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Salvador Avila’s legacy lives on through his family-owned El Ranchito restaurants

The Avilas and their family celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary. Salvador Avila died on July 28 at 99.
(Courtesy of the Avila family)

The chain of Avila’s El Ranchito Mexican Restaurants feels like it has always been around. With locations throughout Orange County, it’s a reliable establishment for a satisfying meal and a refreshing margarita. More than that, the restaurants are the legacy of Salvador Avila, who passed away on July 28 of natural causes at age 99.

Even if O.C. residents didn’t know Avila, they may have dined at one of his restaurants or seen him jogging around his Corona del Mar community, a hobby he took up later in life.

“His life purpose and determination was for his family to succeed in America,” one of his daughters, María Elena Avila, told TimesOC. “My father was a man of faith.”

Faith played a role in Avila’s decision to get into the restaurant business back in the 1960s. Avila first came to U.S. from Mexico in the 1940s as a part of the bracero program.

“After living just eight years in the United States with our mom, Margarita, and my siblings, our parents seized an opportunity that changed our family forever,” said another daughter, Margarita Avila.

A chance to buy a restaurant was presented to the Avilas, and the first El Ranchito opened in Huntington Park in 1966. The $2,000 investment got the family a small establishment with just five picnic tables in terms of seating. Although the Avilas didn’t have restaurant business experience, the sisters said their mother had family recipes and their father was determined to find a way to create a meaningful future for his family.

Salvador Avila on his 90th birthday.
(Courtesy of the Avila family)

“Today our father’s entrepreneurial spirit and hard work ethic permeate throughout the three generations that continue to operate the 13 locations,” Margarita said.

The original location in Los Angeles County is still operational along with the 12 in Orange County.

“In 1975 our father helped our brother Sergio open the restaurant in Newport Beach/Peninsula. They took a risk coming to the O.C., and 47 years later it has become a popular destination,” said Margarita. “Soon after, the Costa Mesa location followed.”

Today, the Costa Mesa location near Hoag Hospital is operated by María Elena. She inherited her mother’s love of cooking, and some of El Ranchito’s most popular menu items, like “Botana Carnitas” and “Pepe’s Special,” come from her kitchen.

Margarita operates the original Huntington Park location, now in its 56th year.

“My father’s influence was to encourage and support his children to be risk takers and have the entrepreneurial spirit,” said Margarita.

The sisters said Avila was proud of the way the restaurants allowed the family to work together and support each other. It was his influence that inspired the family to stick together, especially when the pandemic threatened the restaurant empire Avila had work so hard to establish.

“Our father valued family unity. He taught us to be united as a family, so we continued to be united with the three generations working together,” said María Elena. “When COVID hit, the Avila family worked diligently and shared ideas and techniques to survive those turbulent times. Thank God all 13 locations made it.”

When Salvador Avila turned 50, he made a drastic lifestyle change that included quitting smoking and taking up running. He ran his first marathon at 75 and participated in the Los Angeles Marathon each year until he was 81.

Salvador was preceded in death by his wife, Margarita, and his son, Jose Luis. He is survived by sons Salvador Avila Jr., Victor and Sergio and his two daughters. He had 14 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren, some of whom continue to work in the restaurants he left behind.

“In the latter years of his life, our father expressed a sense of contentment that three generations of his family were operating the restaurants,” María Elena said. “He said, ‘I am a blessed man.’”

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