Walk through the doors of El Cholo Spanish Café and you’ll find it’s much the same today as it was a century ago. The smell of scratch-made food fills the historic bungalow the Salisbury family has run for 97 years. Generations of photos and memorabilia of families, longtime staff and famous guests cover the walls, and the modest two-page menu features many of the same authentic dishes as it did the year the restaurant began.

Opened in 1923 at the corner of Broadway and Santa Barbara Street in Downtown Los Angeles, founders Alejandro and Rosa Borquez called their new venture Sonora Café, after their native state in Mexico. It was renamed in 1925 when a customer sketched an image of a man on a napkin and scribbled “El Cholo” (the nickname Spanish land grant holders gave their field hands in those days) under it. The business has moved twice in 100 years; first to a larger space in 1927 and a final time four years later, just across Western Avenue to the now-iconic locale. Over the decades, the slim man in the sombrero has become a symbol of culinary culture and tradition in Los Angeles.

Ron Salisbury grew up in his grandparents’ restaurant and went to work there in 1954. He learned the trade by doing everything from making sauces and deseeding chiles, to slicing butter and rolling tamales. Some of his earliest memories were of his mother teaching him to count coins from the cash register.

“Today we are such a big part of Los Angeles history,” Salisbury said. “We have in some cases six or seven generations of families who’ve dined with us. I always say we started off as a restaurant that serves Mexican food but now we’re a piece of history that happens to be a restaurant.”

A stone’s throw from Hollywood, movie stars of cinema’s golden era frequented El Cholo. It was not uncommon to see Clark Gable and Loretta Young in the dining room. Gary Cooper liked to order off-menu, requesting strawberry jam on flour tortillas; he would phone ahead to let them know he’d be coming and Ron’s father, George, would make a special trip to the store to buy the preserves. Salisbury recalled the time Nat King Cole visited, “One of the waitresses was holding a large platter of food. She was in such awe of seeing him she dropped the entire thing on the floor in front of him!”

Years later, a virtually unknown Jack Nicholson would become a permanent fixture. He’d often come with fellow actors and almost always ordered the cheese enchiladas. “Back then you could get a combination plate of enchiladas, rice and beans for 85 cents and a cup of coffee for 5 cents. It’s still a perfect meal and one of the most ordered items on our menu,” Salisbury noted. It was Nicholson who brought Michelle Phillips to El Cholo for the first time. Like the actor, she would make it a second home for years to come. To this day, it is still Phillips’s voice customers hear on the outgoing greeting when they call after hours.

The restaurant has stayed relevant by introducing new items, though many of the offerings and their ingredients (Sonoran Style Enchilada, Joe’s Traditional Albondigas, Chili Con Carne and Green Corn Tamales) have remained unchanged since 1923. Nachos were introduced in 1959 by Carmen Rocha, who’d moved from San Antonio and brought the recipe with her. Rocha began whipping them up table-side, but only for guests seated in her section. Before long, all the customers were clamoring for the hearty concoction, which eventually became a menu staple. Ron Salisbury said Jack Nicholson was very fond of Carmen. “One year her son had gotten married. The reception was in East LA at a veterans of foreign wars hall, which was not the most luxurious place. But I remember everyone having such a good time just sitting on wooden crates, eating fried chicken and talking to Jack. We were all a big family. And it’s still that way today.”

Plans to revamp the landmark sign and logo are in the works as part of the centennial celebration. An expansion of the famed Western Avenue restaurant, along with the addition of a patio is also underway. As homage to Salisbury’s grandparents, the Los Angeles City Council will change the signs marking the corner of Western Avenue and 11th Street to Alejandro and Rosa Borquez Square. With six locations throughout Southern California and a seventh (the first outside of California) opening in Salt Lake City this year, Salisbury said, “We continue to thrive because we keep things the same and tweak them just a little bit. We’ve been creating good food and memories for 100 years. You can change and evolve — just not too much!”

To make El Cholo’s legendary Green Corn Tamales at home: 

12 Ears of yellow corn
¼ Pound of cornmeal 
¼ Cup of shortening 
¼ Pound of butter
¼ Cup of sugar 
¼ Cup of cream or half-and-half 
1 Teaspoon of salt 
12 One-ounce strips of cheddar cheese, cut in half 
1 24-ounce can of green chiles, cut into strips

  • Cut both ends of corn, remove husks and save for wrapping. Cut corn kernels off the cob. In a food processor, grind the kernels with the cornmeal. 
  • Beat shortening and butter together until creamy. Add sugar, half-and-half and salt. Add the corn mixture and mix well. 
  • For each tamale lay out two husks and overlap them. Spread some of the corn mixture onto the husks. Place one cheese strip and one chile strip on top of the mixture. Top with more corn masa. 
  • Fold the ends of the husks over the filling, covering completely. Place husks on a square of parchment paper. Fold the ends of the husks and sides of parchment paper over tamale, then fold up the ends. Tie string around ends to hold in place. Place them on a rack and steam for 35-45 minutes. 
  • Serves 24
Erika Thomas