Maybe it’s the thrill of a first slide into a squeaky red booth under a low-hanging wrought-iron lamp. Or the wonder-inducing mound of rice and a pool of refried beans that seem to spread forever across a platter that a dutiful server will warn is too hot to touch. Maybe it’s how the first margarita hits at 6:30 p.m. on Fridays after another long week. A memorable company party. A significant anniversary. A long-ago first date.
If you’ve lived in Los Angeles for any real amount of time, and almost certainly if you grew up in Southern California, there’s likely a dish or an ambient aspect of a long-standing Mexican restaurant that stirs your memories. They have existed for decades among us, and some for nearly a century. These seemingly eternal houses built from flour tortillas and kept afloat by mild salsa are as embedded in our cultural landscape as our beaches and our freeways. Call it classic American Mexican, or Mexican American, or California Mexican — “Cal-Mex” for short, as Times columnist Gustavo Arellano dubs them — these menus, heavy on tomatoes and meat and light on spice, are part of our inalienable culinary identity in L.A.
This year, we want to give them their due.
The offerings at most classic Mexican restaurants, save for a salad or two or the novel addition of, say, fish tacos, mostly stopped evolving during the Cold War era. Inspiration for the cooking may have originally come from Mexican family recipes, but the chile heat and the nuances often were stripped away in efforts to appeal to mainstream (read: largely white or non-Mexican) palates. The codification was aided by chains like El Torito and Taco Bell, which were founded in Southern California in the mid 20th century and expanded into national behemoths.
With the era of globalization and a second migration wave from Mexico in the late 20th century, modern L.A. is a wonderland of restaurants serving regional Mexican cuisines: Exemplars like Guelaguetza, founded in 1994, are institutions in their own right. But our classic Mexican restaurants, with their roomy booths and kitschy decor and happy-hour supreme nachos, have their own sense of place, and sense of dignity. Leave notions of “authenticity” outside their stucco facades; we love these community stalwarts for multigenerational gatherings, for off-the-beaten-path date nights, for the surprisingly frequent celebrity sightings.
We tallied a list with scores of classic Mexican restaurants across the region. After dozens of lettuce-gilded tostadas, hissing fajita platters and Combination No. 1 plates, we narrowed down our must-try choices down to 38. Some we love for the food that transcends time, some we love for the vintage atmosphere or the kind servers, and a few we love for all of these elements combined.
Do you have a favorite classic Mexican restaurant in Southern California that’s not listed here? Tell us where, and why, at this link, and we’ll highlight your best shared secrets and memories in a future story. And now, our favorite classic California Mexican restaurants …