Advertisement
Filters

Neighborhood

Filter

Restaurants

Price

Sort by

Showing Places
Share
Filters
Map
List
Bartender Carlos Paredes makes drinks at the lively bar at Casa Vega in Sherman Oaks.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

These 38 classic Mexican restaurants are essential to Los Angeles

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.

Mocked, maligned and ignored, Cal-Mex dining is a testament to our state’s true history — and the food is glorious

Advertisement

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.

Los Angeles’ Mexican restaurant chain El Cholo has dozens of employees in the ’20-year club.’ Here are five of the longest-serving.

Advertisement

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 …

Cal-Mex food is permanently on our state’s menu. We take a closer look at some of the cuisine’s beloved institutions in Los Angeles and the part they play in the city’s identity.

Advertisement

Showing Places

El Cholo

Harvard Heights Eatery
No discussion of classic Mexican restaurants in L.A. — or in the country, frankly — would be complete without El Cholo. Opened in 1923 as the Sonora Cafe by Alejandro and Rosa Borquez, El Cholo became a favorite destination for sports stars, politicians and Hollywood types — you can get lost gazing at all the signed headshots on the walls. Try the signature green corn tamales, twin bricks of sweet, slightly cakey corn tamales with a pleasing chewiness from the addition of cheddar cheese.
More Info
(Lucas Kwan Peterson / Los Angeles Times)

El Paseo Inn

Eatery
You don’t need an excuse to visit the touristy and quaint Olvera Street, but a meal at El Paseo Inn is as good as any. The restaurant, founded in the 1930s and in its current iteration since 1953, has a great patio and a spacious central dining room. Try the shredded beef enchiladas or the surprisingly good sopes, essentially an open-faced sandwich on a thick tortilla, covered with beans, chicken or beef, salsa and salty cotija cheese.
More Info

Cielito Lindo

Downtown L.A. Mexican
The Olvera Street taqueria founded by Aurora Guerrero in 1934, who named her business after an 1880s-era song favored by mariachis, is known for one enduring specialty: beef taquitos, pan-fried in batches until the rolled tortillas seize into crispness. They come doused in mild tomatillo-based avocado sauce; the pleasure is in scarfing down the taquitos while they retain their crunch, even as the salsa begins to seep in and soften them. Guerrero’s granddaughter Diana Robertson carries on the family legacy with her sisters Mariana Robertson and Susanna MacManus. They operate a second takeout location at 1806 N. Broadway. Especially after the 2020 pandemic-related closures, though, it’s an easy joy to show up at the original location, stand in the fast-moving line and sit in one of two small dining areas that flank the stand’s counter. Taquitos weren’t designed to wilt in to-go containers.
More Info

Las Anitas

Eatery
Going into Las Anitas, right at the corner of Olvera Street and East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, feels a little like descending into a secret chamber or someone’s wine cellar — cool, quiet and secluded. The 1947 restaurant is one of the best places to eat on the street, and serves what is possibly the spiciest table salsa I’ve ever eaten. The chile relleno is solid, bathed in a light, tomato-y sauce, and contrasts well with the enchiladas, bathed in a dark, dusty, chile-heavy salsa.
More Info
Advertisement

El Compadre

Hollywood Eatery
There are a couple of El Compadres on Sunset Boulevard but the one you’re looking for is in Hollywood, despite its location in a little bit of a dead zone — too far east to be in West Hollywood, a little too far west from the action in Hollywood proper. This ends up working in the restaurant’s favor, ultimately, as the dark, cavernous dining room with squeaky red booths and wrought-iron lanterns ends up feeling even more secluded. This is everything you want in a classic Mexican place, and the food’s pretty good too: The El Padrino combo comes with a decently cooked steak and the table salsa is one of the better ones out there. Allow your eyes a full five minutes to adjust to the dim lighting.
More Info

El Coyote

Fairfax Mexican $$
As much a marker of the L.A. landscape as it is a restaurant, El Coyote is nine years away from its 100th anniversary. After two decades at its original location on La Brea Avenue and 1st Street, founders Blanche and George Salisbury moved their business to its current address on Beverly Boulevard in 1952. The iconic red and white sign has been mounted on the roof ever since. Its place in cultural lore was forever cemented on a summer night in 1969 when Sharon Tate had her last meal in one of the dining room’s cinnamon-red booths, but the restaurant’s community standing reaches far beyond a macabre tragedy. Beneath strings of Christmas lights, with potent margaritas in hand, this is where natives and transplants alike come to be Angelenos. The food is unexceptional, but that’s beside the point. Most of us determine our go-to enchilada or fajita or combo plate after one visit. What’s more important is how the decades collapse between these colorful walls. Trippy and hokey, and also wonderfully comforting, El Coyote is so tightly woven into the city’s fabric that to rip out its thread would be an unthinkable loss.
More Info
(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

The Mexican Village

Mexican Cuisine
What began as a family operation remains so — and that goes for both ownership and the recipes in Koreatown’s hacienda-style Mexican Village, the kind of restaurant where papel picado hangs from the rafters and one can wash down a sizzling fajita platter with more than 50 tequilas and mezcales. Founded by Abel Olivares Sr. in 1965, this margarita-happy spot with weekly live entertainment and a lengthy list of combo-plate classics was the culmination of the chef’s years in and out of various kitchens, including a few of his own: L.A. hot dog stand Abel’s Place and Cantamar Restaurant in Baja, among others. His menu just west of Silver Lake incorporated recipes from his wife, Maria Garcia Olivares, which are still served today by three of the couple’s four children, who now run the Mexican Village together. There’s live entertainment multiple nights of the week, but the draws here are the many food and drink options — including a list of cocktails known as the “avoid gridlock specialty drinks” — in a festive setting. Can’t decide on a flavor or style from the bevy of margaritas? We loved the tangy, tart tamarind.
More Info

Casita del Campo

Silver Lake Eatery
Casita del Campo has one of those only-in-L.A. origin stories that seems to suffuse the building, down to its foundation: 60 years ago, journeyman professional dancer Rudy del Campo, who had appeared in movies including “West Side Story” and “A Star Is Born,” decided to make a left turn and open a restaurant with his family. It’s a fun and gorgeous place to enjoy a meal, if nothing else: spacious, vibrantly decorated with movie memorabilia, Art Nouveau-esque pendant chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Oh, and the outdoor patio is almost as good as the interior. Do you need much more than that?
More Info
Advertisement

Al & Bea's Mexican Food

Boyle Heights Mexican
Pick up a bean and cheese burrito at Al & Bea’s and the whole thing wobbles — sloshes, nearly — from the heft of its molten contents. The mix of orange cheese and refried beans that taste of patience and lard is utter comfort. You have a choice of red or green chile sauce. There is no wrong answer, though generations of Al & Bea’s fans have leaned green for its spicy zing. Albert and Beatrice Carreon opened their Boyle Heights stand on 1st Street in 1966; the business is now in the hands of their grandson, Albert Carreon. For either takeout or a quick meal at a shaded table, it remains a steady lunchtime destination for families and nearby workers. The menu reaches into taco, tostada and taquito territory, as well as burgers and hot dogs, but the compact, precisely engineered burrito is the true L.A. essential. Try variations filled with stewed shredded beef or bulked up with a chile relleno, though only after you’ve experienced the glory of the bean and cheese with green chile.
More Info

Los Cinco Puntos

Boyle Heights Eatery
Satisfaccion garantizada o devolucion de su dinero” (satisfaction guaranteed or your money back) is quite the bold statement to plaster in all-caps on the side of your restaurant, but Los Cinco Puntos does it. Even more impressively, the deli-style restaurant backs it up. Located where East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue and North Lorena Street meet Brooklyn Place (the “cinco puntos,” or five corners, in question), it has been in operation since the 1960s and still serves some of the best tacos in Los Angeles. Try the chicharron, with the perfect balance of crunch and chew, or the tender buche (pork stomach) with some pleasantly slimy nopales and blisteringly hot salsa roja. I can’t say for certain how many customers in Los Cinco Puntos’ history have asked for their money back, but I’d be willing to bet it’s very few.
More Info

El Tepeyac

Boyle Heights Eatery
El Tepeyac, a fixture in Boyle Heights for 67 years, may be known for its novelty-sized — and I mean comically big — burritos, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the quality has gone down. It hasn’t. Try the Okie machaca burrito, with perfectly seasoned shredded beef, covered in cheese and finished with pleasingly bitter, sangria-colored salsa.
More Info
(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

Pepe’s Finest Mexican Food

Alhambra Mexican Cuisine
The cars line up down the block for Pepe’s at all hours of the day and night. The cheerful yellow tables out front of Alhambra’s location — the oldest standing in a string that includes Baldwin Park, Hawaiian Gardens, Hacienda Heights, Fullerton, Downey, Chino, Brea and beyond, under various ownership — host cardboard boxes stuffed with rolled tacos, chips and guacamole, while the larger foam containers carry heaped-high asada fries, forearm-sized burritos and tortas. At this 1962-founded enterprise, launched by three brothers, the rice is always drizzled with a spoon or two of the chain’s chile verde sauce (which is red), the portions are massive and the price is right.
More Info
Advertisement
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Casa Calderon

San Gabriel Valley Mexican
Located on a stretch of Las Tunas Drive mostly occupied by Chinese restaurants and tea shops is Casa Calderon. Opened in 1963, it’s a small, no-frills place in a white building with a tile roof that looks like it could have been part of the nearby San Gabriel Mission. You can order any variation of combination plate, but your server will mostly likely steer you toward the mariscos section of the menu; specifically, to the bacon-wrapped shrimp. “Trust me,” one said on a recent visit. And I did. The plump shrimp are cradled by melted cheese and wrapped like mummies in bacon. It reminded me of something you might get at a tiki restaurant, or a state fair. On the side, there are excellent corn tortillas, thicker than most, pliable and tasting of nothing but corn. I made makeshift tacos with the shrimp, dunking them in the red table salsa. Trust me.
More Info
(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

Mijares

Mexican Cuisine
A sprawling hacienda-style complex for combo plates, brightly hued margaritas, stone-ground salsas and piquant ranchero-sauce-smothered enchiladas and burritos, Mijares has served as a banquet hall, a destination for warm homemade meals for travelers, and a celebration spot for more than a century. Jesucita Mijares sought a new life beyond the revolution and left Mexico, landing in Pasadena and purchasing land to found a boarding house in 1920. Her homestyle Mexican food cooked for boarders and locals grew into a tortilleria and, eventually, what we know as Mijares today: a family-friendly Mexican restaurant still serving freshly made tortillas, with four constantly buzzing patios, margaritas available in nearly three dozen styles and flavors, and a borderline-overwhelming menu that weaves burritos, moles, tostadas, daily made tamales, combination plates, all-day breakfasts, comforting soups, and specialties such as crab enchiladas. Classics and combos here are worth an order — especially the chile relleno, with its cloud-like, fluffy batter — but don’t be afraid to opt for the Mijares takes on newer Mexican American classics too, such as a whopping platter-sized Mexican pizza that easily outshines Taco Bell’s, or the cornflake-crusted fried ice cream served in a tostada shell.
More Info

Carrillo’s Tortilleria

San Fernando Eatery
One of the best, most sincere compliments I can give a place is, “It’s worth the drive.” Carrillo’s Tortilleria, a classic Mexicatessen in San Fernando, falls distinctly in that category. As the name would suggest, the tortillas are excellent: hefty and moist, a little on the thicker side. The chile verde is a good order here: tender nuggets of pork in a bright, tangy green salsa that has just the right amount of heat.
More Info

Casa Vega

Sherman Oaks Eatery
There are some places you go for the food. And there are other places you go where the food doesn’t really matter. While my Xennial credentials strictly outlaw me from describing a place as “pure vibes,” it’s really the best way to describe Casa Vega. The food is just good enough and, really, that’s all it has to be. Everything else about it is magical, from the performance of the tableside guacamole to the mystery of the dark, cozy booths within.
More Info
Advertisement

Mi Casita

Sunland Eatery
I wouldn’t call Mi Casita destination dining, as it’s likely a bit out of the way for your average Angeleno, but I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to stop by the next time I’m in Tujunga. It’s so quiet on the outside (inside too, when I went), I wouldn’t have dared try the door were it not for the “Come in, we’re open” sign on its placid exterior. The food was a mild revelation: good, crunchy tacos dorados and a cheese enchilada where the sauce and cheese meld together pleasingly to create a third, distinct type of sauce.
More Info
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

El Torito

Sherman Oaks Mexican
For Angelenos in the mid-’90s (especially if you lived in the San Fernando or San Gabriel valleys), the salad of the moment wasn’t the Cobb, the wedge or even the classic Caesar. It was the Mexican Caesar from El Torito. Depending on where you lived, there probably was a location nearby, offering platters of fajitas, tableside guacamole and sweet corn cake. It’s been a chain for years now (Larry Cano opened the original in 1954), but the locations in Pasadena (around since 1985) and Sherman Oaks (opened in 1979) always feel like neighborhood spots, with longtime staff members who remember your name and give you an extra scoop of corn cake. The salad is still a staple, tasting the same as it did decades ago. The romaine is crisp. You can count on diced tomato, a stack of tortilla strips, pepitas, grilled chicken and enough cotija cheese to consider it a main character versus a garnish. But the dressing is what makes the salad. It’s a cross between a Green Goddess and a pepita and cilantro pesto that’s creamy and herbaceous. There’s a reason they bottled it.
More Info

El Charro

Eatery
Established in 1955, El Charro in Montrose wouldn’t exactly be a destination meal — but if you’re in the neighborhood, you certainly could do worse. The chile verde with pork is satisfying — tangy and surprisingly spicy. While the tortilla situation could use a little help, bonus points are scored with the red plastic pebbled cups for soft drinks that will make you feel like you’re a kid back at Pizza Hut.
More Info
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Ernie's Mexican Restaurant

Toluca Lake Mexican
The waiters at Ernie’s snake through the dining room holding sizzling skillets of fajitas over their heads, leaving trails of meat-scented smoke. It’s reminiscent of the bottle service at some nightclubs, with everyone watching as the servers make their way to a table with sparklers. At Ernie’s, people swivel in the red leather booths when an order of the parillada fajitas comes through. It’s served as a mountain of sautéed garlic shrimp, strips of chicken and rib-eye steak, covered in rounds of red onion. It’s the sort of dish that elicits oohs and ahs when it hits the table. And it’s enough to share with a small crowd. Ernie’s is the type of place that has Christmas lights year-round at the bar, and there’s always someone celebrating something. I’ll take the fajitas at Ernie’s over bottle service any day.
More Info
Advertisement
(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

Johnny’s Mexican Food

Mexican Cuisine
As you drive along one of Ventura’s main drags, keep your eyes peeled for the walk-up window under white stucco arches: A roadside gem since 1947, Johnny’s Mexican Food is a landmark beloved for its beefy burritos, freshly made corn and flour tortillas, and hard tacos covered in a snowing of shredded cheese. You’re going to want to go big here: Bags of tortilla chips — available in flour or corn variety — are piping hot and lightly slicked with oil; the corn burritos (akin to bean-stuffed taquitos under cheese) are a regional specialty; the more traditional burritos, when served wet, arrive drenched in enchilada sauce; and there are pints of Johnny’s long-simmered chile verde and beef colorado on offer, which you’ll want to bring home. The latter forms the heft of Johnny’s signature item, “the original” burrito, which stuffs a thick, flavorful, gravy-like chile colorado into a fresh, chewy flour tortilla with copious cheddar that strings and pulls with every bite. It’s been served since founder Johnny Lopez opened the restaurant, originally in Santa Paula, 75 years ago, and remains the same recipe. The Lopez family nearly closed the restaurant for good in the 1990s, but a wish from its founding patriarch days before his death helped ensure Johnny’s remained open. Eventually the Lopezes sold their family restaurant but it’s still serving the full menu with little change in nearly three quarters of a century — understandably, just the way Johnny’s fans like it.
More Info
(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

El Tecolote

Mexican Cuisine
There are, fittingly, owls everywhere. There are oil paintings, sculptures and trinkets of the bird of prey and, most visibly, a giant owl-shaped neon sign that perches out front: After returning home from World War II, founder Mike Loza noticed owls surrounding the space that would house the first incarnation of his Mexican restaurant in 1946 and, fearing bad luck for his business, decided to name it after the nocturnal animals. Today guests flock to El Tecolote not for the owl-themed decor but for generous portions in the combination plates, the show-stopping sizzle of the fajita platters, the goblet-sized margaritas and some of the best chile verde in the area — a tart, garlicky original recipe from Loza himself. Upon entering the old-school ranch-style building, check the chalkboard for specials such as chamorro, and be sure to note the walls, which don’t simply feature art of owls but also proudly hang Polaroids of the restaurant’s regulars.
More Info
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Tito's Tacos

Culver City Mexican
The only thing better than a Tito’s Taco is two, or so the song goes in the restaurant’s vintage commercial. The hard-shell beef tacos have a cult following, with fans willing to stand in line at all hours. Most days, the crowd gathers before the doors open. Owners Lynn Davidson (her grandfather founded Tito’s in 1959) and her husband, Wirt Morton (whom we can thank for the Tito’s Tacos song), attribute the lines to the fact that the tacos, and all the components, are prepared daily. The tortillas are delivered warm from La Gloria Tortilla factory. The chuck is trimmed, chopped, cooked, seasoned and shredded before it’s loaded into a taco-folding machine that preps 1,500 tacos per hour. They’re fried to order and stuffed with freshly grated cheddar cheese and lettuce. You always know you’re eating a Tito’s Taco. It’s about a 1-to-1 ratio of cheese to meat, and it’s impossible to eat without spilling cheddar on your lap.
More Info

Paco's Tacos

Del Rey Mexican $$
If you’ve been going to Paco’s for generations, the dish its name may first conjure is the SuperMex burrito, a knife-and-fork behemoth filled with carne asada, rice, beans, lettuce and avocado. It comes smothered in green chile sauce and overlaid with a mesmerizing swirl of white and yellow cheeses that’s somehow as calming as an Impressionist watercolor. A Cadillac margarita on the side? Yes, please. More than most of the other classics on our list, Paco’s also wades into regional Mexican dishes, including serviceable versions of pescado a la Veracruzana and cochinita pibil; the latter absorbs nicely into the combination plate canon, with the shredded, citrusy pork stuffed into handmade flour tortillas and surrounded with rice and beans. Note that there is a sister restaurant, Paco’s Cantina, in Westchester. We’re partial to the original Centinela Avenue location — with its wild mix of fish tanks, murals, chandeliers and string flags, where, yes, a scene from “Jerry Maguire” was filmed — that Paco Francisco opened in 1975.
More Info
Advertisement

La Cabaña Venice

Venice Eatery
Sometimes you want to enjoy your meal of enchiladas and chile relleno in a quiet, colorfully decorated, dimly lit environment. With servers in formalwear. Next to a bar with its own little clay tile roof and with a table salsa that slightly resembles spicy Spaghetti-Os. Look no further than La Cabaña Venice, near the corner of Rose and Lincoln avenues, a Westside mainstay since 1963. The juicy carnitas do not disappoint.
More Info

Don Antonio's

Sawtelle Eatery
Don Antonio’s occupies a stretch of Pico Boulevard that is actually home to another classic Mexican restaurant, the Talpa, which is right next door. I lean a little toward Don Antonio’s as far as food quality. Take advantage of a great $9.95 lunch special to get a decent ground beef hard-shell taco, cheesy enchilada and flavorful but slightly over-seasoned rice. The environment is everything you want: cozy booths, tile flooring and colorful pennant banners.
More Info

El Abajeno

Del Rey Eatery
El Abajeno has been a Culver City classic for decades, and it’s easy to see why: for the chunky and saucy beef chile colorado and burritos that resemble, in size and heft, a 5-pound bag of sugar. Try the Abajeno burrito, made with two bedsheet-like tortillas, with carnitas. Stuffed with beans, cheese, rice and meat, it will require you and a couple of your closest friends to make a dent in it.
More Info

Bill's Taco House

Historic South-Central Eatery
You’ve likely never had a taco quite like those served at Bill’s Taco House in Historic South-Central. The meat in the taco comes in the form of pieces of hamburger patty — enchiladas are served the same way. Tamales are served broken in half, and a combo platter is drenched in enough brown-red gravy, the color of a missing Rothko masterpiece, to lubricate the chassis of an F-150. The entire thing is sprinkled with sliced black olives. Is it enough to turn you off of more traditional tacos forever? Maybe not. But it’s certainly worth trying.
More Info
Advertisement
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Ramona's Mexican Food

Florence Mexican
You’ve probably seen Ramona’s burritos in the freezer aisle at your local grocery store, the ones with the illustration on the package of the beautiful woman wearing a sombrero. There are a couple of beef burritos in my freezer as I type this. But there’s nothing like a fresh burrito, assembled in front of you at one of the locations around Los Angeles (the original opened in 1954). The enchiladas are solid too. And it’s always smart to get a couple of jars of salsa and a bag of chips to take home. But you’re probably here for one of the beef burritos. The picadillo special is a mix of seasoned ground beef and hunks of potato with chopped tomato, salsa and shredded lettuce, wrapped in a soft, chewy flour tortilla the size of your car tires. Or there’s the beef and potato burrito, with a filling that’s more like a paste, both the beef and potato ground and mashed so thoroughly that they become one. Order both.
More Info

Mario's Tacos

Pico Rivera Eatery
In addition to having an adorable logo — what appears to be a taco and a burrito carrying maracas, marching happily along — Mario’s Tacos in Pico Rivera also has excellent shredded beef and chicken tacos. They rival the more famous Tito’s in every way, with shredded cheese, the kind of pale, chopped lettuce that barely registers as a vegetable but imparts great texture, and a flavorful red salsa. The restaurant is spacious and houses a collection of oddities and bric-a-brac you’d hope to find at a distant aunt’s house: ceramic pigs, a vintage mug collection, and chronological framed portraits of most of the U.S. presidents.
More Info

The Original Red Onion

Eatery
While it may no longer be the party it once was in the 1980s and ’90s, the environment alone makes it worth a trip to the Original Red Onion in Rolling Hills Estates, an absolutely enormous restaurant that feels like a hacienda and Hollywood memorabilia shop got together and had a family. On one wall, ranching equipment; on another, an enormous framed tribute to Joan Crawford, complete with a handwritten letter on MGM stationery. The food is decent — a workmanlike chile relleno and serviceable hard-shelled taco. But you’re here for the large (and functional) stone fountain out in the front, aren’t you?
More Info

Vargas Mexicatessen

Pico Rivera Eatery
Vargas Mexicatessen is a treasure of a deli-style restaurant housed in a low-slung brick building in Pico Rivera. Place your order and take in the environment: metal containers filled with beans and stewed meats; tortillas warming on a large flat-top grill under an enormous hood; big stock pots sitting on the stove. Try a chile relleno burrito and level it up with some tender carnitas to add another dimension.
More Info
Advertisement
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Mitla Café

Mexican
Mitla Café (opened in 1937) along Route 66 is a spacious, dimly lit restaurant with lamp bases shaped like cactus and syrup containers full of hot sauce on the tables. It’s kitschy and charming. It’s also a vital part of Southern California history and a rite of passage for anyone who enjoys tacos. The taquitos dorados are said to have inspired Taco Bell founder Glen Bell and his hard-shelled tacos, though the fast-food tacos are without comparison to the original. (If you want the full story, read my colleague Gustavo Arellano’s book “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.”) The shells are fried fresh, lumpy, golden and fragile, wrapped around a solid mass of seasoned ground beef. They’re covered in crisp shards of iceberg lettuce, roughly chopped tomato and what seems like an entire block of shredded cheddar. This is the quintessential hard-shelled taco.
More Info

Arriola’s Tortilleria

Mexican
The oldest tortillería in Southern California — and one of the oldest continuously operating Mexican restaurants, period — is a great place to pick up good corn and flour tortillas on the way to Coachella, the Salton Sea or Phoenix. The menu is limited to tamales, burritos, nachos and the legendary tamale boat, a pork tamale covered in cheese sauce and chile colorado, which looks like cafeteria food circa 1976 but tastes delicious.
More Info

Zacatecas Mexican Cafe

Riverside Mexican
Inland Empire literary icon Susan Straight once called this spot “Riverside’s community table … the kind of place where the social contract still works, face to face — where you’ll see city council members, Japanese American grandmothers, white contractors in dust-covered Dickies and, at my own table, my brothers-in-law.” The crowds still come not just for the filling combo platters (although only the crispy gorditas have any real connection to its namesake Mexican state) but to hold or attend meetings in its cozy banquet hall — or, at least used to, until the pandemic limited Zacatecas’ hours to daytime-only unless by special appointment. May its 60th anniversary this year bring even more business to it.
More Info

Sariñana’s Tamale Factory

Santa Ana Mexican
Sariñana’s has been located since 1939 in what used to be a home in the city’s Santa Nita neighborhood, and seemingly half the city comes here every Christmastime for the slender, spicy pork tamales. The rest of the time, a couple of tabletops offer a comfortable place to eat crispy tacos and weekend menudo. Don’t miss the albondigas, perfect for the rainy days Southern California used to have.
More Info
Advertisement

La Chiquita

Santa Ana Mexican
Generations of Orange County Register reporters, Superior Court judges and former Santa Ana residents still visit this sprawling compound located in the historic Logan barrio, as evidenced by walls of photos of customers. Clients are so loyal that when the restaurant was in danger of closing in 1994, a group of them approached Mexican immigrant Sammy Montoya, who worked at another restaurant that they haunted, with a plan to give him a shot at the American Dream: They would buy the restaurant, he could buy in and run the place since they had no idea how to, and they would sell their shares to him when he had the money. Twenty-five years later, Montoya is still slinging wet burritos and enchiladas covered in New Mexico-style chile gravy as if it was his first day.
More Info

El Adobe de Capistrano

San Juan Capistrano Mexican
Talk about listening to your customers: This spot, located in a more than 200-year-old building in this California Mission town, served continental cuisine for the first 20 years of its existence until the press got wind in 1970 that El Adobe would make a delicious combo platter of a chile relleno, a chicken enchilada and a crispy beef taco along with rice and beans for a loyal customer. That person? President Richard Nixon. The demand that followed was such that El Adobe quickly switched over to an all-Mexican menu, and it has remained crowded with tourists ever since. As for Tricky Dick’s choice of combo? Not bad at all.
More Info