The Final Margaritas and Smothered Burritos Of Highland Park Classic El Arco Iris | KCET
The Final Margaritas and Smothered Burritos Of Highland Park Classic El Arco Iris
A Highland Park favorite for old school Mexican dishes and margaritas, El Arco Iris will soon close its doors for good after five decades of business. The impending closure of the beloved, family-run restaurant undoubtedly comes as a sad loss to its many regulars, which includes generations of families, nearby Occidental College students, as well as newcomers to the neighborhood. Originally opened in 1964 by Irene and Gustavo Montes, who wanted to bring the flavors of their native Querétaro, Mexico to L.A., El Arco Iris is currently owned by Angie Montes and her son Jesse Gomez, who also owns several restaurants around L.A. including Yxta, Maradentro and Mercado. And while some may decry the closing of a local legend as a sign of gentrification — a hotly debated issue in a neighborhood with a swiftly changing demographic — the family insists that the sale of the restaurant is on their own terms and will allow Angie the opportunity to retire and take care of her mother Irene.
“For the last month, it's been sixteen, seventeen hour days,” Angie says of the dramatic surge in business the eatery has seen since announcing the decision to close last month. “We didn't expect to have the kind of impact we had when we said that we were closing. It's been unreal. I take it as a show of real love and appreciation, but it's beyond what I expected — never in my wildest dreams. We get emails, texts, phone calls, and it's incredible.”
The upcoming closure has also given Angie the chance to meet some of the restaurant’s youngest customers, including a newborn whose family has been coming to El Arco Iris since they opened. “Somebody came the other night, it was a party of eighteen, and before they left, they brought me a baby and said, 'I just want you to know that this is our fifth generation here at El Arco,” Angie recalls. “And we were all crying. They said, 'My parents came here, my grandparents came here, my great-grandparents introduced us to the restaurant, and we come every year to celebrate my parent’s anniversary, and this is our last year. But we understand that you have to go.' A lot of these people are like a big extended family, I know they're names and faces.”
The Family Business
At the foundation of El Arco Iris, you’ll find both strong familial connections and hearty comfort fare, which helps to explain how the founding of the restaurant grew from a chance encounter in the family’s kitchen. “My mom was renting from a gentleman in Lincoln Heights, and when he came to collect the rent, we were making tamales,” Angie recounts. “The man said, 'Oh my god, these tamales are so delicious, you should open up a business with me.' We didn't have any money, we lived in a little house with eight of us. And my mom, with eight kids to support, said, ‘Oh, that sounds like a good idea.”
The family soon began operating El Arco Iris in partnership with the landlord as a small restaurant with seven little tables, not far from the present day location. The name of the restaurant, which translates to ‘the rainbow,’ was offered by Gustavo Montes who took it from the old adage of finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. With help from her eight children, Irene led the charge at the restaurant, running the kitchen for ten to twelve hours a day. “So that she could also watch us, she would bring us and we would work,” Angie explains. “We were free labor. My twin sisters were the dishwashers, and I was taking orders at twelve years old.”
Not long after, the landlord suffered an injury and asked Angie to take over the business. “She bought it for $2,000,” Angie mentions. “She had to put all of her little pennies together. How she did it, I don't know because $2,000 back then was a lot of money. But she came up with it and that's how our business started.” Initially the restaurant only had a handful of regulars, but Angie explains that the small dining room was soon overflowing on weekend nights with Occidental students, who she credits with helping to spread the word. Her parents eventually bought the building next door to expand the restaurant, before moving to the current location in 1981.
Angie’s son Jesse vividly recalls growing up at El Arco Iris:
On the Menu
From carnitas of Michoacán to mole of Puebla, the menu at El Arco Iris draws from many regions across Mexico, both Central and elsewhere, in addition to the Montes’ hometown of Querétaro. You’ll also find the large burritos and fried tacos that were popularized by California-Mexican restaurants in the 1960s. The recipes were developed by Irene Montes, including her popular chile verde, and tweaked in many cases based on what ingredients were available in L.A. when the restaurant first opened. “Now you can get anything from anywhere in a day or two,” explains Jesse. “But they opened at a time when you couldn't really get Mexican cheese, cream, or certain ingredients and so that's why they had to incorporate other ingredients to make them work. That's why to this day, we still make enchiladas with cheddar cheese at the restaurant. They're delicious — but you wouldn't see enchiladas with cheddar in Mexico.”
You’ll also find a familiar name on the menu with Jesse's Special Burrito, a hulking dish filled with meat, beans, cheddar cheese, guacamole and sour cream, with the irresistible option of being smothered in a salsa and cheddar cheese. Angie explains that the massive burrito was named by her father after Jesse, who had been a skinny baby who often refused to eat until his grandmother took to the task. “My mom gave him evaporated milk with rice, sugar and cinnamon, and Jesse would eat that until he fell asleep,” Angie explains. “So he went from a being a little baby to a big baby.”
A New Generation
While Jesse would later carry on the family business as a restaurant owner himself, he was initially steered away from getting involved. “My mom never really wanted me to continue on with the family business because she knew how hard it was and how time consuming it was,” Jesse explains. While he would occasionally help out at El Arco Iris during school, at the age of fourteen he set his sights on becoming an attorney. But after attending Princeton for undergrad and beginning law school, he suddenly had a change of heart after a semester. Angie recalls, “I'll never forget the day when he came to me and said, 'Mom, I have good and bad news. I did really well on my midterms, but I don't like it and I want to open up a restaurant.' And my heart dropped, but I said, 'Okay, whatever you want to do, I'll support you. Just be the best at whatever you want to do.’”
Rather than return to working at El Arco Iris, Jesse took to management positions at other restaurants with the goal of learning how companies did business and ran multiple restaurants. He began working at Cha Cha Cha, the since-closed Caribbean restaurant, and went on to work with Hillstone Restaurant Group and the Innovative Dining Group. “I liked the operational and ownership aspect because there are so many different aspects of operating a successful restaurant,” Jesse explains. “There's the design, the food, there's the creativity that comes with all of those things, the artwork that you get to pick, the music.”
Then in 2005, Jesse returned to El Arco Iris to help revamp the restaurant with a more modern look and an updated menu, while taking great pains to preserve what had attracted customers for decades. “I didn't want to alienate any of our older customers by remodeling the restaurant and completely changing the menu, taking away things that people had loved for over 30 years,” he explains. “So we left the majority of the menu and added a few things to update it. At the time we added fish tacos, a little more modern chicken burrito and salad.”
“Needless to say, he brought this restaurant to a different level,” Angie says of Jesse’s redesign. “He's got the brains, he's just so smart. He put in the electronic systems. Before that, it was all mom and pop, written by hand. He set up the bar, we didn't have a bar, we just made the margaritas in the corner mom-and-pop style.”
Jesse also encouraged his mother to retire at the time, and took over the daily operations from her. “At that time I wasn't quite ready, and I thought, 'what am I going to do?’" Angie says. “But I found out that it was great to be retired. I started going to the gym, hiking and traveling all over.” However, her break was short-lived. Jesse soon had the urge to open a place of his own and in 2007, asked Angie if she could help out while he opened Yxta Cocina Mexicana, a modern Mexican restaurant in Downtown L.A. on the outskirts of Skid Row. “Then I ended up staying here and working all the time,” Angie says.
“When I opened my first restaurant it was really just an elevated version of my family's restaurant,” Jesse says of Yxta, which he opened in 2009 with executive chef and partner Jose Acevedo. “A lot of the recipes for the staples — the rice, the beans, a lot of the enchiladas sauces, the carnitas — were my grandma's recipe. The Mexican rice at all of our restaurants is my grandmother's recipe. There was just a little bit more of an eye for presentation, ingredients and where we were getting them from.”
After finding success with Yxta in a tough neighborhood which at the time was lacking in fine dining options that now seem to spring up weekly, the partners went on to open three locations of their Mercado concept, as well as seafood-focused Maradentro in Brentwood. Until late last year, they also had a Studio City location of Maradentro, but found that the restaurant didn’t flourish as the others had and decided to shutter with plans to reopen soon with a new concept. “That was hard because you wonder how can you open a restaurant on Skid Row and be successful, and how can you open a restaurant on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City and not be successful,” Jesse explains. “Some things in life don't make sense. But we did make some mistakes there, that hopefully we don't make again.”
As the new torchbearer of a family business steeped in restaurant ownership, Jesse reflects on the different approaches each generation has had to running the business:
The End of the Rainbow
“I think the reason why a lot of people have been coming here for so long is that at the core of everything, we retained everything that made that restaurant special,” Jesse says of the decades of customer loyalty at El Arco Iris. “It's always been a family restaurant. There's always been a member of my family there on any given day and you don't see that a lot anymore. That continuity is always something that has been very special to the restaurant. But it's bittersweet in a way because the restaurant has been successful. We sold a successful business. And usually when you come across a restaurant that's for sale, they're being sold because they didn't make it and the owners are trying to get their last pennies out of the place. This restaurant has been making money and been fruitful for a long time, and not just for my mom, but in the past for my family.”
The restaurant and property has been sold to Coda Equities, a real estate investment firm that Jesse sought out. He briefly considered keeping the property in the family and opening another Yxta there, but worried that the process might take years and not give Angie the opportunity to retire. “My mom was really burnt out, and I don't blame her, she works her butt off everyday. She wants to spend the rest of her years hiking and going on trips, and doing things she could never really do because she was always busy with work. So I didn't want to prolong her stay there.”
More From The Migrant Kitchen
Coda Equities hasn’t yet announced what the future plans are for the location, but both Angie and Jesse are hopeful that they’ll find a tenant that’s right for the neighborhood. “It's in their best interest to put a tenant in there that's going to be around for a while. I know those guys and that's why I called them because I thought it would be the right fit and I think they'll make the right decision ultimately. I just hope that it's something that's good for the neighborhood and that the neighborhood continues to support. I hope it's a good family space, for me that space has always been about family.”
“A lot of people have said, ‘Oh great, it's another sign of gentrification,” Jesse admits. “But the reality is we are leaving on our own terms. No one is kicking us out, no one came out of nowhere and said 'We're going to give you $10 million to get out of here so we can put in something super cool and some new American hipster joint. That's not the case here. We're leaving happy, comfortably and saying, 'Hey, we gave it all we got and we did this for a long time. And we made a lot of people happy for a really long time.’ I grew up there and sometimes it's hard for me to drive down York Boulevard and see all these new things, but I'm also a firm believer that anytime a neighborhood becomes safer, it's a good thing. Anytime a neighborhood becomes more walk-friendly, it's a good thing. There's more businesses popping up and that's good.”
Angie echoes her son’s sentiments, “I know this is home to a lot of people, but hopefully home will be improved. It's not going to be the same people, but it's going to be good. I'm hoping and praying that people will accept it.”
Jesse does admit that he sees the closing of El Arco Iris as the end of an era:
The family has refrained from announcing an exact closing date — for fear of being overwhelmed by even bigger crowds than have already flooded through the doors since the announcement. When asked if they have any grand farewell in the works, Angie says, “I would have loved to do some sort of party, but I haven't had any time. It would have to be a block party because the amount of people that have come by has been crazy. There are a lot of special people, and if I tried to write them all down, I couldn't finish the list. It's five generations and most of them I could call out by name.”
“I'm just really excited just waking up late one day and saying 'Ahhhh, I have no responsibilities,’” admits Angie. “I also want to spend time with my mom, which I haven't been able to do as much. I'm so grateful to all the loyalty. Our customers have been with us through thick and thin, and they're always there. And without all of them we couldn't have been so successful. And I can honestly say, we were very successful. Fifty three years says a little something, that's a whole history. I met my son's dad here, my second husband here. I got the news that my sister died while I was here, we had my father's funeral here. I got married here the second time around in the banquet room. It's definitely a special place.”
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