Food & Drink

The 16 Best Old-School Mexican Restaurants in LA

Published On 02/04/2016 Published On 02/04/2016

Mexican food’s a birthright to Angelenos -- after all, LA was part of Mexico for nearly three decades, until 1848 (the more you know!). These days, modern Mexican restaurants are opening in the city at a staggering rate, but some key building blocks remain -- like these great old-school Mexican restaurants, all of which have been in business at least 25 years:

Flickr/T.Tseng

Al & Bea’s

Boyle Heights

Boyle Heights knows how to get down with a good bean and cheese burrito, and Al & Bea’s has some of the best. Beatrice Carreon and husband Albert founded this basic brown stand in 1966, and people still flood the ordering window. Steaming-hot burritos contain re-fried pinto beans and molten yellow cheddar, and if you want to step your game up, you can add green chile or red chile to the mix. If you absolutely must stray from burritos (or, uh, just want to double-stuff your face), also order the guacamole fries and sweet horchata.

Josh Lurie/Thrillist

Border Grill

Santa Monica

Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger have been repping Mexico with Border Grill since 1985, first on Melrose, and now across LA and Las Vegas. Santa Monica is our city’s longest running BG, which has been going strong since 1990 near the Third Street Promenade. Walls sport colorful murals, the bar dispenses a river of margaritas, and tables host hearty plates of comfort food. Classic dishes include chilaquiles, cochinita pibil, and green corn tamales, and the duo also serves interesting riffs like the chile relleno burger, which features a ground Black Angus brisket patty and a roasted Poblano chile stuffed with Manchego, panela, and cotija cheeses. 

Flickr/Eric Huang

Casa Vega

Sherman Oaks

The Vega family is celebrating 60 years of business in Sherman Oaks in 2016. Daughter Christy Vega now presides over the restaurant, which features red leather booths, wrought iron chandeliers, and paintings of pueblos alternated with faux plantlife. Nearly every table has either a margarita, a combination plate with rice and beans, or both. Chopped guacamole comes with wonton-like flour tortilla chips. If you want to really ball out, invest in their meaty lobster enchiladas.

Josh Lurie/Thrillist

Cielito Lindo

Downtown

No old-school Mexican list is complete without a nod to LA’s first street -- literally. Spanish settlers installed Olvera St in 1781, and the tourist destination still has a number of restaurants. Aurora Guerrero served food in front of an Olvera Street bar before opening this casual spot in 1934, specializing in shredded beef taquitos that are pan-fried to order and doused in a tangy green avocado-garlic-chile sauce. Granddaughter Dianna Guerrero Robertson now runs Cielito Lindo, along with neighboring Las Anitas. In the ‘40s, Hollywood legend Orson Welles evidently engulfed 44 taquitos during one meal, which means the Citizen Kane auteur achieved greatness in two ways you could never, ever hope to match.

El Arco Iris

El Arco Iris

Highland Park

This restaurant from Irene Montes and husband Gustavo dates to 1964, long predating Highland Park’s gentrification revival. Grandson Jesse Gomez grew up in the restaurant and has gone on to open a fleet of restaurants around the city, including Mercado and Maradentro. The original restaurant retains its rainbow logo and star-shaped chandeliers. Carnitas, chile verde with pork, and chicken enchiladas with mole all remain house specialties. 

Josh Lurie/Thrillist

El Carmen

Mid-City

Sure, this restaurant technically qualifies as a taqueria, and they serve plenty of tacos, quesadillas, and nachos, but let’s be honest: more people come to El Carmen for tequila and agave-fueled cocktails. It’s not a drinkie-come-lately, though: El Carmen dates to 1929 (1951 in its current location) and dispenses dozens of different blancos, añejos, and reposados. By the end of the night, after a flood of tequila, El Carmen’s lucha libre imagery, which looms overhead, may start to feel eerily lifelike.

Flickr/rocor

El Cholo

Koreatown

Sonora natives Alejandro Borquez and wife Rosa opened the first El Cholo in 1923, originally billing themselves as a “Spanish café.” These days, grandson Ron Salisbury carries on family traditions at this sprawling hacienda-style spot, where menu items appear with the years of introduction; original dishes include chile con carne, albondigas and green corn tamales, the latter of which are only available May through October.

Josh Lurie/Thrillist

El Parian

Pico-Union

El Parian is a Jalisco-style restaurant from owner Maria Garcia that has thrived for over five decades in Pico-Union. The brick-fronted restaurant specializes in birria -- roasted goat with intense flavor that’s simultaneously crusty and juicy. Each order comes with a funky bowl of goat consomé and a squeeze bottle of tangy, vinegar-rich habanero sauce.

Josh Lurie/Thrillist

La Azteca Tortilleria

East LA

This East LA classic has been making tortillas and using them as fuel for fantastic burritos, quesadillas, and tacos for over seven decades. Ownership has changed over the years, but now the Villa family -- including father Juan, wife Candy, son Juan, and daughter Cynthia -- is making the most of La Azteca’s masa. The space is small but bold, with a mural of a woman in Aztec garb holding a basket of maize. Their quesadillas star griddled flour tortillas, molten Monterey Jack cheese, sautéed pico de gallo, and if you’re smart, chicharrones. Burritos get no better than the version with egg-battered, Jack-filled chile relleno, pinto beans, pico de gallo, and nopales.

Flickr/T.Tseng

La Cabañita

Glendale

Sparr Heights, a north Glendale neighborhood that very few Angelenos visit, has one of the city’s most memorable Mexican restaurants. Francisco Jimenez and wife Patricia opened this “little cabin” in 1989, and they’ve been successful enough to expand the footprint since then. Standout dishes including pork chops baked in pasilla chile sauce, a variety of chiles rellenos, and massive meatballs filled with hard-boiled eggs and cooked in spicy chipotle sauce. Hell, it might be worth visiting La Cabañita for the mural alone, which tells the story of Mexico’s founding and includes the iconic eagle and snake that appears in the country’s flag.

Josh Lurie/Thrillist

La Golondrina

Downtown

Consuela Castillo de Bonzo founded “The Swallow” in 1924 and current owner Vivien Consuelo de Bonzo -- Consuela’s granddaughter -- has kept LA’s first brick building bustling. Pan-Mexican dishes include banana leaf-baked cochinita pibil and chicken breast slathered with rich mole. La Golondrina’s margaritas are available with fresh mango, strawberry or coconut. On Friday nights, mariachis show up in force, and norteños visit throughout the week.

La Serenata

La Serenata de Garibaldi

Boyle Heights

Jose Rodriguez and wife Aurora opened this hacienda-like restaurant in 1985, honoring mariachis Mexico City’s Plaza de Garibaldi and surrounding Boyle Heights. La Serenata is strong on seafood, including salmon and scallops dressed in Campeche sauce crafted with spinach, jalapeño, garlic, and more. Corn tortillas are red, green, and “white,” to match the colors of the Mexican flag. Whatever you order, it’s worth sticking around for desserts like pumpkin cheesecake or coconut flan. 

Flickr/Larry

Lares Restaurant

Santa Monica

This two-story, hacienda-style restaurant debuted in 1968 and remains open 365 days a year near Santa Monica’s eastern border. The space features art-lined yellow walls, wood beams strung with Christmas lights, and a family seal that tells the story of Lares, a family of nobles from Portugal and Spain. Sure, they’ve got burritos, enchiladas and fajitas, but you’re better off exploring the menu section titled “famous dishes of the South,” which includes steak picado, lengua en chile verde, and chuletas adobadas -- “pickled” pork chops with refried beans and rice.

Josh Lurie/Thrillist

Lupe’s #2

East LA

This open-air burrito stand from the late, great Lupe has been family-run in East LA since 1972, which seems prescient, since it’s now near a Gold Line stop, the 710... and a Serbian Cemetery. People pile into red cushioned stools and picnic tables to score 12 kinds of burritos, including basic bean and cheese, panic-inducing red beef that tastes like its engulfed in flames, and a California burrito that combines beans and cheese with steak, guac, sour cream, and... wait for it... french fries.

Flickr/Kent Kanouse

Manuel’s Original El Tepeyac Café

Boyle Heights

Laughably large burritos are the claim to fame at this Boyle Heights institution that’s been near Evergreen Cemetery since 1955. Manuel Rojas passed away in 2013, and daughter Elena persists with beastly burritos like the Hollenbeck, named for prominent 19th century real estate developer John Edward Hollenbeck, who played a key role in the foundation of Boyle Heights. The cafe honors him with seared pork simmered in chile verde, rice, beans and guac, all wrapped in a flour tortilla and slathered in more chile verde. Enchiladas, nachos, and sandwiches help round out the menu, and your stomach.

Tito's Tacos

Tito’s Tacos

Culver City

This institution next to the 405 dates to 1959 and has seven windows for counter service, which are all open during peak hours. The yellow overhead menu is pretty lean, with burritos, tamales, enchiladas, and tostadas. Really, though, it’s all about the hard-shell tacos with shredded beef, iceberg lettuce, and a blizzard of shredded Cheddar. As the corny but catchy Tito’s Tacos jingle says, “I love Tito’s Tacos, You love Tito’s too, I love Tito’s Tacos, What else can you do?”

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Joshua Lurie is the LA based founder of Food GPS, a website that showcases the best tasting food and drink in California. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

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1. Al & Bea's 2025 E 1st St, Los Angeles, CA 90033

Affordably delicious, simple, and authentic Mexican fare, this local favorite has tasty beans, meat, and cheese.

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2. Border Grill 1445 4th St, Santa Monica, CA 90401

Executive Chef Alex Moreno's Border Grill serves up quality Mexican food in a lively setting. Hit Border Grill's weekend-only brunch, where $30 gets you all-you-can-eat Yucatan-roasted pork eggs Benedict, short-rib hash, and bacon-and-jalapeno-topped PB&Js.

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3. Casa Vega 13301 Ventura Blvd, Sherman Oaks, CA 91316 (Mid Valley)

Sometimes, you don't want to go to the hot new Mexican restaurant where bartenders are called mixologists and the menu is filled with unrecognizable small plates. You want the Spanish-roofed restaurant that feels like 1950s Mexico in an unironic way, where old-school bartenders make strong drinks with no-name tequila and every table has a side of rice and beans. That's when you go to Casa Vega, a 60-year-old bar and restaurant in Sherman Oaks where uncomplicated burritos and fajitas are the plates du jour and the signature margaritas flow like water.

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4. Cielito Lindo 23 Olvera St, Los Angeles, CA 90012 (Downtown)

Since 1934, this colorful, pint-sized DTLA restaurant has been serving up signature dishes like taquitos in avocado sauce, chile colorado burritos, and house made chile rellenos. The vibe here is friendly and family-oriented. It's a great place to enjoy spicy, refreshing fare in an open air dining environment.

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5. El Arco Iris 5684 York Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90042 (Highland Park)

A Highland Park fave, El Arco Iris has been serving up dependable, tasty Mexican cuisine since its inception in 1964. The old-school vibe permeates the fare, which is gloriously low-key. When the food's this simple and satisfying, what more could you want?

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6. El Carmen 8138 W 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA 90048

This Mexican rest/bar has one of the biggest tequila selections around, not to mention outstanding margaritas and tasty Mexi-food.

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7. El Cholo Restaurant 1121 Western Ave, Los Angeles, 90006

Home of the original LA nachos, this spot has been serving up Mexican favorites and margaritas since the 1920s.

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8. El Parian 1528 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90015 (Downtown)

This family-owned and operated Pico-Union spot specializing in Guatemalan fare is renowned for their birria, or goat, stew. If that's not your vibe, sample their equally delicious tacos or burritos made on tortillas baked in house.

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9. La Azteca Tortilleria 4538 E Cesar E Chavez Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90022 (East La)

Mainly a wholesale tortilla operation tucked into a not-yet-gentrified Mexican corner of East LA, their storefront's hiding a pair of tables at which to devour one of LA's most lauded eats: a chile relleno burrito filled with a cheese-oozing pepper, beans, and roughly chopped pico.

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10. La Cabañita 3447 N Verdugo Rd, Glendale, CA 91208 (Glendale)

Dining in at this family-run spot in Glendale is cozy meal at home, but honestly, would you be able to make tacos this good? Offering a variety of affordable lunch and dinner specials, La Cabanita is a great choice for a quick, but flavorful, bite. Bonus points go to their strong, fruity cocktails available when you dine in.

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11. La Golondrina W-17 Olvera St, Los Angeles, CA 90012 (Downtown)

Open since 1924, this ornate, bungalow-style resto in downtown LA cooks up dynamite traditional Mexican fare with elements of fine dining. The romantic atmosphere is perfect for enjoying a meal with that special someone, and you might even get serenaded by the house mariachi band at your seat!

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12. La Serenata De Garibaldi 1842 E 1st St, Los Angeles, CA 90033 (East La)

Hightail it to Boyle Heights for some of the best Mexican food in LA. This hacienda style eatery opened in 1985 features gourmet seafood fare inspired by coastal Mexican cuisine. Not only are is the food extremely good, but the house cocktails are also of note: try El Chignon with 1800 resposado tequila, simple syrup, lime juice, and a splash of Cointreau.

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13. Lares Restaurant 2909 Pico Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90405 (Santa Monica)

This long-standing Santa Monica eatery serves three square meals of hearty, delicious traditional Mexican fare. Think breakfast tacos (for breakfast, duh), enchiladas rojas for lunch, and chiles renellos (stuffed peppers) for dinner. Top that all off with a margarita (it's 5pm somewhere) or a Jarritos, and you're all set for a delicious day.

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14. Lupe's #2 4642 E 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA 90022-1615 (East La)

This Eastside eatery is an LA landmark in its own right. For the past 42 years, Lupe herself has been serving up tasty burritos that have gone beyond hometown favorites to LA must eats. You'd better arrive early to line up at this roadside shack, because the simple, satisfying eats here go fast.

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15. Manuel's Original El Tepeyac Cafe 812 N Evergreen Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90033 (Downtown)

Until his recent passing, the patriarch of El T would greet each customer with a shot of tequila. The recklessly generous hospitality continues to this day in the form of the monumental Manuel's Special, which was originally conceived to feed Cal State linebackers. It's a 5lb monster packed with deep-fried pork shoulder stewed in onions, green chile, and tomatoes.

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16. Tito's Tacos 11222 Washington Pl, Culver City, CA 90230 (Culver City)

This counter-service, cash only, taco spot is known for their crispy-wrapped tacos piled high with cheddar and jack cheese, iceberg lettuce and seasoned ground beef. The venue itself is pretty no-frills, but it remains a local favorite, and has the lines to prove it; it's open late and consistently serves satisfying and affordable fare (most everything on the menu rings in at under $5)

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