María Elena Avila Shares How Her Family’s Restaurant Has Impacted the Local Community
If you’ve ever lived in Orange County, chances are you’ve had the pleasure of eating at one of the 13 Avila’s El Ranchito locations. Known for delicious homestyle cooking and a fun, friendly ambiance, the long-standing Costa Mesa location has been serving local generations of regulars for over 47 years. The secret behind this success? Well, it’s all in the family.
Like all Avila’s El Ranchito locations, the Costa Mesa restaurant is carefully watched and cared for by a family member, giving matriarch María Elena Avila the opportunity to honor her roots and preserve her family’s legacy while making a difference in her local community.
Daughter of Salvador and Margarita Avila, María Elena was raised in the business from the time the original location opened in Huntington Park, and her passion for the family legacy has only grown over time.
“I grew up helping my mom in the original restaurant, and even as a little girl, I fell in love with the kitchen,” María Elena says with a smile. “There’s a word called sazón—it means cooking from your heart for the people you love. And that’s my mama.”
Mama’s authentic recipes that were handed down from generations have created a living legacy that can be tasted and seen by anyone who sits at a table and holds a menu in their hands. On the front cover of that menu, you’ll find an iconic picture of Mama Avila standing in the first Avila’s kitchen wearing her own apron from home, radiating an expression that can only be described as pure joy. It was a Kodak moment taken shortly after the first location opened and was captured completely by chance, back in a time when cameras and photos were reserved for special occasions.
“My mom always had a special love for the kitchen and always had little secrets of how to prepare food. As we opened different restaurants, I started thinking of all my mama’s recipes,” shares María Elena. “When we started 57 years ago, she went from her kitchen into our kitchen. From the very beginning, it was just old-fashioned home cooking from scratch.”
“I like to say that here in Costa Mesa, 47 years later, we cook everything from scratch the way Mama did,” María Elena continues. “When I walk into the kitchen with my cooks, I like to say, ‘No shortcuts. What would Mama say if she saw you doing that?’ And that’s my way of always staying on top of the recipes to make sure that it’s cooked from scratch the way Mama did.”
María Elena keeps Mama’s scratch-made values alive and well, but that hasn’t stopped her from creating some new dishes using authentic ingredients in a fresh new way. Two of the most popular include the Botana de Carnitas, a build-your-own taco platter with marinated carnitas, avocados, tomatoes and corn tortillas, and Pepe’s Special, a skillet of carmelized onions with tender strips of rib-eye steak and Mama Avila’s chile negro sauce.
Aside from making an impact within the family restaurant, María Elena has left a lasting mark on her community. Born in Mexico, María Elena is proud to be an immigrant, an American and a business owner in Westside Costa Mesa. She has been deeply involved with the community, especially the local school district, and has garnered impressive awards in the area that include Woman of the Year and Entrepreneur of the Year.
“Being a businesswoman and a Latina, I felt like we needed those role models, and I wanted to be a bridge in our community and represent Latina women and businesswomen,” María Elena says, beaming with a look of pride and passion reminiscent of her mother’s photo on the menu. “I’m really proud to be part of Costa Mesa—especially on the Westside. Our restaurants are part of our communities. It’s not just about fundraising, but giving back in many different ways that can help strengthen and support our community.”
With the Avilas’ family values, philanthropy and dedication to high-quality, delicious food, it’s no surprise how the restaurant has become such a prominent cultural pillar in Costa Mesa, acting as a welcoming beacon for customers of all ages and backgrounds.
“When first-generation families come in and say, ‘My abuelita will only go to your restaurant because you really cook like home cooking,’ that’s a really nice compliment,” María Elena says. “Fresh. Good. Consistent. That’s the niche that we want—that’s the sazón.”
Avila’s El Ranchito’s location in Costa Mesa is known as the Avila’s test kitchen. Try one of Maria Elena’s creations, like the Botana de Camarones with wild-caught shrimp cooked in delicious buttery garlic sauce. The Botana de Carnitas is also a favorite, featuring a platter of slowly cooked and marinated pork that’s tender and juicy on the inside and crispy on the outside. Build-your-own tacos on fresh handmade tortillas are also popular, and, of course, the famous Avila’s Chicken Soup is a must-try!
The Costa Mesa location is an old school hidden gem on the west side. With exquisite hand painted murals, an outdoor patio and a fun bar where the locals hang out, this location stays true to the Avila’s El Ranchito style.
Avila’s El Ranchito keeps its menu in an affordable range with margaritas priced at $11 and entrees typically hovering around $20. And Avila’s is not stingy with portions—be prepared to eat your fill.
Avila’s El Ranchito has been a Costa Mesa staple for nearly five decades, and that’s for a good reason. The Avila Family greets everyone who walks through the door with open arms—be it a staff member, a new patron or a loyal regular.
Born and raised near the Pacific Coast, Jordan Nishkian is a California girl through and through. She graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a BA in Creative Writing and a BA in Anthropology, and her favorite place to be is curled up in a comfy chair with a book in her hand and a pen in her hair.