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Carlos the bartender at El Cholo works his magic on freshly-made guacamole, one of the best dishes in the restaurant. Add hot salsa at your peril. (photo by John Blanchette)

I’m still making my rounds of the many Mexican restaurants in Santa Monica. El Cholo doesn’t qualify for “Old Timer” status; while the original opened downtown in 1923, they didn’t open up in Santa Monica until 1997. Now it’s a big chain. The menu emphasizes its history, and the emphasis on history gives the restaurant a nice atmosphere. You know it’s a pretty big organization when you read that as of 1996 they had sold over one billion tortillas!

First the good news. The margaritas are as good as it gets, and the drink portions are not stingy as in so many bars. The chips and salsa are the reason I go back. As you know, hot peppers are a great source of vitamin C, so if you can get really hot sauce with your fried chips, it’s a healthy dish. Just kidding.

But the star here is in fact the salsas. For the average gringo they serve a mild tomato based salsa with good flavor, but no pizzazz. My wife loves it. If you ask for the hot salsa you’re in business. It’s really hot, plus it has good body, something missing from hot salsas in most other Mexican restaurants. But don’t stop there: ask for the other two salsas, one based on habanero peppers and the other on chipotle peppers. Each has a very distinctive flavor. Then, with four saucers of sauce to dip in, you can have a feast.

Another favorable aspect is that it’s a happening spot. It’s family friendly, but the bar is also a meeting place for the young crowd. There’s a good chance Carlos the bartender will remember your name. And it’s busy; on a recent Tuesday evening it was packed. But even when packed, the ambiance is very nice — sitting in the main room feels like you are in an outdoor patio. And there are separate areas for parties. Everyone seems to be having a good time, even the wait staff.

And then we come to the food. The most popular dishes here are the ones made with green corn — the green corn tamale and the green corn chicken enchilada. But green corn is only available six months out of the year, so until May you are out of luck on that. But you could settle for the blue corn, available all year around.

A second favorite is the guacamole. Again, this is as good as it gets. The server brings the mortar to the table and prepares it at the table. The fresh cilantro leaves and chopped onion and tomato give it a fresh taste that makes it stand out from pre-made guacamole.

For me, an order of guacamole, chips and four salsas make this a destination that brings me back on a regular basis.

If it’s not green corn season you can order regular tamales. To qualify as a good tamale the corn should remain soft and not congealed, the meat either well chopped or shredded, and the meat still moist. El Cholo’s tamale did not pass the test. It appears to be more of a commercial pre-made tamale, with congealed corn around a small portion of dried pork irregularly chopped into various sized pieces, with ample corn covering but very little meat inside.

You could order a chile relleno, which as regular readers will remember is one of my main tests for Mexican restaurants. This one is a mixed blessing. Had I ordered a chile and cheese omelet, this would be highly rated. But as a relleno it fails.

As always, I’ve also ordered a crab enchilada. The test here is the crab flavor, which unfortunately was not very pronounced, and was blunted with cheese flavor. But the avocado based green sauce on top was delicious, something that a French chef could be proud of, so the dish overall was quite good. And the black beans served with it, instead of heavy refried beans, were a welcomed addition.

And finally consider the fajitas, on the menu since 1984. This is a nice plate of shrimp (the best choice), chicken or steak, served in a hot skillet with well-cooked vegetables. At $16,75, one of the most expensive dishes on the menu, it’s a bargain and a very good choice.

Overall El Cholo offers a good experience. Individually the food is not the best available locally. As I’ve often said, the chile rellenos are better at Lares on Pico Boulevard. You can get a better taco at Tacos Por Favor a few blocks south. There are none of the really special Mexican dishes like barbacoa (goat stew). But for about $25 a person you can get a good plate of the kind of Mexican food most people are used to, in a real nice setting, with good service and a great margarita. And don’t forget the beer. But order the bottled beer; the draft beer was flat. I had a couple of Coronas that went really well with this food.

If you go

El Cholo

1025 Wilshire Blvd.

Santa Monica, Calif.

(310) 899-1106

www.elcholo.com

Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at mervynhecht@yahoo.com.

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