No Worms for the Early Birds – El Cholo

El Cholo

1025 Wilshire Blvd (@ 11th)
Santa Monica, CA 90401

Like many holidays in the United States, we use Cinco de Mayo as a reason to call it a day early, head out to the local Mexican restaurant for some chips and salsa, and celebrate with cheers of “Happy Cinco de Mayo!” But the revelers clinking salt-rimmed margarita glasses against a neighbor’s lime-seasoned Corona don’t always know why they’re celebrating.

Why, it’s Mexico’s Independence Day!

No señor, that’s Diez y seis de Septiembre (September 16).

Cinco de Mayo is the commemoration of the victory of the Mexican people over the French army at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. But the victory was not any sort of turning point, as Napoleon sent additional French troops to Mexico shortly thereafter, eventually deposing the Mexican military. That’s not to say that Cinco de Mayo, isn’t important; it is, for it honors the leadership of Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin and the bravery of his small, outnumbered militia, and that victory helped create a much needed sense of national unity in Mexico at the time.

There’s the brief history behind today’s holiday, and as with so many other national holidays, U.S. commercial interests have totally taken advantage, promoting Mexican products and services focused on food, beverages and festivities. In many cities close to the U.S./Mexico border, or in areas with large populations of people with Mexican heritage, the festivities are on an even grander scale than in the region of Puebla itself, where the historical moment occurred. L.A. is one such city. Given that every Mexican restaurant or Latin-inspired bar has Cinco de Mayo celebration specials, there’s no chance I’d go within two blocks of any Mexican place tonight, El Cholo included.

margarita, rocks, with salt

We did, however, make it out to El Cholo last Saturday in order to quench a powerful thirst for margaritas. Let’s just say we were celebrating Cinco de Mayo cinco dias (5 days) early.

El Cholo is a Santa Monica hotspot on Saturday nights. As we approached the intersection of 11th and Wilshire Blvd, we could already tell it was crowded. Several groups of either Santa Monica residents who walked a few blocks from their apartment condos or lucky patrons who had found nearby street parking were crossing the street from both sides. As we turned the corner, a line of cars was waiting to pull into the front driveway for valet parking. We didn’t want to wait, continued past the entrance, and crossed our fingers.

The parking gods weren’t paying attention to our prayers, so we finally gave up the car to the valet. The two hostesses, obliged to don the ridiculous Mexican costumes, barely looking up from their list, mechanically handed us a pager and told us the wait would be about 45-50 minutes. Wow, I didn’t mind the wait, but the pager felt like La Factoria de Cheesecake. *ugh* All we wanted was a couple of margaritas. Though the entire bar area was buzzing with bar flies, we decided to risk the first-come, first-served, and stepped out onto the front patio to the only table that was open. That made up for the parking.

almost ochenta anos!

El Cholo is somewhat of an institution in Los Angeles. According to signage on the wall between the lobby and the patio, El Cholo’s first restaurant was established in 1927 in Koreatown on Western Avenue, where it still stands today. I’ve never been to the original location, but have downed many a margarita at the Santa Monica outpost, as well as tried Sonora Cafe, their “sophisticated southwestern,” on La Brea.

I felt bad for our waitress because not only was she the only one serving an entire patio of rowdy tequila marinated clients, but she had to smile as if she loved every minute of it whilst wearing the same gaudy garb that the hostesses had on. She took an order of our first round of margaritas.

El Cholo’s margaritas are strong. And when I mean strong, I mean I can smell the tequila from the server’s tray. As much as I salt my food, my margaritas are sin sal (without salt), and of course, on the rocks. Without the diluting effects of crushed ice, the drink is twice as potent for me, and after *gulp gulp* I’m pretty happy. Enough so that when the server told us that “oh! you’re one day too early!” for green corn tamales, I didn’t even *sigh* and just ordered a soup and salad. April 30 is one day too early for the May thru October season. Oh well.

The cup of albondigas soup was actually a fairly large bowl. I wondered how big the bowl of albondigas soup was. The albondigas were good, soft, but I was more focused on slurping up the broth. Maybe I really was that thirsty. The Caesar salad was nothing special, as it always isn’t, but I was surprised that El Cholo actually put whole anchovies on it. Now ¾ through my margarita, green corn what? ;)

dryness nothing a little guac can’t fix


The carnitas were a first time for me at El Cholo. They were at once dry and greasy, but easily remedied with a dollop of guacamole and some salsa from the chips. There were also some vegetables on the plate, but those didn’t fit into the warm flour tortilla with all the meat. El Cholo’s rice is just okay, but I’m also biased against all rice. I did, however, scoop up all the beans. For Pete’s sake! They’re refried.

El Cholo isn’t great for Mexican food – it’s okay. However, I will say that El Cholo is a good restaurant. The crowd is young, there’s a lot of energy inside and out, and you can’t go wrong with those margaritas. For us, being five days early to El Cholo for Cinco de Mayo was a good idea, but now that I think about it, dammit for being only one day early for the green corn tamale season. Just got to make sure that I’m no later than October 31st.

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