Ron Salisbury wakes up every morning and, like millions of others, he heads for work. That’s where the similarity ends.
Ron is 90 years old. That puts him among the oldest one-half of one percent of the people in the United States. Then there’s the matter of where Ron goes when he leaves home each day. He is the owner of The Restaurant Business, Inc., a family of restaurants that includes the original El Cholo Mexican restaurant on Western Avenue in Los Angeles.
These days, after running El Cholo for 63 years and guiding the expansion of the business to include eight restaurants with another on the way, Ron gets to do something new, something he’s never done before. He’s presiding over the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the flagship original El Cholo.
The Mexican food landscape of Los Angeles might look very different today were it not for El Cholo. Many of today’s standard offerings on Mexican restaurant menus made their first appearance in L.A. at El Cholo. Sweet green corn tamales were on the first El Cholo menu in 1923. That same year, El Cholo brought the first enchilada to a Los Angeles restaurant. It was a dish that originated in Sonora Mexico, birthplace of Alejandro and Rosa Borquez, Ron’s grandparents, who founded El Cholo. On March 30, 2023, the City of Los Angeles will christen the intersection of 11th and Western as Alejandro and Rosa Borquez Square to honor the 100-year anniversary of the restaurant’s founding.
Other El Cholo firsts? In 1938 L.A.’s first Mexican combination plate appeared at El Cholo, an enchilada and taco with rice and beans. Now every Mexican restaurant in the city and probably the country offers a plate laden with some combination enchiladas, tamales, tacos, or chili rellenos.
Go to an arena sporting event in Los Angeles today and you’ll probably find nachos at the snack stand. That began in the 1950s, when El Cholo waitress Carmen Rocha made nachos for some of her regulars and for the El Cholo staff. She brought the snack from her hometown of San Antonio TX. It started as an off-menu creation that continues today as a mainstay on the menu.
Ron Salisbury is the third generation of the family to be involved in the operation of the restaurant. He took over from his parents, George and Aurelia (Borquez) Salisbury. Three succeeding generations also are engaged in the business, including Ron’s son Brandon, who is Chief Financial Officer, and his great grand daughter Gracie, who works part time.
You can browse a year-by-year, decade-by-decade history of El Cholo and the people who made it an institution at https://www.elcholo.com. Put aside some time to take the journey. You’ll learn much about the history of Los Angeles and the evolution of Mexican dining, and you’ll feel very good when you’ve finished.
Ron Salisbury’s business card reads:
Grandson of the Founder
He explains that for a long time it was simply:
Plus the name, address and phone number of the restaurant. No title.
He would see business cards of other restaurant owners who identified themselves with fancy titles, so he decided he should have a title too. Thus, “Grandson of the Founder.” It’s a symbol of Ron’s sense of whimsy. Ask him the secret to his longevity and he’ll probably tell you, “I only have sex once a day now, and sometimes I need a nap after.” And he’ll say it with a twinkle in his eyes and a smile on his face.
Ron stopped skiing because of the pandemic, but he talks of starting again. And then there’s his treasured collection of baseball memorabilia. He says he’s an Angels fan and sadly suffers the same frustrations as all Angels fans.
As part of the Centennial Celebration, Ron created a $1 million gift campaign to benefit pediatric cancer research at L.A. and Orange County Children’s Hospitals. Every El Cholo customer who donates $100 receives a VIP Nachos Card entitling the donor to free nachos throughout the year. The contributor also is entered in a drawing for an array of other gifts.
Other local restaurants Ron has drawn into the effort have contributed gift certificates to the prize list. They include Phillipe French Dip, Langer’s Deli, Pinks, Lawry’s, Musso & Frank Grill, The Original Pantry, and Tam O’Shanter Inn. His own company, The Restaurant Business, Inc., donated two prizes: dinner for eight at Louie’s by the Bay in Newport Beach; and a helicopter ride, Duffy Boat Cruise and dinner for two at The Cannery also in Newport Beach.
This kind of impulse is not new. Ron created The Book Reading Program for El Cholo employees who are encouraged to write a synopsis of books they read. Financial rewards are offered. It’s part of what has built a history of strong employee relations.
Those employees hold an honored position. At the entrance to the restaurant, a board displays the names, positions and years of service of many of the long-term staff. The roster reveals the names of many who have been there 30, 40 or 50 years. Joe Reine, the first El Cholo chef, started work in 1932 and stayed for 54 years.
When El Cholo opened on Western Avenue in 1923, the street was the western boundary of the City of Los Angeles. Olympic Boulevard was 10th Avenue, renamed later to celebrate the 1932 Olympic Games. The HOLLYWOOD sign, the Los Angeles Coliseum, Walt Disney Studios, and Warner Bros. Studios became part of the landscape that same year.
El Cholo wasn’t the first Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles, but it now stands as the city’s oldest in continuous operation.
Menu items list the year in which they were first served at El Cholo. On a recent visit, I bookended a century of culinary history starting with a hefty cup of a Joe’s traditional albondigas (1923) and finishing with a molé chicken enchilada (2023).
Other menu classics include Sonora style enchilada (1923), aged cheese quesadilla (1969), fajitas (1984), and six different combination plates (1938). Most popular is the No. 1 Combination, a cheese enchilada, a rolled beef taco, Spanish rice and refried beans.
El Cholo looks like someone’s home because that’s what it once was. Alejandro and Rosa opened El Cholo on the east side of Western Avenue. A few years later, they bought a bungalow across the street, where the current El Cholo stands. Through the years and a number of expansions, the building remained true to the look of its residential roots.
Ron recently told the publication Culture Trip, “I feel like I’m the caretaker of the restaurant. It was given to me to take care of. My job is to respect what my family did, make sure I don’t let them down, and if there’s any way I can better it, and then pass it on to someone else.”
Among the events planned to celebrate the 100th anniversary are:
• Throughout the year, customers 100 years old or older will eat free.
• A series of special food items are being offered, including “A Taste of History”, served on a commemorative plate.
• Old classics like the Spanish omelet, enchiladas with fried egg, tostada compuesta, and Sopa de Fideo are returning.
• Special $100 Margaritas are being offered in commemorative hand-blown, collectible glasses.
• A 100th Anniversary Red Carpet Gala, open to the public, is planned for October.
The heart of the Mexican culinary culture of Los Angeles beats strongly today as it has for 100 years at the intersection of 11th and Western. The seeds planted by Alejandro and Rosa Borquez have grown into the many hundreds of restaurants, food trucks, and curbside tamale stands that shine across the panorama. And standing deliciously at the center of it all is El Cholo.