The 2008 Los Angeles Zagat Guide was recently released and a quick browse through revealed a few interesting tidbits about what’s new in our little corner of L.A.
Most notably, for the first year ever, Zagat listed Highland Park as its own neighborhood in the “Locations” section. Prior to that, Eagle Rock was the only piece of NELA to garner that distinction. It’s funny though, Highland Park is listed under “LA Central” while Eagle Rock evidently falls under “Pasadena & Environs.” Really? Anyhow, under Highland Park were just two restaurants, Marty’s and (of course) The York. Both are too new to the Guide to actually have a rating, but both are considered “notable” by Zagat. I think our position on The York has been made perfectly clear in the past (it rocks), but we’ve never made much mention of Marty’s—and to be honest, we really have no future plans to do so either. Both Mia Sushi and Marty’s suffer the same owner, and as such both reflect the same snobbery, ridiculous atmosphere and truly ridiculous valet parking. In short, Marty’s pretty much embodies everything we at YORK BLVD. hate about the Westside. Enough said on that. Regardless, the brief write-ups describe Highland Park as “the next Eagle Rock,” and also mentions how “these days, it’s turning into a neighborhood of many galleries, and of colorful gastropubs.”
Sadly, we also have to mention that Eagle Rock’s Casa Bianca, long rated the best pizza in L.A., has dropped to third after the new uber-trendy Pizzeria Mozza and Hancock Park’s Village Pizzeria. I wouldn’t expect this to last though. Casa Bianca has been around for decades and will most certainly out-live any cheesy trends and be back on top in no time.
(Photo borrowed from Willonawoods Flicker photostream)
I was enjoying the downtown renaissance a few weekends ago when some friends and I stopped by the Redwood Bar and Grill for a few drinks. A member of our group is friends with a waitress named Carrie there who was pretty excited to find out a few of us lived in Highland Park. We chatted about the nightlife and couldn’t avoid the defining eastside question of what Mexican places do you like. We swapped a few recommendations when she dropped El Atacor #11 on me. She was astounded that I hadn’t eaten there yet and swore to me that the potato would “change your life” (I assume for the better). After playing the “Where exactly on Figueroa in Highland Park is this place” game for a while, she finally broke it down to “It’s right across the street from the Home Depot”. I said, “You mean the one in Cypress Park?” To which she responded “No the one in Highland Park.” Well to keep a short and pointless story at least short, she insisted that my referring to that neighborhood as Cypress Park clearly branded me an outsider as anyone from LA called it Highland Park. Now I’m not too concerned with appearing to be from LA (The Chargers jersey and Padres hat usually give me away) but she was so insistent that it’s bugged me ever since. I couldn’t fathom that Highland Park was quite at the point where adjacent neighborhoods would appropriate its name (a la any business called Beverly Hills _______ that isn’t in Beverly Hills.) Is this a positive reflection on Highland Park or just a really negative one on Cypress Park?
At the very least, it gave me food for thought when I stopped in the other day, prepared to have my life changed. Now I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from a potato taco, but I was relatively nonplussed (possibly as a result of Carrie’s hyperbole?) The type of potato taco served here is, according to my girlfriend, common in Guadalajara. It consists of mashed potatoes stuffed inside a small tortilla, deep fried, and then served with veggies, salsa, and guacamole on top. All in all, they were decent, but I found myself enjoying the al pastor and asada more. To El Atacor’s credit, they are open late and located next to Footsie’s (a neighborhood dive bar) so I can see how that kind of fried comfort food can seem life-altering at 2am. Still, the highlight of the excursion was the authentic Mexican soda. I don’t mean Fanta or Vita, but Squirt, Coke, Pepsi, etc all bottled in Guadalajara, Mexico with the unmistakable higher concentration of syrup to water proportion than what we get in the states. Even the bottles had that grimy, recycled since 1975 look about them. One more plus for El Atacor is that they serve bottled beer until 10pm and they offer 10 tacos for $9.99, making it the hypothetical home of the “100 tacos for $100? of Simpsons fame (providing adequate sustenance for the Dr. Who marathon). So grab a soda, try the tacos de papas for yourself, throw a song you’ve never heard of on their jukebox, and pretend your in Guadalajara for a few minutes.
El Atacor #11
2622 N. Figueroa St
Los Angeles, CA 90065
It’s been a slow week for postings here at York Boulevard what with Thanksgiving and all. One benefit of all the holiday travel was the opportunity to sit in my car for a couple of hours, snuggle up with about a million other commuters who all thought we were smarter than each other for leaving on Thursday, and not really care about the traffic because I had some great books on tape. The star of the trip was Robert Crais’ The Watchman, a great bit of L.A. Noir involving a salacious Beverly Hills socialite, an Ecuadorian drug-cartel, a terrorist financier, a wise-cracking PI, and his former Marine Force Recon partner. Besides being a great read (or listen), the story is book ended by a shootout at an Eagle Rock not-so-safe house and a hostage situation in Glassell Park. There was no mention of Highland Park, but the story got me thinking about my favorite LA novels. I whittled down the list to these ten, and as usual, they only reflect my opinion. I’m always looking for good fiction with a local setting so throw in your two cents if you see something I missed.
10. L.A. Requiem by Robert Crais – I was very tempted to go with Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer here (great premise about a criminal defense attorney who likes gangsta rap). However, Crais’ story about a serial killer out for revenge on an ex-cop gets the nudge for a beautiful closing few pages that may peg Los Angeles better than anything I’ve ever read.
9. The Watchman by Robert Crais – Aforementioned chase novel with excellent protagonists (who also appear in L.A. Requiem) and some surprisingly good character development for a plot-heavy thriller. Also, a few Northeast LA scenes and some Boyle Heights gangsters keep this prescient.
8. Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly – I’ve really become a fan of the Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch novels. Bosch plays the Vietnam Vet Homicide Detective who plays by his own rules and always gets his man. Somehow, after more than a dozen novels, his character (while not fresh) has avoided becoming the cliché that it so easily could. So many of the mysteries are excellent, but I chose Concrete Blonde because it mixes LAPD procedural, mystery, and courtroom drama with a gaggle of murdered porn stars and a ball-breaking civil rights attorney to keep the pages turning. I also seriously considered Angel’s Flight. Connelly mostly sets his novels in Hollywood and the Valley but he has an excellent feel for the city.
7. The Road to Tamazunchale by Ron Arias – I’ll briefly break away from the L.A. Noir genre to give mention to a book I read during an independent study on urban literature while in college. If you’re a fan of Magic Realism (think Gabriel Garcia Marquez) but are tired of reading about Columbia, Arias sets his own Chicano story of the fantastic in the Eastside’s Elysian Park. The Los Angeles River is the most memorable character in the novel. Conversely, if you’re not a fan of Magic Realism, you might really enjoy Chilean author Alberto Fuguet, whose Las Peliculas de mi Vida (the Movies of My Life) is mostly set in Los Angeles.
6. Crying of Lot 49 by Tomas Pynchon – Just being caught reading a Pynchon novel makes you feel so erudite, don’t you think? I’m actually not a big Pynchon fan, (as I was forced to read all of his works up to Mason & Dixon in one summer course) but this postmodern read is uncharacteristically brief by Pynchon standards. Follow the Los Angeles Basin Odyssey of Ms. Oedipa Maas, her crazy husband Mucho Maas who works at KCUF radio, and her attempt to uncover a national mail conspiracy. The book is dripping with paranoia, communication breakdown, and postmodern chaos. If you like this novel, go on to tackle Gravity’s Rainbow. If you don’t, tell Pynchon, Nabokov, DeLilo, and their intelligentsia grad student fan base to write a cohesive story and fuck off. Either way, this is a great barometer of whether or not you’ll like postmodern literature.
5. LA Confidential by James Ellroy – We’ve all seen the movie, but pick up the novel and see why Ellroy is such a staple of LA literature. Many of his other books are just as excellent but he sometimes gets carried away with a stream of consciousness narration and uber-hip slang that can detract from the plot. LA Confidential generally steers clear of these pitfalls and instead focuses on crooked cops, the seedy underbelly of 1950s Hollywood, and all things neo-Noir.
4. If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes – I always liked the irony of dubbing Himes as “Black Noir”, but this novel of the empty promise of equality Los Angeles held for black southerners during World War Two is shockingly powerful. Himes has more hard-boiled credentials than most as he did hard time for a jewelry heist. In prison, he wrote much of this story of a shipyard worker who constantly lives in fear of the white power structure taking everything he has worked so hard for, and who ultimately decides that the only way to conquer this fear is to plot the murder of a white man.
3. LA Rex by Will Beall – Beall can rival Himes in terms of crime credentials but this author comes from the other side of the law. He is a current LAPD officer, and last I heard, he was working the gangs somewhere in South LA. I was fortunate enough to meet him at a party when I was loaned an advance copy of the novel from a mutual friend. The prose is reminiscent of Ellroy but the plot is so fantastical it borders on some form of Noir Magic Realism. Still, the hyper-violent plot is based on first hand experience with the insanity of life in Los Angeles. Pet Jaguars, riots, and crooked cops, make you want to take a shower in holy water after finishing this book. But that’s a good thing right?
2. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler – I love this book so much that I teach it in class. Chandler defined an entire genre of literature that is only recently receiving the critical attention it is due. This defines the Noir/Hard-boiled genre that many of the above writers have labored to copy. The convoluted plot is complete with the Femme Fatale embarrassing her oil rich daddy; a Santa Monica gangster running booze, gambling, and pornography; and the famous Philip Marlowe whose quick fists and even quicker wit, keep him trudging through the mire of 1930s Los Angeles. A word of warning: Chandler didn’t care if his plots made sense (he famously responded “I don’t know” to a telegram from Howard Hawks, who was making the film, asking who killed an ancillary character. Still, how can you not love a man who wrote “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”?
1. Day of the Locust by Nathanael West – West wrote this book while struggling as a screenplay writer in Hollywood. Set during the Great Depression, this novella examines the grotesque vapidity of the film industry and the empty promise of the Southern California Sunshine for hordes of Midwesterners who saw the city as an American El Dorado. West’s descriptions of the city at the novel’s opening and closing are unforgettable and remain accurate, in many respects, over 70 years later. Additionally, one of the main protagonists is a certain Homer J. Simpson who Matt Groening has claimed was not the genesis of his animated character. You read and be the judge.