Vega

The best old-fashioned Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles

Perhaps it’s the thrill of a first slide in a creaking red cabin under a low wrought-iron lamp. Or the wonder mound of rice and a pool of refried beans that seem to spill forever on a platter that a dedicated waiter will warn is too hot to touch. Maybe that’s how the first margarita hits at 6:30 p.m. on Friday after another long week. A memorable company party. A meaningful birthday. A first date a long time ago.

If you’ve lived in Los Angeles for any time, and almost certainly if you grew up in Southern California, there’s probably a dish or ambient aspect of a long-running Mexican restaurant that stirs your memories. They have existed among us for decades, and some for almost a century. These seemingly eternal homes built from flour tortillas and kept afloat by sweet salsa are as ingrained in our cultural landscape as our beaches and highways. Call it classic American Mexican, or Mexican American, or California Mexican — “Cal-Mex” for short, as Times columnist Gustavo Arellano dubs it — these menus, heavy in tomatoes and meat and light in spice, are part of our inalienable culinary identity. to the

This year, we want to give them their due.

The offerings of most classic Mexican restaurants, save for a salad or two or the innovative addition of, say, fish tacos, mostly ceased to evolve by wartime. cold. Inspiration for the cuisine may originally come from Mexican family recipes, but the chili heat and undertones have often been removed in an effort to appeal to traditional (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 grew into national juggernauts.

With the era of globalization and a second wave of migration from Mexico in the late 20th century, modern LA is a haven of restaurants serving regional Mexican cuisines: examples like Guelaguetza, founded in 1994, are institutions in full share. But our classic Mexican restaurants, with their spacious booths, kitschy decor, and supreme happy hour nachos, have their own sense of place and sense of dignity. Leave notions of “authenticity” outside their stucco facades; we love these community mainstays for multi-generational gatherings, for off-the-beaten-path parties, for surprisingly frequent celebrity sightings.

We’ve compiled a list with dozens of classic Mexican restaurants across the region. After dozens of golden lettuce tostadas, sizable fajita platters and #1 combination plates, we’ve narrowed down our must-have picks to 38. Some we love for food that transcends time, some we love for the vintage atmosphere or the waiter genre, and a few that we love for all of those elements combined.

Do you have a favorite classic Mexican restaurant in Southern California that isn’t listed here? Tell us where and why, on this link, and we’ll highlight your best shared secrets and memories in a future story. And now our favorite classic Californian Mexican restaurants…