Elvira’s opens with focus on Mexican heritage, Claremont history

For Oscar and Sandra Torres, opening a second Elvira’s Mexican Grill in Claremont was a no-brainer.

After all, many customers at their Upland restaurant were Claremonters who practically begged the couple to open a location in the City of Trees.

They couldn’t have picked a better location—the second iteration of Elvira’s (pronounced El-VEE-rah), named after Oscar’s late mother, opened on Friday, June 16 at the Old School House.

According to Mr. Torres, the process to move into the historic location took more than a year, as the building’s owner, Harry Woo, worked through renovations. During the remodel, which took place last fall, three original frescos—a student reading, a student playing music and another in a chemistry lab—were restored.

Once renovations were done, the Torres family then pitched the idea of opening Elvira’s in the space.

“They were very excited,” Mr.?Torres said. “They loved the food, they loved the atmosphere. And one thing led to another, and next thing you know we’re starting the project here in Claremont.”

Walking through the front entrance, one can tell it was worth the wait. The restaurant, located in the former library of the old Claremont High School, is decorated in luxurious hues of beige, gold and brown. A massive and ornate wooden bar—hand-carved and custom made in Mexico for the restaurant—looms over the lounge area.

The space is peppered with sculptures and paintings of Mexican folk heroes, such as Ignacio Allende (the namesake of San Miguel de Allende, the town where Mr. Torres was born), and entertainers such as Vicente Fernandez and Lucha Villa.

“The whole idea is to bring a little culture to the restaurant,” Mr. Torres said.

Mr. Torres’ family history has always been intertwined with the restaurant business. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley, where his family ran Marco’s Deluxe Smorgasbord in the 1970s. The family worked together, making cheese blintzes and beef stroganoff, in addition to traditional Mexican food. It was an outfit reminiscent of Griswold’s smorgasbord adjacent to the Old School House.

“My mom had a gift for food,” Mr. Torres said. “She could make so many different types of dishes.”

After 13 years at the family business, Mr. Torres ventured out, taking a position as regional director for Real Mex Restaurants, which owns a number of companies, including El Torito. After 25 years in the corporate world,  he retired and wanted to go back to his roots—owning and operating a Mexican restaurant.

He would name it after his late mother, who passed away in 2001, and use her recipes for classic and delicious Mexican fare. The first Elvira’s Mexican Grill opened in Upland in December 2012.

“My parents have owned their own business all their life,” Mr. Torres said. “I realized that’s mostly my own motivation—that I wanted one day to own my own business. Since I have done management and retired as regional director, you pretty much have done almost everything. So, it was time.”

But the road was tough at first. Oscar, Sandra and their three daughters—Jackie, Michelle and Susana—were manning most of the positions at the time, and clientele was scarce. Mr. Torres got emotional when recounting those difficult first few months.

“It was like, you have no capital, the bills are above you, you just get to a point where you have nowhere to turn,” he said. “You’re like, ‘God, what are we going to do?”

The Torres family turned to their pastor, who came in with his wife and assistant pastors and prayed for the restaurant. It was a last-ditch effort to try to save a family business that was quickly going under.

The next day, a miracle happened.

By Oscar’s recollection, two women arrived at the restaurant, ate a couple of tostadas and left without generating much buzz. What Mr. Torres didn’t know at the time was that one of them was a reporter for a local newspaper.

A few days later, a glowing review of the restaurant was published, and they were suddenly inundated with customers.

“Keep in mind, I was in the kitchen by myself and [Sandra] was in the front by herself,” Mr. Torres said. “And all of a sudden the phone starts ringing off the hook.”

From then on, the family couldn’t keep customers away—not that they wanted to. They began catering for the Upland Unified School District, and in no time the 15-table restaurant would regularly have lines out the door.

The family knew they needed to expand, but were hesitant due to their past experiences. But this time, they are blessed with a loyal cabal of regular customers.

“Once people know that we’re here and we’re open, they’re going to be very excited,” Mr. Torres said. “As a matter of fact, we’ve had several [regulars] come in and they are thrilled, especially when they are walking through the restaurant.”

Elvira’s promises a more upscale experience, complete with salad and guacamole preparation tableside and a diverse list of hearty and healthy options.

One dish Mr. Torres singled out is the fajitas patron, a medley of grilled chicken, grilled steak, shrimp, rice, beans, guacamole and pico de gallo. Another dish, the sizzling fajita salad, combines the warmth of fajitas with crisp hearts of romaine and other veggies, all made tableside.

One feature Claremonters may notice is attitude. Mr. Torres aims to strike a perfect balance between an upscale restaurant and one where anyone can come in and feel at home.

“That’s how we differentiate ourselves from the competition,” he said. “We’re personable, and we make sure that people leave happy, not just ‘drop your money and thank you very much.’ You’ll want to come back.”

Elvira’s is located at 415 Indian Hill Blvd., Suite 100. The main entrance is on the west side, facing Trader Joe’s and the Candlelight Pavilion. Give them a call at (909) 399-3300.

—Matthew Bramlett



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