Salvador Avila, bracero turned Mexican restaurant baron, dies at 99

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One day during the 1970s, Maria Elena Avila served her family some artichokes.

She, her siblings and parents had found success with their family restaurant, Avila’s El Ranchito in Huntington Park, and were beginning to expand into Long Beach and Orange County.

But the years of struggle and sacrifice as Mexican immigrants in the United States were still on the minds of everyone.

Salvador, Maria Elena’s father, had arrived in the United States in the 1940s as a bracero — a contracted Mexican farmworker.

The harsh work and loneliness of those days made him hesitant to talk about them with his kids. But when he saw what Maria Elena was about to serve, he had to speak up.

“He just looked at me, and then told all of us, ‘I can’t believe that I used to cut these,’” Maria Elena said.

The patriarch proceeded to describe how he had to carefully slice the vegetable off the stem with a knife, taking care not to prick himself on its thorns, and do it hundreds of times a day under the hot sun near Watsonville.

“And then,” Maria Elena said, “Daddy said, ‘Now, I’m about to eat artichokes. I’ve never even tried them.’”

Salvador Avila died July 28 in Newport Beach of natural causes. He was 99.

His insistence that his children never forget where they came from and always stay united helped Avila’s El Ranchito transform from a five-table spot into a multimillion-dollar empire with 13 locations, all owned and operated by three generations of the family.

They memorized many of his daily aphorisms: Keep a clean restaurant. Make sure the food is always delicious. A single straw on a broom will snap, but a bunch of them together are unbreakable.

“He led his life with determination, humility, gratitude, and self-sacrifice,” Avila’s El Ranchito said in a news release. “He recognized that all his blessings came from Heaven above.”

Born in Michoacán, Avila worked the fields in Central California, returning to Mexico after the picking season to visit his growing family. In the late 1950s, he brought them from their home in Pénjamo to southeast Los Angeles, where he juggled two eight-hour shifts at different foundries so his children could attend St. Aloysius Gonzaga School and so he could buy a three-bedroom home. His three boys and two girls each shared their own rooms, and he and his wife, Margarita, another.

Salvador eventually lost his jobs after straining his back. He was selling eggs out of the family station wagon when an opportunity came to buy a restaurant. Neither he nor his wife had ever run their own business, “but my dad just wanted to create something, and this was an golden opportunity,” Maria Elena said.

The first Avila’s El Ranchito opened in 1966. Huntington Park in those days was still an Okie and Arkie enclave. Eaters at the time preferred crispy tacos and cheesy combo plates over Margarita’s regional recipes, like beef tongue or cocido de res — beef soup. The family made only $13 on the first day.

But Avila’s opened at the perfect time. Southeast L.A. was about to undergo a dramatic demographic transformation. Salvador and Margarita’s children — who all worked at the family business when not going to school — caught the entrepreneurial bug from their parents and asked for their blessing to open eateries in Orange County, making sure to follow Salvador’s most valuable advice: Own the land where your restaurants will stand.

“My mom was the one with the sazón [touch],” Maria Elena said. “My dad was the one with the vision.”

By the 1980s, Salvador and Margarita were able to move to a hilltop estate in the Corona del Mar neighborhood of Spyglass Hill, with a view of Catalina Island. Almost all of their children lived nearby.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” he told The Times in 1990. “But we’ve also worked very hard.”

Salvador made a point of visiting his family’s restaurants every day, until he finally retired at 90, to thank customers for their decades of visits.

“He’d get a cup of coffee, or maybe a glass of wine, and just talk to people,” said his daughter Margarita. “He knew their story, and he’d seen them and their children grow up. It was his soul.”

Salvador also liked to check in with staff — and not just with his kids and grandchildren.

“He’d go up to the dishwasher and tell us, ‘Without him, you’re not going to succeed,’” Margarita said. “He knew the pain of not being respected.”

During his off hours, Salvador became a fixture in the Newport Beach social scene in a different way: running. The lifelong smoker decided to quit cold turkey at age 50 and vowed to run a marathon.

“My friends would tell me, ‘Hey, I saw your dad running around Fashion Island this morning!’” said Maria Elena. “But that was Daddy — once he got something in his mind, he was going to do it.”

He finally achieved his goal in 1998, running the Los Angeles Marathon at age 75 wearing a tank top with the name of his family’s restaurant. He competed every year until he was 81.

In his later years, Salvador loved to share his secret for a long life: frijoles de la olla, pinto beans in broth with radish and cilantro on the side.

“What he was most proud of was that he created an opportunity for his children and grandchildren to succeed in this country,” Maria Elena said. “He felt like he had lived a good life.”

Salvador Avila was preceded in death by his wife of 72 years, Margarita, and a son, Jose Luis. He is survived by daughters Maria Elena and Margarita and sons Salvador Jr., Victor and Sergio, as well as 14 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.

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