Yummy dishes, some served family style: the Avilas know how to please Mexican-food-loving Lagunans

Story and photos by LAURA BUCKLE

When Salvador Avila came to the United States from Guanajuato, Mexico with his wife and children, he came with hope and the American dream in his heart. Five decades later, Avila and his children own and operate one of the most well known and highly successful groups of Mexican restaurants in Orange and Los Angeles Counties, Avila’s El Ranchito restaurants.

It all started in the kitchen more than 50 years ago. Mama brought with her recipes that have been in her family for generations, paying strict attention to freshness and quality.

It was Papa, though, who had the idea to involve the whole family and create a truly special restaurant. The entire Avila family pitched in and helped at the first El Ranchito when it opened in Huntington Park in 1966 with only five picnic tables. Even Grandpa Poldo offered a helping hand by washing dishes.

Today, the 50-year tradition that has made their authentic Mexican cooking legendary continues to be served at the family’s thirteen restaurants. It is still a family business, family owned, family operated and family loved. 

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Michael Avila, son Brandon, Lula Buckle and her friend – and fried ice cream…

Mama and Papa eventually shared the responsibility of running El Ranchito with their children and now their grandchildren. Each restaurant is under the personal care of a family member, guaranteeing the reputation the family has earned for treating the customers “like part of the family.”

My food tasting is in he Laguna restaurant (of course), which has been open for 14 years. I have the pleasure of meeting and being served by not just one, but two generations of Avila’s El Ranchito, Michael the owner and grandson of Salvador, and his 10 year old son Benson, possibly one of the cutest most polite waiters I have ever had serve me. 

Michael, after opening Avila’s in San Clemente, opened this place with his wife Christine, whom he met in San Diego.  Benson was one year old and Christine was pregnant with their youngest son Braden, whom I didn’t get to meet but I am sure if he’s anything like his brother he is a truly wonderful boy. 

Not only is Avila’s historical story fascinating, but Avila’s also has a history for me and my family as it was the first place we came to eat when we visited Laguna Beach six years ago on vacation. I remember sitting in there during Oscars’ week and having my first shrimp tacos – we are not renowned for our Mexican food in England… 

So Avila’s El Ranchito will always have a special place in my heart. 

Our food journey at Avilas Laguna Beach

It’s Taco Tuesday when we arrive and the deal on Taco Tuesday is $2 per taco and trust me this is a great deal, the tacos are huge and fully loaded. Avila’s El Ranchito deals do not stop there either with an array of daily specials including “kids eat free Wednesday” and $3 mimosas all day Saturday and Sunday- yummy! 

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Mama’s soup is something special, spring, summer, fall or winter

The restaurant is buzzing with familiar local faces and given its location, a large number of tourists also.  Avila’s El Ranchito rarely takes bookings, but in a true friendly family style restaurant, there are plenty of places to sit and wait if you need to the ambience is always welcoming and comfortable.

Michael had suggested I bring the family for this tasting so he could serve us dishes family style. Sadly my son was on babysitting duties, so we took my daughter’s friend along to feast.

I had saved myself. If there’s one thing I know about Avilas, it’s that the portion sizes are always substantial, so I knew I needed to prepare for a feast 

Sensing our hunger, Michael and Benson, along with Erika, our server who has been with Avilas for three and a half years, brought us chips and salsa. The salsa is sooooo good at Avilas! One of my favorites.  Lula’s friend quickly ordered her favorite guacamole (she’s obsessed) and we scoured the menu.

After our conversation, Michael had a firm idea of the types of food we enjoyed Mexican style, and seeing how quickly the girls – who had been in the ocean and were beyond hungry – wolfed down the chips, the Avila boys bought them a cheese quesadilla, a bean and cheese quesadilla and some fries to start off with.  

I would like to accurately describe how delicious this was, but within seconds of them being out in front of the girls they were gone. However the satisfaction in their faces told me all was good.

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Great tacos at Avilas

It was then time for The Avila boys to wow us with a selection of foods for us to try family style. 

The first dish bought out was Mama Avila’s soup, a large bowl of chicken breast and rice soup, garnished with fresh avocado, cilantro onions and tomatoes, cooked in mama’s special broth. This soup is beautiful, on a hot or cold day.

Next to try was the Californian burrito. It’s a crazy burrito, inspired by Michael’s wild college days, where in the early hours of the morning he would visit a place called Santanas in San Diego and order a plain flour tortilla stuffed with carne asada, French fries, guacamole, cheese, pico de gallo, guacamole and sour cream.  

This is a complete carb fest and the kids LOVED it. I had a taste and it was yummy, definitely a good option to soak up one too many margaritas.

The Californian enchiladas came next: two enchiladas filled with shredded chicken and topped with tomatillo sauce, shredded cheese and avocado, served, of course, with Mexican rice and beans. These were great, surprisingly light, very tasty and the tomatillo sauce was one of the best I’ve tasted.

I’m a huge fish taco fan, so Michael bought us the halibut tacos, two seasoned grilled halibut tacos with cabbage, pico de gallo, avocado and chipotle aioli.  These were great, the halibut worked so well and was very salty and peppery which I loved I would for sure order these again and again. 

Finally came the shrimp botana platter, a favorite of my family’s, large Mazatlan shrimp sautéed in Avila’s special garlic butter sauce, with sliced avocado, fresh tomatoes, onions, jalepenos and lemon slices. This comes with rice and beans and tortillas so you can make your own tacos. It’s really good and a great dish to share.

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The shrimp botana platter is a favorite dish to share

As always, just when we thought we were done, it was time for dessert and we were served fried ice cream, crispy coated vanilla ice cream that is literally dunked into the fryer for a second so the sugar caramelizes around the ice cream, topped with whipped cream, chocolate sauce and caramel. 

This was decadent to say the least. The kids loved it. I could only manage a small taste.

Avila’s did not let me down. In fact Michael, Benson and the team went above and beyond to give my family a really pleasurable experience. Hospitality runs through the Avila DNA, and meeting young Benson, I feel like I saw the future of Avila’s right there.

Awesome job, Michael, Christine and your whole team. 

Avilas El Ranchito is located 1305 S. Coast Hwy. Phone: 949.376.7040

Kya

 

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