The bright red, Spanish-style exterior of Margaritas Mexican Restaurant is probably a familiar sight to some, especially since it first opened in Pasadena 42 years ago, in 1977. One of a dying breed of restaurants, it remains firmly within family hands: owner Ruby Bugarin took over Margaritas in 2006 with her brother as partner when her dad retired. While Bugarin worked outside the industry for a while, she returned to her roots to carry on the family legacy. Bugarin literally grew up in the business – her mother was pregnant with her when her parents were first opening Pepe’s, their first restaurant!
Margaritas is more than just a family-owned business, though; their staff have been working with Bugarin’s family for years, too. Their manager has been working at Margaritas for about 30 years – Bugarin still remembers him picking her up from elementary school when her dad was busy at the restaurant! Some of their waitstaff are generations of family members, from grandmother to granddaughter. The chefs have been working for the family a while, too, and have brought their brothers, nieces, and nephews into the kitchen with them.
It is no wonder that Bugarin is most proud of Margaritas’ family atmosphere – and not just within staff, but amongst their patrons, too! Margaritas is decidedly not a fast casual restaurant. It’s a comfortable, sit-in as long as you want because you’re family, kind of restaurant. They have built relationships with their valued and treasured customers. Some of their long standing diners volunteer to decorate the restaurant for all the major holidays, simply because they want to share their festive spirit with the restaurant. Staff affectionately refer to them as los tios, the uncles. The Margaritas family cherishes seeing its regulars, and has even watched multiple generations of families come through their doors.
And there is so much to return for: Margaritas prides itself on fresh, home-style, from-scratch food, resisting buying pre-made products from food suppliers. They are well-known for their lunch buffet, which features many items not available on the normal menu – a product of the chefs being able to exercise creative freedom with the lunch buffet menu. The most set item in the buffet is their soup of the day rota, including traditional staples like chicken pozole and menudo. Bugarin has a soft spot for the chicken and vegetable soup, which, while simple and nutritious, reminds her of her grandmother’s cooking. Other classics like chili verde and chicken mole usually crop up every week on their lunch buffet, too. Hot tip for those who like a buffet: they serve a Sunday buffet, too, which is two to three times larger than their lunch one!
Their normal menu is extensive, as well. They try to cater to everyone’s tastes, so while there are more traditional items, they do serve items like nachos and fajitas, too. Their combination plates, like tacos or enchiladas with rice and beans are best sellers. One of Bugarin’s personal favorites? The seafood chile relleno.
Margaritas tries to be as accommodating to people’s food needs as possible. One of Bugarin’s favorite comments from a customer was his rave review about being able to eat out healthily by replacing his fried tostada with a corn tortilla and removing toppings like the sour cream and guacamole (at which point I audibly gasped with sadness, and Bugarin laughed at me). The customer loved being able customize his meal to suit his dietary needs, and Bugarin is particularly proud of how pleased he was with the service.
I queued up behind Bugarin to indulge in their ridiculously good value lunch buffet – $11.49 per person! Customers can pile their plates with food from a wide array of hot items and some cold sides like mixed salad, fish ceviche, and fruit. I started by making my own enchilada combination plate, heaping chicken and cheese enchiladas next to homemade rice and beans. The tangy chicken enchiladas were stuffed to the brim with tender chicken meat and wrapped up in soft homemade corn tortillas covered in sauce and cheese. Their cheese enchiladas were honestly just perfect – corn, cheese, red sauce, and more cheese. It’s just an addictive combination! I couldn’t get enough of my plate of enchiladas, rice, and beans – I had to force myself to move on because there were more options to try.
The soup of the day when I visited was a simple beef stew; much like Bugarin’s favorite soup, the chicken and vegetable, it’s a fairly simple and nutritious dish that has a homey touch.
I loaded my next plate with three different meats. The pork dish was comprised of the fattiest, most succulent chunks of pork. It was bursting with tanginess, a touch of heat, and was satisfyingly savory. The steak ranchero was slow cooked strips of beef with red and green bell peppers, flavorful without overpowering the beef itself. The chicken in tomato sauce was so tender, it was already falling off the bone in the serving tray.
Their corn tortillas were delicately crisp around the edges and firm yet soft on the inside, made fresh at their tortilla and taco station. You can even ask the lovely lady making the tortillas to prepare you a quesadilla – and that cheese pull is a most joyous experience (see cheese pull below)! The taco bar is stocked with pollo asado and carne asada for you to fill your tacos with, as well as other classic toppings like lettuce, cheese, sour cream, guacamole, etc.
…And it was at this point in my lunch – three plates and one bowl in – that I went back and had another plate of enchiladas, rice, and beans. I’m not kidding. Try their enchiladas and see if you can stop at one plate. I dare you.
Since I had lunch with my mom, a notorious dessert fiend, we finished our lunch with a slice of Margaritas’ flan. The flan was luxuriously smooth and silky, topped with a drizzle of dulce de leche, whipped cream, and dusted with a sprinkle of cinnamon. It was smooth and creamy but not so sweet that it was difficult to eat. My horchata complemented the dessert, as it was not too sweet or overwhelming on the spices.
It was easy to spend hours there for lunch, what with the Mexican music overhead, the comforting, delicious food, friendly staff, and sunshine pouring through their cerulean-framed skylight, lighting up the room’s golden walls. The food and decor make Margaritas an enchanting, delicious getaway to which I can’t wait to return.
Margaritas doesn’t take reservations for smaller parties – because, as Bugarin says, they don’t want to cut anyone’s meal short – but they’re open for lunch and dinner (and on the weekends, brunch!) every day.