When patrons of Avila’s El Ranchito sit down to eat, they’re handed a menu bearing a picture of Margarita “Mamá” Avila. The matriarch of the Mexican food restaurant group is standing by stacks of plates. Her face beams. The photograph suggests that happiness surrounds the making and eating of food from recipes passed down through generations.
Family lore says the beloved Mamá didn’t pose for the picture. It just sort of happened.
It was a fleeting moment, captured nearly 50 years ago in the days following the November 1966 grand opening of the first Avila’s El Ranchito in Huntington Park. In an era before ubiquitous smartphone cameras and flooded Instagram accounts, it was a spontaneous action, since memorialized on all menus in the 13-restaurant restaurant group.
On a recent afternoon, Maria Elena Avila, daughter of Mamá Avila, sat at a table inside the Westside Costa Mesa Avila’s restaurant, which she owns. She held a menu bearing the image of her mother from long ago.
Mamá Avila lives in Corona del Mar with her husband of 70 years, Salvador. It’s said that the 91-year-old Mamá is a local celebrity. If the Avila’s restaurant group had a headquarters, it is her home on Point Sur Drive. With no central office to speak of, decisions are made in the house by family.
“It sounds so basic, but it’s what has given us that staying power for 50 years,” Maria Elena said.
Margarita, now in a wheelchair, remains ever the matriarch, particularly when it comes to her own kitchen. She directs what occurs there.
Maria Elena looked again at her mother’s picture, remarking that the family couldn’t have orchestrated a better one if they tried.
“Look at that smile,” she said. “It’s a Kodak moment.”
Celebrating the journey
Maria Elena is thinking a lot about her mother these days and the rest of her family. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the restaurant group.
At the Costa Mesa restaurant on Thursday, the Avilas hosted a private party, starting what will become a summer-long celebration of the milestone at all 13 El Ranchitos. The first public party is at the Costa Mesa restaurant this weekend. Afterward, each location will have food and drink specials on a scheduled Thursday, as well as raffles and other giveaways. But on this Thursday, it was a time to reflect on family history over margaritas, wine, tacos, tortillas, and mariachi. Employees wore 50th anniversary T-shirts and name tags with the year they started working for the company.
Most of the people there were family friends and Latino community leaders. As the guests walked into the restaurant, they saw rows of Avila family photos, including one taken in April of Margarita and Salvador on their 70th wedding anniversary.
Los Angeles Times
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