All in the Family 1

The Avila family celebrates El Ranchito’s lasting legacy in Orange County

This year marks a notable time for a local Corona del Mar family. The Avilas and their El Ranchito restaurants celebrate their 50th anniversary. In 1966, when the first eatery opened its doors in Huntington Park, owners Salvador and Margarita Avila had no idea that a $2,000 investment would eventually lead to such a successful and sprawling family empire.

Affectionately called “Mama,” Margarita Avila continues to leave her mark on all thirteen of the family’s restaurants. Her signature recipes became the backbone of the Avila homestead. Mama’s cooking style, which emanated from her Guanatjuato homeland in Mexico, melded with American influences that she adapted for Southern California locals. The eateries’ hearty platters are still known for their heaping flour tortillas stuffed with slow-roasted meats garnished with sides of seasoned rice and refried beans. Crispy flautas and icy margaritas continue to be popular staples.

The cuisine at each location remains the same, but the atmosphere at the different El Ranchito restaurants boasts its own unique vibe. This is, thanks in part, to the cities that house each spot, ranging from the Pacific Coast Highway eatery in Laguna Beach and an outpost in Corona del Mar to the historic cathedral-style building in Orange and the hacienda-inspired décor in Santa Ana. Another reason why each El Ranchito boasts its own unique feel is because different family members run them. This passion project may have started with Salvador and Margarita, but the zeal continues into the next generation with the Avila’s five children and grandchildren taking the reigns.

One of the Avila daughters, Maria Elena, oversees the Costa Mesa location. That is where the anniversary festivities kicked off earlier this summer. Among family pictures and mementos, the Avilas, along with a roomful of friends and local community leaders, recognized the restaurant group’s monumental anniversary. The family continued the celebration throughout the summer with small festivities at each restaurant. However, this initial gathering at Placentia Avenue in Costa Mesa felt joyfully authentic without an ounce of pretention. And, that’s how El Ranchito remains in the minds of many of its longtime patrons.

Since the late 1960s, the Avila’s El Ranchito restaurants began dotting Orange County’s culinary landscape. Five decades later, the family continues to expand into new neighborhoods and has branched further north with a space in Los Angeles. While El Ranchito is definitely not the place to go if you are seeking cutting-edge Mexican food, these restaurants do serve a different niche. Each El Ranchito remains true to its roots and continues to plate up the Mexican-style comfort food that many of us locals remember from our childhood. Saucy enchiladas smothered in cheese, blended tomato salsa for dipping crispy tortilla chips, enormous burritos stuffed with various meats and stick-to-your-bones refried beans. While the menu has modernized in some areas–you now can order shrimp ceviche and Sal’s vegetarian quesadillas–it continues to maintain its hearty home-style flair. Mama’s rich mole sauce, her potato-stuffed tacos and her soothing chicken soup remain staples on the menu. The food and her family’s legacy remain a constant reminder that while the landscape of Orange County is ever-changing, it’s nice to know that some places will always stay the same.

The cuisine at each location remains the same, but the atmosphere at the different El Ranchito restaurants boasts its own unique vibe.