There’s something special about Mijares
By Frier McCollister
The motto at Mijares restaurant is “Pasadena’s best-kept secret since 1920.”
The family-run operation, now in its fourth generation, celebrated its 100th anniversary in February 2020 to much local fanfare. After successfully running its massive 600-seat dining room as a beloved and venerable dining institution over so many decades, it’s difficult to believe that anyone in town isn’t in on the secret by now.
That said, when considering the wider local landscape of legacy family-owned Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles — El Cholo, El Coyote or Casa Vega, in the Valley, for instance — Mijares isn’t often included, even though it’s arguably the oldest of the bunch still in active operation.
Four generations of the extended Mijares clan have worked in the restaurant and many members of its loyal staff have been with the restaurant for 30 years or longer. That degree of loyalty always indicates that something is being done right. Chef Antonio Campos has been with Mijares for 35 years.
If there is a secret, he pointed to it, “The family here is fantastic, and everyone here is family. Everyone here is happy.”
Family is the undeniably recurrent theme at Mijares. The celebratory adulation that accompanied Mijares’ 100th anniversary observance was followed quickly and unexpectedly by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown that forced restaurateurs to “pivot” into a pickup and delivery model to maintain their staff and operations.
The pivot at Mijares was particularly radical and challenging. The business was founded on providing accommodation for large parties and group festivities, events that effectively vanished for over the two years of uncertain and changing pandemic protocols and restrictions.
Still 103 years of painstaking attention to quality and service reflects an undeniable degree of fortitude, determination and resilience. Perhaps needless to say, if one has stopped by recently, Mijares has weathered the storm and appears to be thriving.
On a rare sunny morning in January, third-generation Mijares scion Tom Recendez was joined by his niece, Mary Alice Recendez, as staff prepared the banquet room for a monthly mixer hosted for JPL employees. They recalled the dark days of the lockdown together.
“We really didn’t (see the pandemic coming),” Tom says.
“What we had to do was cut down to a skeleton crew, which was very small. Mary Alice, my niece and I, ran the front of house and our chef, who we’ve had for 35 years, Antonio Campos, and just a few of our cooks and dishwashers were doing the back of house. Packing orders to go, answering the phones and running. We would do a lot of running. We ran the food to your car. We would run and meet you outside.”
Pre-pandemic, Mijares routinely carried nearly 70 staff members. As they opened in the lockdown, eight staff including Tom and Mary Alice maintained the operations on their own. “To be honest, it ran as best as we could run it. We did the best we could with what we had,” Tom concludes.
The senior members of the family were not able or willing to come out in the early days of the pandemic lockdown.
“My uncle and I came together immediately,” Mary Alice says.
“My aunt is older and didn’t feel comfortable being out in public. My grandmother is in her 90s. My mother has asthma and diabetes. They had to stay home. My uncle and I were the ones who could really be here.”
“We’re the youngest,” Tom interjects.
Mary Alice continues, “It was a huge eye opener. We were able to look at our demographic and reevaluate what we needed to sell in order to keep the doors open. That was difficult. We kept under 10 people in the establishment, while maintaining meetings to discuss what we were going to create in order for people to come to our front door. We had to come up with meals that could bring people to us and something that they could share safely. That was really interesting as something to come together and (solve) as a family. That was definitely a bit difficult, but we got through it together.”
“Sales were pretty low some days. It was pretty depressing. What really helped us out was when we were allowed to sell margaritas to go,” Tom notes. “Another thing that really helped us out — it’s not something I like to point out — but owning the property, not having to pay a lease.”
The slow climb out of the pandemic restrictions presented additional challenges as well.
“It was interesting rehiring, while maintaining capacity with our guests and social distancing. It was hard to manage,” Mary Alice notes.
“We figured things out together, which made us stronger in the end. Having to reevaluate the way we set up and to ensure that (customers) knew we had their safety in mind, that was our top priority. It was really great to do together. It would have been a lot harder without each other.”
Mijares began when Jesucita Mijares landed in Pasadena in 1920, having fled her hometown in Jalisco, following the tumult of the Mexican revolution. Intent on establishing a modest tortilla factory, she bought the initial parcel for $8,000.
Cobbled together from two loans, one from a physician acquaintance and another from a prospering local auto mechanic, the original site was on Fair Oaks Avenue and Pico Street in Pasadena. Soon, she began serving a simple menu of tacos, tamales and enchiladas to the locals.
The operation moved to its more expansive location just up the block on Palmetto in 1944. The property also provided housing for the extended Mijares family. The restaurant’s matriarch lived on the property until she died in 1988. In 2006, the family dwelling was turned into the current banquet hall.
By the way, nimble resilience is not new for the Mijares family. In 1979, arson destroyed much of the existing restaurant. Tom’s mother, Alicia, quickly managed to open the Mijares restaurant annex on North Washington Boulevard, while they rebuilt on Palmetto Street. The annex operated successfully for the next 40 years, when it was closed at the onset of the pandemic lockdown.
The spine of the Mijares’ menu is built on classic “combination plate” fare that typifies this genre of Mexican American restaurant. Rice and lard-laced refried beans are the requisite accompaniment for these plates rotating between enchiladas, tostadas, quesadillas and tacos, as combination entree choices. It’s a formula that defined what average Americans encountered as “Mexican food” over the better part of the 20th century.
“What sets Mijares apart from other restaurants is we make our own salsas, we make our own masa, we grind for our own tamales. It’s from a volcanic stone from my grandmother’s village in Jalisco. How many can tell you they have a volcanic stone from Jalisco, Mexico, grinding their corn to make tamales?” Tom queries.
Still, a more attentive eye on the Mijares menu can detect family favorites and specials that depart from the otherwise desultory norm. When a diner encounters entrees or dishes named for or attached to family members, friends or customers, it’s often a tip toward originality if not also an added degree of care or attention in composition and prep.
Items like Alicia’s chicken picado with an appended note (Maria’s Fave!) ($22.95) or crab enchiladas (Derek’s Fave!) ($27.95), Primo’s chalupa in a fried flower bowl ($16.95) or Corky’s Fabulous Garbage Burrito ($15.25) are some choices that beckon away from the more predictable and otherwise pedestrian menu options.
Tom explains further, “A lot of the favorites (are named for) people who have been coming here for so long. We named (the dishes) after the person, because it’s what they would always come in and order. Like ‘Corky’s Fabulous Garbage Burrito’: Corky, God rest his soul, was such a nice, nice man who came here for over 50 years. He came in, he didn’t want the menu. He’d say, ‘You know what I want.’”
Mary Alice notes, “We just added Scott’s favorite cheese enchilada on our menu (named for) a dear customer and friend of ours who had passed.”
“His name was Scott Christensen. He was my friend. When he passed it was devastating,” Tom interjects.
“He was like our uncle. Cheese enchilada and a margarita every day,” Mary Alice adds. Come here enough, order the same dish and soon your name is on the menu.
The menu also includes traditional breakfast plates ($13.95) with huevos served ranchero style, with machaca, chorizo or as chilquiles. Seafood plates ($27.95) include shrimp and lobster enchiladas; “camarones estilo Mexicano” with shrimp sauteed in a wine salsa with onions, bell peppers and diced tomatoes; as well as the aforementioned crab enchiladas.
There are eight options for tostadas ($11.95 to $16.95) and three takes on their “famous” tamales: pork, chicken and vegetable, or green poblano and cheese ($9.95).
It’s also not surprising that the popular advent of the margarita cocktail in the late 1960s and early 1970s created another real excuse to revisit the food.
Mijares has an intriguing and original list of margarita preps. In addition to a selection of 16 flavored margaritas — from blood orange to watermelon — available blended or on ice, there are also 16 “classic” versions incorporating top shelf tequilas and mezcals, from Hornitos plata to Patron Silver ($9.50 to $16.50).
Authenticity snobs might also note the various menu references to “Spanish sauce.” It’s a certifiably authentic remnant of early 20th century colonial influence that can still be found on the menus of Mijares’ hoary legacy competitors in the area as well.
All said, discerning connoisseurs of authentic Mexican cuisine should not be bothered to assess their experience at Mijares. The food at Mijares is as much “American” food as it is “Mexican” but no less authentic for the fact.
It’s the product of diaspora, assimilation and the slow evolution of in-grained family recipes and their adaptation to cultural taste and trend. That’s how 103-year-old businesses sustain themselves successfully.
Allow the place to play to its strengths. So, the next time the LA Dodgers are headed to the World Series — that is to say, this fall — consider Mijares as a place to gather with friends to cheer them on.
Birthdays, quinceaneras, reunions, weddings or wakes: Mijares can be a worthy, felicitous and satisfying destination.
Mary Alice sums it up, “I would really love to thank all of our guests for their support during the most difficult time I’ve ever witnessed. And family is everything, they will get you through the worst. But our customers are our family, and I just want to thank them for helping us get through those tough times.”
“I could have been born into any family. I was born into the Mijares family, and I am so lucky. It’s the truth. This is something special here,” Tom concludes. It’s really no secret.
145 Palmetto Drive, Pasadena