Will a second location help this historic Olvera Street taqueria survive?
Around the same time foot traffic slowed on Olvera Street in March 2020 — no children on field trips, no tourists flocking to the historic site to taste and shop their way through L.A.’s Mexican history — owners of the brightly colored storefronts began packing up their embroidered dresses and marionettes and closing their shops, and Diana Robertson began to worry about the fate of her 86-year-old restaurant.
Cielito Lindo sits at the northeastern tip of Olvera Street and has ever since Robertson’s grandmother, Aurora Guerrero, founded the famous taqueria in 1934. A second location now sits roughly 1½ miles to the northeast, where Chinatown’s stretch of Broadway leads into Lincoln Heights — a new restaurant that opened without fanfare for takeout, with a bright green paint job to match the avocado sauce Cielito Lindo helped popularize nearly a century ago.
Robertson and her sisters Mariana Robertson and Susanna MacManus keep the legacy of their grandmother alive through food: fried-crisp taquitos smothered by a piquant avocado salsa made from tomatillos and yellow peppers. At the Lincoln Heights location, they’re keeping their family’s legacy going in a new way: by welcoming customers to 1806 N. Broadway for the first time in decades.
The warehouse — owned by the family since the 1940s — has served as the Cielito Lindo prep kitchen and storage warehouse for years but was once a separate Mexican restaurant helmed by their mother, who told her daughters stories of live music, dancing and band leaders who’d stop through on their tour circuits.
“After the flush of the war years, she tried to make it an Americanized hamburger place with malts and shakes but it didn’t fly,” Robertson says. “It’s always been there; we just adapt to whatever our economic situation is at the time and what’s going on.”
As soon as Olvera Street’s flow of visitors slowed to a crawl last year at the start of the pandemic, the sisters sprang into action in Lincoln Heights, where they also grew up, and the second Cielito Lindo began offering the same menu and prices as the first in an effort to keep the Olvera Street location afloat. (The original taqueria has remained open through COVID-19 because the sisters feared that if they even temporarily closed it, it would be forgotten.)
“Sometimes at Cielito Lindo [on Olvera Street], even though we weren’t making anything at all — $20, $40 — we were still opening,” Robertson says. “You know, you’ve got to do it.”
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The family also owns the restaurant directly across from the original taco stand, Las Anitas, which they did shutter for a few months during the pandemic; they couldn’t afford the utilities for the larger commercial building. Robertson sees the Lincoln Heights location as the family’s fail-safe, though there’s no way it can sustain the Olvera Street restaurants alone, and the space isn’t permitted to have indoor dining. Over the years health codes changed; all that can be offered is takeout food.
“We can’t enlarge, we can’t have tables, we can’t have parking, we can’t have indoor service, so we’re just there by the will of God and the love of our customers, really,” Robertson says. Almost no one outside of the neighborhood realizes they’re there, and visibility is a struggle — hence that bright green paint.
She also struggles with modernizing Cielito Lindo, one of the oldest surviving restaurants in the city, still beloved for its 1930s-level simplicity and its still-low prices: The iconic beef taquitos are $1.80 a la carte, while combo meals with rice and beans can be found for only $8.50. Today, she says, people want delivery and they want their taquitos with the push of a button. Locals to Chinatown, downtown and Lincoln Heights phone in and pick up their orders but Robertson worries Cielito Lindo might not survive without delivery.
Unfortunately, with its already slim margins the restaurants can’t afford the third-party delivery fees, and the co-owner has frequent — and occasionally heated — discussions with delivery services.
“We get a lot of offers, you know, ‘30 days free for this and that,’” Robertson says. “But then I say, ‘OK, but we cannot give away our taco. We give you an order of taquitos and you take 25%, and our profit margin is 15%. We’re actually paying you to take our food.’”
Delivery-service reps urge her to compensate for their fees by increasing the prices of Cielito Lindo’s items, but Robertson, who handles the restaurants’ daily operations, feels it wouldn’t be fair to her regulars and could drive them away. “I’m not gonna do that to my customers,” she said. “Who’s going to pay $10 for a taquito?”
Everyone, she adds, has a story about Cielito Lindo: People’s grandparents used to take them, or schools would travel by the busload to wander from one end of Olvera Street to the other, finishing with a plate of beef taquitos. With eyes glued to phones and computers, fixated on whatever is new and immediate and photogenic, the family wonders whether those stories and connections to their restaurant will continue.
Chef Wes Avila — formerly of Guerrilla Tacos and now of Angry Egret Dinette — grew up eating at Cielito Lindo, whose taquitos have remained a must-have meal before or after Dodgers games throughout his life. Seeing Robertson, he says, is like running into a tía, and her restaurant is, to this day, the only place he’s ever eaten along Olvera Street. He always orders the same thing: some form of the taquito combo plate with avocado sauce.
“When I found out you could take it to-go, when we were in high school, I bought one of those little quart cups and was drinking it — that’s how delicious it was,” Avila said. “It’s the avocado sauce that people try to copy, but you can’t.
“The space, the location — I can’t ever imagine another place being there. It’d be like Philippe’s not [being] there and somebody taking over. With Cielito Lindo, I hope they don’t change much except capture the same experience you already have.”
Just a few days ago, Olvera Street was showing signs of renewed activity. Few storefronts were closed, and most vendors’ multicolored stall doors were open to display ukuleles and crosses and woven blankets and straw hats. A handful of visitors waited six feet apart in a line at the original Cielito Lindo location, a few sitting nearby with plates of taquitos.
It feels hopeful, and Robertson imagines that by modernizing — somehow — her family’s restaurant could entice new customers to both locations. This isn’t the first time the Guerreros and the Robertsons and the MacManuses feared and faced new technology, and if they can help it, it might not be the last.
“When my uncle was taking care of it, the big thing was frozen food — Birds Eye and all that started coming out in the ’50s,” Robertson says. “Everybody was afraid, like, ‘Oh my God, frozen foods, nobody’s going to go out to dinner anymore.’ You bounce with the punches, you see what happens. Let’s see how far it goes.”
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