For the children of Margarita Avila, their mother is best summed up with a photo that serves as the cover for menus at the family’s chain of Avila’s El Ranchito Mexican restaurants.
It was taken about two weeks after the first Avila’s opened in Huntington Park, in 1966. Margarita, then 40, stands in the kitchen, surrounded by plates and bowls, as she grabs a flour tortilla without looking. She wears her home apron, earrings and a huge smile.
“It was everything,” says her daughter Maria Elena Avila. “The hope. She was going to make the restaurant work with tanto cariño, tanto amor (so much care, so much love). She saw the future.”
Hundreds of thousands of customers since have seen that portrait of Margarita Avila, who died Tuesday after a short illness. She was 93.
Avila was born in 1926 in the town of Pénjamo, Guanajuato, in Mexico. In 1946 she married Salvador Avila, who soon after became a bracero and migrated to California’s Central Valley to work in the fields.
Margarita stayed in Mexico to raise their family, which grew to six children. In 1958, the Avilas migrated to el Norte for good and settled in southeast Los Angeles, where Salvador found work in a foundry.
In 1966, the couple borrowed $2,000 from Salvador’s uncle to buy a failing Cuban café in Huntington Park and turn it into a Mexican diner. They had no restaurant experience, just Margarita’s recipes.
“She said, ‘Let’s see what we can do with this,’” according to Maria Elena, “‘because this is an opportunity from God.’”
Three generations worked from the start — Margarita's dad was the dishwasher, she handled the cooking, and the children were waiters, janitors, cashiers. Everyone cut vegetables after hours.
Though Huntington Park was then overwhelmingly white, Mexican immigrants became regulars because “the food made them think of their mama’s food,” according to Avila’s daughter Margarita.
The Avila children soon persuaded their parents to open more Avila’s El Ranchitos in Orange County in the mid-1970s. The move came at a key moment in the history of Mexican food in the United States.
Once relegated to single-spot operations or fast-food taco huts, Mexican restaurants were now drawing investors to expand nationally. Chains including El Torito, Chi-Chi’s and Acapulco made millions by serving a ravenous public frozen margaritas and heaping combo platters.
The Avilas joined in the rush — but on their own terms. They allowed only family members to open new outposts, and focused on the then-untapped Orange County market. They changed menu items to reflect the clientele of each location — mahi mahi ceviche in Newport Beach, for instance, or a beef tongue dinner in Huntington Park.
But Mamá Avila remained in charge of the kitchens: She would christen each one by cooking a batch of rice.
“Even when she was somewhat retired,” Maria Elena said, “my mom liked to surprise my brothers and go into their kitchens to scold them if the sauces weren’t up to her standards.”
That slow-growth, dynastic strategy worked; while most of Avila’s El Ranchito’s former competitors have become bankrupt or disappeared altogether, the family opened its 13th restaurant in Foothill Ranch in 2016, run by Margarita’s granddaughters.
Though occasionally joining her family on vacations, Margarita was happiest hosting family get-togethers at her house in Newport Beach, where most of her children and grandchildren lived. Every Monday, she’d cook chicken soup with rice, a perennial best-seller at all Avila’s El Ranchitos.
She always deflected praise from customers in favor of her children, but Margarita did keep one professional highlight close to her heart.
In 1990, Maria Elena catered the opening of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda. The former commander in chief was a Mexican food fan, and requested that the Avilas serve not just the hundreds of attendees who would attend the dedication, but also a private dinner for him and a select circle of guests.
Maria Elena built a makeshift kitchen for her mother, who prepared sopa de fideo (vermicelli soup) flavored with pasilla chiles and accompanied by handmade corn tortillas. Afterward, Nixon told Margarita that the food was “delicioso.”
“And my mom told me, with tears in her eyes,” Maria Elena said, “‘Mija, never in my life did I think that me, from Mexico, would serve a president of the United States.’”