Best Mexican Restaurant
1. El Cholo
840 E. Whittier Blvd., La Habra, 562-691-4618
5465 Alton Parkway, Irvine, 949-451-0044
- Homemade tamales can be shipped overnight fresh or frozen and can be kept in the fridge for seven to 10 days. Order online or call the corporate office.
- Holiday tamales – simmered mole sauce and shredded turkey breast with sweet corn masa wrapped in banana leaves – are sold by the dozen and are available for shipping until Dec. 22.
- El Cholo won Rachel Ray's "Rival Ray Taco-off," which aired in May.
Why they're No. 1: "The secret to El Cholo's success is the consistency of the quality and service and the fact that the current owner is a third-generation family member," General Manager John Astin said. "It's all about history and the ability to put out a good product. Our employees have been here a long time. We have a reputation for serving quality food for many years. Ron Salisbury is the third-generation owner, and the fourth is earmarked to take over."
Claim to fame: The first El Cholo opened near the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1923 as the Sonora Cafe; two years later it became El Cholo. Recipes are from the original restaurant, a favorite among old-time Hollywood stars such as Bing Crosby and Loretta Young. Their famous green corn tamales are available in the restaurant from May to October. El Cholo has a new cookbook, "A Taste of History," which describes the history of the restaurant and its founders and includes some of its recipes.
Fan favorite: "The food is consistent, and we've been going there for years. They make room for groups, so we've had tons of retirement parties there. The staff doesn't turn over, either. We go once a week because they have a good variety of food." – Robin Ospital, La Habra
Fun fact: In 1996, El Cholo sold its 1 billionth tortilla. That's enough to stretch 31/2 times around the world or pile as high as 6,146 Empire State Buildings.
– Lois Rothschild
2. Don Jose and Ricardo's Mexican Cafe
Locations throughout Orange County; Corporate: 714-633-7844
- Don Jose and Ricardo's are family-owned restaurants founded by Rod and Pat Fraser in downtown Orange in 1972. Son Rick opened other locations and is president of the company, and daughter Cheryl Coulter is CFO.
- The restaurants donate 20 percent of their profit on Monday and Tuesday nights to booster clubs in schools which can make $500 or $600 each evening.
Claim to fame: "Since 1972 the most popular order has been the enchilada and taco plate," Coulter said. "And we have an extra spicy salsa available on request. For Sunday brunch, people may order machaca con huevos which is shredded beef and sausage mixed with scrambled eggs, tomatoes, onions and sweet peppers." The restaurants are developing light salad menus and trying to respond to people who are looking for lighter alternatives to rich Mexican fare. "We're offering chicken and salmon and chopped salads," Coulter said.
Fan favorite: "Food is exquisite, reasonable and the service is great. I love this place. We went for the first time about 10 years ago. I usually get the enchilada with taco, and I love the black beans. I force myself to only eat half so I can eat the rest later. It's charming, lovely and always busy. We go about 5, so it's early but we don't have to wait. We go for brunch, it's excellent, and I order the eggs Benedict, the fruit cup and potatoes. I stick to my favorites." – Wendy Greene, Tustin
Fun fact: Diners aren't stuck with Champagne only at Sunday Brunch. Pina coladas and daiquiris come in either banana, strawberry, mango, peach, melon or blue agave flavors.
– Lois Rothschild
3. Avila's El Ranchito
Locations throughout Orange County, Corporate: 714-547-9129
- Banquet rooms available at the following locations: Costa Mesa, 949-642-1142; Newport Beach, 949-675-6855; Santa Ana, 714-547-9129
Claim to fame: Avila's soup is among the menu standouts. "It's our biggest seller," said Elyse Avila, family member and manager of the San Clemente restaurant. "Made with big chunks of chicken, pieces of avocado and tomatoes, rice, cilantro and onions, it's served with warm homemade flour or corn tortillas." The favorite appetizer is Guacamole Fresco, Avila said, a chunky blend of ripe avocados, tomatoes, onions with a touch of garlic and fresh lime. The restaurants have been a family operation since the first El Ranchito opened in 1966 in Huntington Park. With 11 total restaurants now, even the grandchildren are now involved.
Fan favorite: "Avila cooks roll and make their own tortillas right there, made to order. It's the atmosphere. Sal Avila is the owner and a surfer, so they always have their videos going, or live sports games. There is a potpourri of souvenirs and decorator items around the restaurant, a combination of mementos from the Avila family. It's lively and different." – Helen Wilson, Lake Forest
Fun fact: Avila's El Ranchito in Newport Beach, on the Balboa Peninsula, is known as the "International El Ranchito" because so many out-of-town visitors eat there. Owner Sergio Avila said El Ranchito T-shirts have been seen all over the world.
– Lois Rothschild