La Golondrina Café

Good Comida, Early California History on Los Angeles’ Olvera Street

Thursday, August 28 2008 13:27   Mexican Food
We love really good Mexican food, and we love a really good story. We found both at La Golondrina Café and Historic Landmark on Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles.

First the story. La Golondrina's roots go back to 1924 when Consuelo Castillo de Bonzo first opened the doors to La Misión Cafe on South Spring Street. An entrepreneurial and charismatic woman (born in Mexico, she and her widowed mother came to Los Angeles in 1899), she not only became an important voice among the growing Mexican community, but made many political contacts among city movers and shakers.

In the mid-1920s Los Angeles was a city on the go, and a growing city needed a new city hall. Mrs. de Bonzo's little café (along with other neighboring buildings) was in the way.

Fortunately, as fate would have it, nearby Olvera Street (the 1781 birthplace site for Los Angeles) was getting a much-needed facelift, along with recognition by society figures as an important historic landmark.

In 1928, wealthy socialite and preservationist Mrs. Christine Sterling (the driving force behind saving Olvera Street as a Mexican marketplace) heard about plans to knock down La Misión Café, and offered Mrs. de Bonzo the opportunity to relocate to Olvera Street's old Pelanconi House as a site for a new restaurant.

Built between 1855 and 1857, the two-story Pelanconi House was the first brick building in Los Angeles, and remains to this day the oldest firebrick structure still standing in the city.

Mrs. de Bonzo moved her business to Olvera Street and renamed the restaurant Casa La Golondrina (translation: the house of swallows), establishing the first true Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles. With Casa La Golondrina's opening in 1930, Mrs. De Bonzo became the first restaurateur to offer food described as Mexican instead of simply "Spanish food."

La Golondrina not only remains a key fixture of Olvera Street, it continues to be operated by the de Bonzo family; Vivien Consuelo de Bonzo, the founder's granddaughter, is the current proprietress.

We stopped for lunch earlier this year, and entered La Golondrina from the Olvera Street entrance. Outdoor dining is available, giving you the chance to people-watch those walking by, but we elected to munch inside.

The original part of La Golondrina actually is where the old building's basement used to be; Olvera Street was lowered by three feet in the late 1920s, making for easier access to Pelanconi House, which also served as a wine cellar in the late 1800s.

You really have to think of La Golondrina as two rooms with different décor styles. The first represents the original Pelanconi House structure; the soft lighting gives it an intimate feel, and very historic. As you enter from Olvera Street, the ceiling is low, with exposed, dark-stained wooden beams and electrical wiring running along the beams. The bar is to the right; small, what we'd call cozy. To the left is a round, functional adobe-style fireplace. A table for two is in front of the fireplace, and would be our pick on a cool, rainy day.

The other room's decor is more modern, well-lighted and roomy. The entrance is off North Main Street and once inside, you step down a short flight of stairs to reach the high-ceiling dining area. Paintings from the restaurant's private collection of Mexican art can be seen on the walls.

Now for the food. Excellent is the word we would use. This is no ground-beef taco shop. It's also moderately-priced, if not a little higher for some of the dishes.

There were two of us that day for lunch. Once seated, immediately we were presented with menus, two small baskets of warm, crispy tortilla chips and a bowl of fresh, chile salsa, a little on the chile-hot side, and delicious.

The drink menu offers a nice variety of Mexican-style adult beverages including Cadillac margaritas, mango margaritas, California frozen margaritas (with lime, strawberry, melon, coconut or tropical base), and what they call the real Mexican margarita, made with Hornitos tequila, Cointreau, fresh-squeezed lime juice, and served on the rocks in a salted glass. Prices range from $8.75 to $11.45 a glass. We each decided on a cold beer. The wine list is respectable, and there is a nice selection of non-alcoholic beverages.

There's plenty of food choices on the menu, including some very tempting à la carte items and combination plates. Where we were drawn, however, was to the Especialidades de la Casa - house specialties.

Tough choices, we agreed. Should we try the Chile Relleno de Jaiva (a roasted chile poblano stuffed with seasoned claw crab meat and served in a roasted tomato-mushroom chipolte sauce, with rice and beans), Camarones a su Gusto (jumbo shrimp with a choice of garlic sauce, spicy chile sauce, roasted green tomatillo salsa, or roasted tomato salsa), or Mole Poblano (a rich chocolate, chile, peanuts and spices sauce served over a chicken breast)?

Other items were just as enticing. We decided on Tacos de Carne Asada (two soft corn tortillas piled with chopped steak, cilantro and onion, with guacamole on the side, and rice, beans and a spicy, roasted salsa) and Cochinita Pibil (roasted pork marinated overnight in achiote paste and fresh citrus juices, served with black beans and rice).

Wait time was reasonable, and soon our dishes (hot, right from the kitchen) were brought to us by our very attentive server, who made sure our chips and salsa were always plentiful.

Both dishes were wonderful. The tortillas (actually soft tacos) really were piled high with chopped steak. The meat was warm, tender and moist, and the guacamole some of the best we've ever had. The Cochinita Pibil also was warm, juicy and tender, with a cinnamon taste and served on banana leaves, with a choice of warm flour or corn tottillas. It reminded us of Mazatlan cuisine.

We wished we could have sampled more dishes, but were very pleased with what we had ordered. Both dishes could have been shared by two persons-there was that much on the plate. We asked for to-go containers and the next-day, warmed-up proved just as good as first servings. The Tacos de Carne Asada and the Cochinita Pibil were priced at $13.45 each.

Next time you're in Los Angeles, do yourself a favor and plan on a lunch or dinner at La Golondrina Café (they also serve breakfast), and take your time. The overall ambience, service and food make for a wonderful experience, excellent Mexican cuisine that you'll always remember.

La Golondrina Cafe
and Historical Landmark
W-17 Olvera Street
Los Angeles, CA
(213) 628-4349. .
Mexican Cuisine
Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner


Related Articles