Wednesday, November 30, 2011

El Cholo

It was always two different places, I see that now, it's just that it took me nine years to realize it.

I'll start from the beginning.

Just short of a decade ago I moved in with two of my best friends from high school. It was a house in Mid-Wilshire Los Angeles owned by the grandmother of one of my friends, almost 4,000 square feet and sitting on a large amount of land. (I won't say what we paid in rent because I've learned over the years that it only makes people mad.) We were in our early 20s and we turned the house into a playground: besides the pool and basketball court there was a big screen TV, pool table, foosball table and dart board. There was an abandoned speedboat in the side yard and we cut out the engine, tore it apart and reassembled it next to the pool as a boat bar. We turned one of the extra bedrooms into a "whiskey room" with a dozen types of whiskey and an equal number of video game systems.

My friend Troy lived a few miles away and referred to it as "the ultimate adult playground." My friend Taylor was going to UCLA Law School at the time and came over frequently, often in the afternoon to beat traffic with a book and an announcement that "I have to study for an hour before I can have any fun." It never worked out that way and he simply took to calling the house the "the black hole of productivity."

And just a few blocks away was El Cholo. I'm not sure how many meals I had at the restaurant over the course of the year that I lived in the area, probably two dozen, but even harder to estimate would be the number of nights I had a few beers in the bar. The Lakers were in the middle of their three-peat season and I watched many games there, washing down the chips and salsa with ice cold cans of Tecate. There were other bars and clubs I went to in Los Angeles from time to time, but none I liked as much as the bar at El Cholo.

Once we showed up just as they were closing but they let us in because "You guys come here all the time." During the epic Lakers-Kings Game 7 in 2002 I sprained my ankle playing basketball at halftime. (I played organized basketball from the ages of 5 to 17 and suffered all manner of injury: dislocated shoulders, sprained knee, I broke 8 of my 10 fingers and even got knocked out once, but never once in all those years did I suffer the most common basketball injury of all, a sprained ankle. Yet I did it while playing pickup ball in my driveway during halftime of that game when I was 23. Full disclosure: I had been drinking. A lot.) We went to El Cholo afterwards to celebrate the victory and my ankle swelled up to the point where I could not walk. Zach carried me halfway home on his back.

I certainly liked the restaurant, and maybe even at the time I said I loved it, but that was just the beginning of my culinary adventures. I had only been to one or two taco trucks. I had never been to La Cabanita nor El Taquito Mexicano. I was much more familiar with Skip Bayless than Rick Bayless. When I moved back to Pasadena at the beginning of 2003, I never returned to the original El Cholo down on Western. I went to the Pasadena location several times and, though it was usually fun, I found the food stunningly bland. By the time I discovered the tacos at La Estrella and the mole at La Cabanita, El Cholo was long gone from my mind.

But the other night I picked Elizabeth up from work and we had three hours to kill before we met her parents at the airport. I considered a couple of options closer to Studio City or LAX, but we were both very hungry. I suggested we try El Cholo and she quickly agreed.

I parked around the corner - like the old Pasadena location, there is something infuriating about being forced to valet park here - and walked up to and inside the original El Cholo, Elizabeth's first time and my first time in nine years.

Not much appeared to have changed - I stole a glance at the bar area, smiled and walked away like you might to an ex at a college reunion - and we were shown to a small booth in a side room. The menu was instantly familiar. The waitress was upon us less than ten seconds after we were seated and asked if we were ready to order. ("Not just yet," I replied.)

I looked over the menu; it was all familiar. The #1 combination (cheese enchilada and beef taco) and the "1923" (Sonora-style enchilada) is what my friends usually ordered, but my routine was almost always one of two things: a platter of shrimp fajitas or a Caesar salad and a quesadilla with chicken. I decided to go with the latter this time around.

We placed our order and the waitress returned one minute later and asked us to repeat it in total. (It was cute more than annoying; she was an older woman and English was obviously not her first language.)

The chips were good, hot and salty, but the salsa was very disappointing, a watery mess that is the exact kind of salsa I usually avoid. There was always a habanero salsa that I used to request, and part of me considered doing it again, but I did not. It was spicy, and I knew I would be tempted to order multiple beers to wash it down, something quite pleasant when I lived four blocks away but impossible when I was going to be driving to LAX after dinner. (The other option would be to eat the salsa and possibly sweat profusely, something that sounded equally unappealing.)

This was the "side" portion of the Caesar salad, larger than I remember it being, although I certainly ate much more back then than I do now. In my memory the dressing was delicious: creamy and peppery. But on this night, almost all of the dressing was simply oily. I plowed right ahead though, as I was quite hungry. When there was about one-quarter of the salad left, I came across a pocket of dressing that was exactly as I remember it. And those few bites were delicious. I wish the whole salad had been covered with it. 
Elizabeth had the chicken chimichangas. These were fantastic. They were very hot and crispy and filled with juicy, tender chicken. My experience with chimichangas is not vast, but these were perhaps the best I have ever had. She gladly gave me one, and there were several bites of another left when she was done.

(At another meal later in the week when I was finished with my food but still craving another bite or two and Elizabeth gave me some of her food, her dad said "Isn't it great dining with Elizabeth? I remember when her mom was Liz's size and I always got some of her food." The comment came off as funny and sweet, much more so than it looks in print.)

I ordered a quesadilla, but for the first time in my life I requested it with pork rather than chicken. It was fine. I wish I could be more effusive than that, but it was simply average. The tortillas were grilled perfectly and there was a generous portion of meat, but it was on the dry side and could have used more cheese to balance it. The sauce that accompanies the quesadilla was quite tasty, by far tastier than the quesadilla itself. 

When we were done, there was this pile looking up at me: beans, tomato, guacamole. Easily my three least favorite foods in the world.

Every meal at El Cholo ends with praline cookies, served with the bill. Elizabeth doesn't like them. I think they're pretty good. 

Overall, I left El Cholo feeling that the meal was just... average. Maybe I'm judging it too harshly, because this was the place where once upon a time I had some of the most fun nights of my life, but other than Elizabeth's chimichangas, there was nothing about this meal that was memorable in the slightest bit. In my mind I thought that the original El Cholo was superior to the Pasadena location, but after returning to the Los Angeles location after many years away, there was no discernible difference.

I guess it's a rare thing when a place that once meant so much to you can continue to capture that magic. Philippe's, Hutch's, Yujean Kang's... that might be the list for me. There are other places that have come and gone and I've mentioned them often: La Fornaretta, Kuala Lumpur, and the king of them all, King Arthur's Pizza. Maybe the fact that I still have three places left is more than I have any right to expect.

So I doubt I'll ever go to El Cholo again. And that's okay. Sometimes places don't change but people do.

But I will always think of the place fondly. When I was 23 and the Lakers were great and had arguably the two best players in the NBA, when I watched them win their 8th championship of my lifetime before I turned 24, when the Angels were in the middle of the championship season that I had waited my whole life to see and no Dodgers fans in the El Cholo bar ever gave me shit for wearing my Angels hat, something the bar had in common with exactly zero other bars I frequented, when I could drink a half-dozen beers over the course of a game and walk home to shoot pool with some of my best friends and have more beers at the gunnel of a boat that we had spent weeks turning into a bar, when an hour of basketball could burn off three baskets of chips and a cheese quesadilla, the bar at El Cholo was probably my favorite place in all of Los Angeles.

The restaurant itself was always a different place, and I realize that now.


Anonymous said...

You should turn this all into a book and get people to pay for it!

Anonymous said...

the chimis look yum-oh (as rachael ray would say)

Anonymous said...

I get from this you remember El Cholo fondly but NOT because of the food. I have to assume restaurants experience a certain turnover of their kitchen staffs every few years at the least. Thus, the only thing that doesn't change is simply the name.

It will be interesting to see how long the Pasadena El Cholo after making its 2nd location change to de Paseo will survive. But if the original can survive on average food all this time, well lucky for them, if not us diners.

JustinM said...

Anon: Maybe one day there will be a book about other stuff, but the food writing will always be free!

Anon: My only rules have been no politics or religion... but maybe a new one: no Rachel Ray.

Cafe: Well, I thought I'd always liked the food at the original and that it was better than the Pasadena location, but now I see I was just inexperienced with Mexican food.

Anonymous said...

you're really getting good at this.

Irvine Jon said...

Ate there tonight - they have a medium salsa btween the boring one you mentioned and the habanero - just FYI.

Agree with the average - and btw - great work on your blog - grew up in Pasadena and now in OC for 2 decades - great to read your stuff to relive past glory and what's new.


JustinM said...

Hi John. Thanks for the compliments. Are you talking about the green tomatillo salsa? Because that has always tasted off to me. Or is there another salsa they have of which I am not aware?

Irvine Jon said...

They have 2 red salsas - a "mild" and a "medium" which seems to be the mild with some jalapenos & red pepper added? Did not know they had a green tomatillo offering as well...see...that's why I like your offerings! Even opening my mind to attempting to liven up McDoubles. :-)

JustinM said...

I won't lie to you: if McD's wasn't four blocks away and if Elizabeth didn't like it so much, I would never go there, and I don't think my life would be any worse off.