An article in the LA Times last week has been sitting uncomfortably in my inbox, and while it isn’t specifically related to Northeast Los Angeles, I’m troubled at the precedent it sets for our neighborhood. LA Gang Tours, a nonprofit, will lead bus tours beginning in January from the Los Angeles River through South Los Angeles for tourists or locals interested in the exact opposite of the Hollywood-based stars’ homes tours. Led by a reformed Florencia 13 member, the tour has brokered an understanding with local gangs and plans to showcase the areas criminal history. (Crips, Bloods, and 18th Street oh my!) While the tour’s backers seem to have the best of intentions, I’m personally very uncomfortable with turning the inner-city into a zoo where the bourgeois and foreigners can project their romanticized images of Colors, Boyz n the Hood, and Training Day. In Rio de Janeiro, tourists can pay to take a bus ride through the favelas, exoticized in 2002′s City of God. While no neighborhood in Los Angeles approaches that level of crime and poverty, the spirit of gawking at the poor goes back at least to tours of London’s Eastenders at the beginning of the 19th century, and I worry that the motivation for those who would pay for these tours is not born of philanthropy or education. Instead, I imagine customers signing up for a sense of adventure and urban exploration that ends regaling his or her friends with stories of surviving the ‘hood over PBRs that night. (Don’t believe me? Just read any post about going to East Los Angeles on Yelp.) LA Gang Tours is reportedly already looking to expand their trips to include Westlake, which leads to my concern that Highland Park, Glassell Park, and Cypress Park won’t be far behind. If the residents of South L.A. think that these tours will bring an influx of jobs, money, and knowledge into their community, then it’s not my business to tell them what is in their best interest. However, I will be justifiably furious if open-topped vans start cruising down my street oohing and aahing over murder scenes and gang tags. (“HxP means Highland Park!”)
Fortunately, I have a suggestion for those who want to help those in need without exploiting or stigmatizing the poor as something “other”. This Wednesday, a bevy of charity groups are hosting a Glassell Park Neighborhood Posada from 4-6 PM at Juntos Park, 3145 Drew Street. Traditionally, a Posada involves viewing nativity scenes but since the flyer wishes us “Happy Holidays”, and various city departments are sponsoring the event, I’m not sure how much religious imagery to expect in a public park. Still, kids can get free piñatas, adults can drink free champurrado, and if you’re so inclined, you can find a way to get involved in gang-prevention and social work without stigmatizing the poor. You’re even allowed to get a little thrill from being in the barrio.
How quaint... (Courtesty franklinhills.org)
The Pharaoh of Foodies (Gourmand of Gluttons ran a close second), Jonathan Gold, lists LA’s 99 most essential restaurants of the year, and I was pleasantly surprised at our neighborhoods’ representation on the list. Five restaurants in Highland Park and Eagle Rock made the cut, which doesn’t seem like a lot until you consider that the entire San Fernando Valley can only claim two. Casa Bianca, El Huarache Azteca, Good Girl Dinette (new to the list), Larkin’s, and Oinkster make the cut. It was nice to Diep Tran’s new Vietnamese comfort food dinette on the list, but I have to admit I was suprised at Larkin’s presence. (As an incumbent no less!) Maybe it’s time I give soul-food another try. Enjoy Mr. Gold’s reviews below.
Of all the neighborhood pizza parlors touted as the best in L.A., one of them actually has to be the best. The first time you step into Casa Bianca, neon sign glowing “Pizza Pie” in nursery pink and blue, you will know it is the one, whomped with garlic, set with checked tablecloths, thick with families who have been coming here for generations. Sam Martorana, the soul of the family-run restaurant, passed away in 2007 after more than a half-century in the kitchen, but his mandate endures: burnt, chewy, bubbly pizza, dusted with gritty cornmeal and sliced in the odd manner of thin-crusted bar pizza from the south side of Chicago, which is where Martorana learned his trade. The mushrooms are canned, if that sort of thing bothers you, but anybody who orders his pizza topped with anything but homemade sausage or fried eggplant is kind of missing the point. Barack Obama may have gone for the Hawaiian pizza in the years when Casa Bianca was his local, but you can chalk it up to hometown nostalgia. 1650 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock, (323) 256-9617. Tues.-Thurs., 4 p.m.-mid., Fri.-Sat., 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Beer, wine. Takeout. Street parking. Cash only.
El Huarache Azteca
Highland Park is developing as the local center of chilango cooking, with a half-dozen restaurants specializing in the meats and snacks from the area around Mexico City. El Huarache Azteca was the first, and its huaraches are still the industry standard: concave troughs of fried masa piled high with beans, meat and soured Mexican cream — the cabeza, meat from a roasted cow’s head, is probably the way to go, and the house green salsa is splendid. Weekends are probably the best time to visit the cramped storefront, joining the families guzzling gallons of house-made horchata and watermelon drink at the pol cloth–covered tables or picking up tacos and sopes by the dozen to bring home to their families. Don’t miss the burning-hothuitlacoche quesadillas — fried turnovers stuffed with musky, jet-black corn fungus — made on weekends by a stone-faced woman who mans a fry cart outside the entrance. 5225 York Blvd., Highland Park, (323) 478-9572. Open daily 9 a.m.-10:30 p.m. No alcohol. Street parking. Takeout. Cash only.
Good Girl Dinette
The Good Girl Dinette blog was the spring’s food-nerd obsession: Diep Tran, who used to work at Blue Hen and whose family owns the Pho 79 chain of Vietnamese noodle shops, chronicled the year she spent opening this restaurant in Highland Park. Even the haterati were rooting for her. Tucked into a storefront below an old Masonic lodge, the local Good Girl Dinette is a clean, airy space, filled with earnest couples and young families, serving bubbly soft drinks they make with farmers market fruit (the Meyer lemon is especially good), preparing a menu of Vietnamese-American comfort food that is friendly to vegans.
If your obsessions are centered in South El Monte or Little Saigon, this may not be the place for you. The chicken pho will not remind you of your favorite pho ga. The fried imperial rolls are stodgy; the fresh spring rolls are stuffed with tofu instead of grilled pork and shrimp. But the spicy fries are astonishingly good — topped with the mince of cilantro, fresh chiles and garlic you usually see on Vietnamese-Chinese fried crab or squid, an idea good enough to seem almost inevitable; the biscuit-topped curried-chicken potpie is wonderful. And the clove-spiked beef stew is a perfect amalgam of Vietnamese flavors and Depression-era diner cooking, a blend that seems to be exactly what this neighborhood, and these times, demand. 110 N. Avenue 56, Highland Park, (323) 257-8980, goodgirlfoods.com. Lunch Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner Sun., Tues.-Thurs., 6-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 6-11 p.m. Closed Mon. No alcohol. Cash only.
You won’t see Roscoe’s-size portions at Larkin’s, vegans will find more to eat than they’d expect, and there is a bit of mint in the sweet tea. Southern food purists — and there are a lot of them— love to gripe about this modern juke joint, owned by chef Larkin Mackey, a shy, slender man who rarely leaves the kitchen. Every dish on the menu is probably somebody’s best recipe: The tart, creamy potato salad is credited to Aunt Carolyn; the ground beef–intensive chile verde to chef Mackey’s grandpa; the caramel-tasting banana pudding to Mama. But one thing is beyond argument: Mackey’s fried chicken — tender-crusted and juicy, golden and singing with the taste of clean oil — is about as good as it gets in L.A. restaurants. 1496 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock, (323) 254-0934,larkinsjoint.com. Lunch Wed.-Fri. & Sun., 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Dinner Wed.-Sat., 5:30-9:30 p.m., Sun., 5 p.m. until the food is gone. No alcohol. Limited lot parking. AE, MC, V.
If Oinkster weren’t a diner, it could probably be the premise of a reality show: a fancy-restaurant chef converting an old burger stand to gleaming midcentury-modern loveliness, and serving chefly takes on the burgers, pastrami and chicken already emblazoned on the sign. “Slow fast food,” proclaims the sign outside: smoky Carolina-style pulled-pork sandwiches, chopped salad, and fast food–style Angus-beef hamburgers with sweet house-made ketchup. Andre Guerrero roasts chickens on a creaky rotisserie and smokes his own pastrami. Would you be willing to pay a couple dollars extra to experience artisanal soda pop, purplish Fosselman’s-based ube milkshakes and other fast food with a chefly edge? Guerrero bets you are. With all of the above, of course, it is necessary to have an order of Belgian fries — fried twice to leave them light and hot, their fluffy potato essence encased in a stiff, perfectly golden capsule of crunch. 2005 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock, (323) 255-OINK, oinkster.com. Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. AE, D, MC, V.
LA Weekly initially ran the online story omitting a page of restaurants. Eagle Rock’s Auntie Em’s Kitchen raised our neighborhoods’ total to six restaurants in the top 99:
Auntie Em’s, which often feels less like a restaurant than a house party gone slightly out of control, has always had the grooviness thing down: the great music, the meatloaf sandwiches, the maple-syrup containers improvised from old Coke bottles, and the Eastside empathy for chefs and musicians, artists and poets, the people who don’t get around to breakfast until about 3.Terri Wahl, the chef/proprietor, once sang with the Red Ants, one of the better garage-punk bands in town. The place is a haven for the kinds of vegetarians who don’t mind sharing a restaurant with sausage fanciers, and both the enormous chocolate-chip cookies and the red-velvet cupcakes attract long lines of devotees. The food occasionally seems less put together by a cook than grabbed out of the fridge, but Wahl has acquired a serious farmers market habit, the skirt steak on focaccia is delicious, and the cheese board is unexpectedly refined. And while Auntie Em’s is still a grungy breakfast joint, it is a grungy breakfast joint where the omelets are scrambled with all manner of organic squashes, the bacon is thick-cut and applewood smoked, and the puddinglike French toast, garnished with fresh berries, is lightly scented with orange. 4616 Eagle Rock Blvd., Eagle Rock, (323) 255-0800, auntieemskitchen.com. Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-7 p.m., Sat.-Sun., 8 a.m.-4 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout, bakery and catering. Street parking. AE, MC, V.
Just another quick note from abroad, but Highland Park received a nice write-up in Sunday’s New York Times travel section. Johnny’s, the York, and Cafe de Leche get nice plugs along with a few other local businesses. This of course isn’t the first time our neighborhood has been noticed by New York. They ran a piece a few years ago comparing the hills of Northeast Los Angeles to Tuscany (a bit of a reach by the resident who gave them that quote) and more recently an article lamenting the economic downturn in Eagle Rock. Now that we’re LA’s newest “it” neighborhood for hip New Yorkers, I expect gentrification on a Williamsburg scale. Excuse me while I update my Make Me Move price on zillow.