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Dining Dynasties

The families of AnQi, Five Crowns and El Ranchito

The 8 oz. Deckle Steak with roasted vegetables and truffle french fries.

Corona del Mar is home base for some of Orange County’s most successful family restaurant dynasties.

El Ranchito royalty Mama and Papa Avila reside in Spyglass Hill.

AnQi CEO Elizabeth An has a house on Morning Canyon, plus another home next door for when her Mama comes to town from Beverly Hills every Tuesday to roast crabs in the restaurant’s secret kitchen at South Coast Plaza.

Ryan Wilson, grandson of the man who turned Lawry’s Seasoned Salt into a household name and opened Five Crowns in Corona del Mar 51 years ago, also calls the picturesque beach town his home now that he is executive chef of the family restaurants.

So what do they all have in common besides the means to live in one of the poshest ZIP codes in the country? That at the heart of their stories is the family dinner table

Avila's El Ranchito

The humble bean. The simple taco. After 50 years in business, Avila’s El Ranchito has no interest in switching things up.

“Duck taquitos? Papaya salsa? Nah. We’ll stick to this. Trends come and go. But good home cooking made from scratch – that survives all trends,” says Maria Elena Avila. “We made a commitment that we are going to stay true to the way my mama did it.”

Good call. There are 13 El Ranchitos now, run by generations of Avilas. Mama (Margarita) and Salvador Avila had five children and each of them owns at least one. Now the third generation has taken up the torch: Elyse Avila Smith, who grew up one block from her grandparents’ Spyglass Hill home, opened the latest location, in Seal Beach. She is the daughter of Victor (who owns two El Ranchitos), but learned at the feet of Mama, going to her grandmother’s kitchen after school to help cook the daily 3 p.m. meal, which always involved homemade corn tortillas and roasted pork marinated in citrus.

Mama is retired now, 91 years old and living just down the road from the Corona del Mar El Ranchito with Papa, who is 93. They have a cook who has been entrusted with the recipe for El Ranchito’s most popular item: hand-pulled chicken and rice soup with chunks of avocado. She makes a pot every Monday so whoever is in the area can pop by for a bowl.

This is what Mama imagined when she and her husband moved from Guanajuato, Mexico, opening their first El Ranchito in Huntington Park in 1966. Sales on that first day: $12.
“It’s a beautiful story, to think of what my parents gave us and what we started with,” says Maria Elena. “And the love that we had for each other.”

An Qi

The San Francisco Chronicle crowned her “the mother of fusion cuisine.” But Helene An never set out to create a whole new category of food. It was an evolution, and initially a matter of survival.

When Saigon fell in 1975, Helene and Danny An fled Vietnam with three young daughters, leaving behind their fortunes. Helene had been born into aristocracy. Danny’s father was a wealthy industrialist. Both grew up eating grand meals.

Warp speed from Vietnam to their arrival in San Francisco with their daughters and Danny’s parents. They were broke, but owned an Italian deli that Danny’s mom, Diana, had bought on a whim two years earlier.

Italian was the one food the family didn’t know much about, so egg rolls were added to the menu. One day, Helene told diners that if they wanted spaghetti, they should try her version. “If you don’t like it, you don’t pay,” she told them. “An’s Famous Garlic Noodles” were born.

That deli morphed into San Francisco’s first Vietnamese restaurant. When Helene opened San Francisco’s upscale Crustacean in 1991, a critic announced the official arrival of Asian fusion.

Now the multimillion-dollar “House of An” has six restaurants, including AnQi at South Coast Plaza. Helene’s garlic noodles are famous even among the famous: Fans include Magic Johnson, Warren Beatty, Heidi Klum, Harrison Ford and Lady Gaga.

Helene, now 72, oversees Crustacean in Beverly Hills but drives to AnQi every Tuesday to roast dungeness crabs; her daughters complete the House of An. Jacqueline recently published the family cookbook/memoir, “An: To Eat.” Elizabeth, the company’s CEO who oversees AnQi, lives in Corona del Mar. Now a third generation, Elizabeth’s daughter and son, has joined the family business.

Says Elizabeth: “Mom always said, ‘You rise with humility, and you fall with dignity, and you never forget where you came from.’”

Five Crowns

Chef Ryan Wilson is shaking things up at Corona del Mar’s iconic Five Crowns, but the spirit of his grandfather and great-grandfather is never far away.

It was great-grandfather Lawrence Frank who co-opened what is now L.A.’s oldest family-run restaurant, Tam O’Shanter, in 1922 and Lawry’s The Prime Rib in Beverly Hills in 1938 and concocted Lawry’s Seasoned Salt for sale. He delighted in bringing his own family together around his Sunday supper roast.

His dream to create a concept around that meal led to everything else, Wilson says. “He considered it the greatest meal in America.”

Lawrence’s son Richard N. Frank took the family business to the next level, turning Lawry’s Seasoned Salt into a household name and launching 13 “theme restaurants,” including Corona del Mar’s ivy-cloaked Five Crowns in 1965.

Like his father, he embraced the dining experience. “Not just the food, but the ambiance and a smiling service staff,” Wilson says of his grandfather.

Richard’s daughter Susie Frank says dinnertime was always a family event and never formal. “It was relaxed and usually a lot of fun too, because friends and neighborhood kids would often show up knowing it would be the best home-cooked meal in town,” she says.
Susie is now Lawry’s director of design. Her brother Richard R. Frank is CEO. Fourth-generation Ryan Wilson, 35, is executive chef of all 14 restaurants (as far away as Hong Kong and Tokyo).

Home base, though, remains Five Crowns. He and his aunt Susie recently took the formality down a notch (white tableclothes and tuxedo uniforms, be gone!) But the family mission will never change: “We want people to feel taken care of for the evening.”


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