What makes for a great classic Mexican restaurant? Maybe it’s the kitschy decor and local charm. Maybe it’s the delicious food: handmade tortillas, pink margaritas, sizzling fajitas, massive combo plates that could last you multiple meals. Or maybe it’s the memories that are made there.
After The Times published a series on old-school Mexican restaurants and their essential places in Los Angeles cuisine, dozens of readers responded to a callout, sharing their favorite places to get great Cal-Mex food and what it is about these culinary institutions that keeps them coming back. Here’s what they had to say.
(Answers have been edited for length and clarity.)
Casa Del Rey in Sierra Madre is our family’s favorite Mexican restaurant. We love their combo plates, mine being a beef hard-shell taco and two cheese enchiladas with rice and beans. My wife likes the chile relleno with cheese enchiladas. They have two house salsas. The one they serve you with chips when you first sit down is their “hot” version. You have to ask for the “mild” salsa, my favorite. I can put it on my taco, beans, rice, and dip my chips in it and to me it is so tasty with no burn at all. We have used them for catering events at our house and we always have plenty of leftovers. When our younger son, who is now 39, used to go with us as a kid, he would only get a bean and cheese burrito. Pretty soon, they would remember that and ask him if he wanted a bean and cheese burrito. Eventually, they stopped asking and just brought one. I walked in about a year ago during the height of the pandemic, fully masked with sunglasses to pick up a to go-order, and the server said, “Hi, Domingo, we have your order ready.” How many places do that?
31 N. Baldwin Ave., Sierra Madre, (626) 355-6060, casadelreyrestaurant.com
— Domingo Torres-Rangel
La Cabañita in Glendale. The tacos de rajas con crema are to die for and they have a great selection of chile rellenos (including chiles marineros). In fact, all their food is delicious. Been there a long time and I believe they’re family-owned (though changed hands a few years back). Longtime servers, survived the pandemic — it’s a great family and neighborhood place. Not just my favorite Mexican restaurant, but my favorite restaurant in Los Angeles.
3445 N. Verdugo Road, Glendale, (818) 957-2711, lacabanitarestaurant.com
— Nina Woodson
Can’t believe you didn’t include Avila’s El Ranchito!!! Their first location in Huntington Park is legendary, and our family has been going to the Santa Ana location since it opened in 1983! We even had my Italian mother’s memorial service there because she loved it so much. Today, we dine at most all locations because they have their own local charm. Huntington Park, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana still make handmade tortillas (soooo good!!!). And the beach locations have so many local specials.
(multiple locations) 6703 Santa Fe Ave., Huntington Park, (323) 585-5055, avilaselranchito.com
— Patty Mitchell
For as long as I can recall, Barragan’s was our family’s go-to Mexican restaurant. It was an Echo Park midcentury pillar. When it ultimately closed, I went to the Glendale branch. It sadly closed and the only existing Barragan’s is in Burbank. So I try to get there as often as I can. Thousands upon thousands of community members, far and wide now, have looked to the family-owned enterprise with love and respect. It is and has been a constant in our lives. Great people and happy memories, the family recipes, the menu, the margaritas, the tastes and flavors are embedded in our experiences there.
730 N. Victory Blvd., Burbank, (818) 848-2325, barragansrestaurants.com
— Elena Velarde
When I worked at an aerospace company in Northridge, I was introduced to Los Toros in Chatsworth. It was just my kind of place: dark and a little run down. To my mind, they had the best bean dip, cheese enchiladas and pink margaritas in that long-ago little corner of my world. Pure comfort.
21743 Devonshire St., Chatsworth, (818) 882-3080, lostoros.com
— Claudia Mitchell
La Fiesta Grande in Pasadena: The BEST traditional Mexican food in the region. Family-owned for over 40 years — a Pasadena institution. Recently reopened after having to move due to the previous building owner not renewing their lease. Come for the enchiladas, fajitas, carne asada, tacos, and stay for their AMAZING margaritas and of course the chips and salsa. Camerina (the owner’s daughter) runs the place, and the staff have been with them for years. They’re like extended family! My family and I started going over 17 years ago as part of a fundraiser for my oldest daughter’s preschool. My youngest daughter’s first trip was when she was 2 weeks old … . It was a Friday night after-work/after-picking-up-the-kids tradition.
181 E. Glenarm St. #110, Pasadena, (626) 298-6272, instagram.com/la_fiestagrande
— Tricia Miranda
You did miss a great, longtime hole in the wall in Santa Monica, Gilbert’s El Indio, on Pico next to a car wash. It’s small (cozy), comfortable and very, very good. The menu has about everything from south of the border anyone could want. The huevos rancheros, for reasons hard to identify, are perhaps the best in town (Gilbert’s El Indio happens to be a good breakfast place). The margaritas are superb (breakfast or cocktail hour). They make a diablo salsa that is great, but you have to ask for it. The service is on point, the staff is friendly and makes customers feel welcome.
2526 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 450-8057, gilbertselindio.com
— Rob Webb
Rosa’s La Cabana in Torrance. Family-owned — Rosa herself will take care of you most days. Besides all the standard Sonora-type fare, Rosa’s has terrific flat enchiladas with savory green sauce, excellent posole (pork or chicken, your choice), healthy salads — the fish salad is topped with a large grilled filet — and so much more. Also, they make the best agua de jamaica: tangy but not overly sweetened like some. Been coming here for years and have never been disappointed. I grew up on the Eastside and have pretty high standards for Mexican food. This is the best I’ve found in the South Bay.
24403 Hawthorne Blvd., Torrance, (310) 378-3667
— Hilary Cohen
Although I’d argue the best Mexican food is in my mom’s kitchen, I’m very surprised Pancho’s in Manhattan Beach didn’t make the cut for your list. The restaurant is worth a try; I highly recommend a margarita to complement any meal and definitely save room for a sopapilla for dessert.
3615 Highland Ave., Manhattan Beach, (310) 545-6670, panchosrestaurant.com
— AJ Guerrero
I have been going to Mi Casa in Costa Mesa since I can remember. If you love cheese, this is THE place to go. The three-item combo (beef or chicken taco, cheese enchilada and chile relleno) will last you for multiple meals … although the taco never makes it out the door with me. The nachos are also a cheese lover’s dream and the pickled jalapeños give it the perfect amount of heat and break from the richness. They make a mean Cadillac margarita, a must with the meal. Their salsa is one of my all-time favorites, but I could be biased since I was raised on it. It’s always homemade, so spice levels vary (which I love when it’s got that added kick). They’ve added some newer items to the menu in recent years which I don’t find to be all that great, but the original combo plates will not disappoint. It’s pretty cost-friendly too, so this was a weekly treat with my friends back in high school.
296 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 645-7626, www.micasa1.com
— Nathan Mulhern
Las Fuentes in Reseda! Or Melodies just across the street. They are owned by the same family and the food is so delicious! They are both local joints that are always busy. The decor in both is really fun Mexican kitsch and they’ve both been around for years. I know nobody thinks to head to Reseda for some good food but it’s worth the trip. The portions are generous, the salsa is authentic. I love the caldo de pollo at Melodies and the tacos at Las Fuentes. We’ve celebrated birthdays there, and it’s always a bit with the out-of-town guests.
18415 Vanowen St., Reseda, (818) 708-3344, lasfuentes.com
— Danielle Moreno