ate here was the night when her husband moved out of the house, some years ago. She ordered the Chicken Enchiladas, and declared that they are still the best comfort food she could possibly imagine. I had the Chile Verde, a dish I haven’t had in perhaps 25 years. The flavors were rich and meaty, and the portions generous.

The main attraction at Don Antonio’s seemed to be the Fajitas. The room gradually became hazy from the smoke generated by the sizzling dishes coming out of the kitchen every few minutes. Maybe next time.

Conclusion?

These were 3 very good restaurants, serving Mexican food to Americans the same way they have for many years. They do what they do extremely well, and deserve their long run of success.

Here are the websites:

El Coyote Cafe   http://elcoyotecafe.com/

El Cholo Spanish Cafe   http://elcholo.com/menus

Don Antonio’s   http://www.donantoniosla.com/restaurant

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Carolina’s and Comedor Guadalajara – Tex-Mex in Phoenix

I’ve had some great Mexican food in Phoenix, so on my recent visit, I thought I’d press my luck, and looked up the most highly-rated places on the Yelp website. My favorite place (which I won’t name here, to prevent any confusion) ranked with 4.3 stars out of 5, so I was excited to find two other places ranking 4.4 and 4.3.

This is a story of surprise and learning, so please don’t think it’s a negative review in any way.

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My sister and I drove across town from Scottsdale to somewhere south of downtown Phoenix to try Comedor Guadalajara. It’s a big, friendly place that feels as if it’s been there forever. The menu covered a wide range of meat and seafood dishes, and choosing was difficult. We started with ground beef and mashed potato tacos, which was our first surprise. I’ve become a fan of crispy mashed potato tacos in Los Angeles, but somehow, the addition of ground meat made them taste a little more like something my mother might have made (she was not Mexican.) They were good, but didn’t have the toasty, starchy edge I was expecting.

As a main course, I ordered the camarones endiablados, a spicy shrimp dish I’ve had many times in Mexico and Los Angeles. It was nicely presented, with rice and refried beans, and delivered all the chipotle zing that the menu promised… except that it tasted just like barbecue sauce. Leigh ordered chicken enchiladas that were also nicely presented, but in a creamier sauce than expected. Everything was tasty, but we’ve never been served dishes like these in Mexico or Los Angeles. We realized we were eating something similar, but not quite like Mexican food.

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The next day, we went to another famous place. For years, my sister has told me about the buttered tortillas at Carolina’s, which is located just a few blocks from Comedor Guadalajara. They turned out to be large flour tortillas, slathered with butter, and folded into an intense, comfort-food ball that will probably be the subject of dreams and fantasies until the next time I’m in Phoenix.The location, however, was a surprise. Leigh had never actually been to Carolina’s, and the free-for-all of the busy down-scale room turned out to be a lot of fun.

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The menu was surprisingly limited, with burritos, chimichangas (deep-fried burritos, I was told) and enchiladas being the basic fare. I went for the enchiladas, and Leigh had the chorizo and potato burrito. My enchiladas came in a plastic container, and were covered in a deep brown sauce, melted orange cheese and shredded lettuce. Served with refried beans and rice, they were tasty, but again, unlike anything I’ve had in Mexico or Los Angeles. Leigh’s burrito, however, was wonderful! I’m sure I’ll be going back to Carolina’s.

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We spoke with a well-known Mexican chef the following day, asking him just what it was that we had eaten. He was quick to point out (and I agree 100%) that these are good restaurants, but it really isn’t Mexican food, but rather some form of Tex-Mex. Both places have been around for years, and were full of happy diners, so we came away feeling we had learned something valuable.

Chicken Enchiladas – Cincola, Westchester, Los Angeles

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I tease my friend Robert because he will only ever order chicken enchiladas in a Mexican restaurant. Some day I’ll fool him by taking him to a place that doesn’t serve enchiladas. Meanwhile, the enchiladas he ordered at Cincola ( or is it Cinco L.A.? ) were absolutely great! Nice moist pieces of chicken rolled in firm tortillas, and topped with a delicious green sauce, rich and complex, with an interesting slightly sour edge. An attractive minimalist bar with a suitably loud young crowd, this isn’t a place I would have expected to find a serious Mexican kitchen. I’ll tell you about the chicken in black mole later.

Here’s the website: http://cincola.com/