To many Angelinos, the Eastside is anything east of N. Western Avenue to the confines of downtown. But to those truly in the know, and who refrain from trying to cheat Thomas Bros., or even TomTom, all the city street numbers — east, west, north, south — begin at 1st and Main downtown; it is Greenwich, the prime meridian of L.A., from which all distances are measured. Ever since the Spanish showed up, Eastside has been anything east of the Los Angeles River — Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, and Glassell Park. So listen up you hipster people, the Eastside is not and never shall be Silver Lake, Los Feliz, and no, not even Echo Park (Morrison, P. 2009).
It’s surprising how often I talk to people who have lived in this city for years and have never even heard of Boyle Heights. I understand how many adapt to their favorite neighborhoods and rarely dare to experience what other gems this sprawling city has to offer. I must admit that I too am guilty of sticking to my favorite parts of the city, yet Boyle Heights has never been a neighborhood that I have anxiously chosen to avoid.
My feelings towards Boyle Heights are a bit biased since I have deep family roots in the neighborhood that date back to the early 20th century. But for those recent transplants or local residents, who think L.A is all about the West Side, or even Mid-City, please be assured, you’re missing out! Fortunately for you, after reading my humble opinions on this neighborhood and understanding its historic context, I have no doubt you’ll feel inclined to venture out of your comfort zone and into this fantastic community, that is home to exceptional Mexican cuisine and pastries, a plethora of Mariachis, inspiring historic architecture, breath taking views of our City’s skyline, hilly parks, and a thriving culture that is absent in many other parts of the City.
THE NEIGHBORHOODS PAST
Boyle Heights is situated at the eastern boundary of the City of Los Angeles and is surrounded by the City of Vernon to the south, the unincorporated community of East Los Angeles to the east, the communities of Lincoln Heights and El Sereno to the north and the Los Angeles River and downtown to the west.
The area now known as Boyle Heights was originally known in the Spanish and Mexican era as “Paredon Blanco” or “White Bluffs”. Within the four-league limits established for Los Angeles under Spanish dominion in 1781, this area east of the Los Angeles River known today as Boyle Heights was sparsely populated. In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain and California, and in turn became part of Mexico. For the next couple of year’s war erupted between Mexico and the United States over the Americans territorial expansion, ending in 1848, with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo between the United States and Mexico, California ultimately became part of the United States.
Andrew A. Boyle, born in Ireland in 1818, immigrated to United States with his siblings at a young age in hopes of finding their father. In 1858, deciding to seek new opportunities in Southern California, he and his daughter Maria moved to Los Angeles. That same year, Boyle purchased the “Paredon Blanco” tract where he planted vineyards and opened a shoe store. Boyle served on the Los Angeles Common City Council during the 1860’s until his death in 1871 at the age of 53. After his death in 1871, the property passed to his daughter Maria and her husband, William Henry Workman, a saddler and rising politician in town.
As the first growth boom was underway in the Los Angeles area in 1875, Workman decided to subdivide part of Paredon Blanco for residential development and renamed the neighborhood Boyle Heights after his deceased father-in-law. During a development boom from 1887-88, which took place during Workman’s tenure as Mayor of Los Angeles, Boyle Heights grew rapidly enough to become a desirable residential area for middle and upper-middle class Angelinos. In 1889, the Los Angeles Cable Railway opened with a line extending over the First Street Viaduct into Boyle Heights, making Boyle Heights one of Los Angeles first suburbs.
From 1890-1920, Boyle Heights evolved from being an upper middle class residential destination, to becoming a location where members of diverse communities could buy property and settle down. The “Black Flight,” brought African Americans from the South and Southwest who were hoping for better employment opportunities. Around the turn of the century, many Russians also fled their homeland because of persecution and settled in the “flats” of Boyle Heights. In 1906 after the San Francisco earthquake, Japanese Americans migrated south to Los Angeles to reside in the developing Little Tokyo. Later in 1910, there was a large influx of Mexicans who immigrated to Los Angeles, as many tried to flee the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution.
By the early 1920’s, many Los Angeles residents migrated east from downtown to the proximity of Boyle Heights, which led to a significant change in the demographics of the community. During this time significant numbers of Jewish immigrants moved to Los Angeles from the East Cost and the Midwest, eventually settling in Boyle Heights, which become home to the largest Jewish community west of Chicago. Simultaneously, many of the Japanese in Little Tokyo moved east to Boyle Heights, which dramatically increased the Japanese population in the neighborhood.
At the beginning of the 1940’s, the Latino population increased from 12% to 87% while the White population decreased from 80% to 5%. In the 1970’s, the Latino populations increased even more in Boyle Heights do to the poor economic conditions and civil strife in Mexico and Central America.
As of Today, Boyle Heights is 94 percent Latino. The median household income in the City of Los Angeles in 2008, was $36,687, while, in Boyle Heights it was lower than $33,325. Only five percent of the residents twenty-five years of age and older have a four-year degree, which is low compared with the rest of the city. These factors coupled with Boyle Heights’ close proximity to Downtown Los Angeles show that the neighborhood is vulnerable to gentrification.
BARRIO PLANNERS INC.
The East Los Angeles architecture, planning and urban design firm (Barrio Planners Inc.) recently contracted with the City of Los Angeles to help maintain and further drive economic development in the Northeast and East Los Angeles area. My good friend, Christopher Pina, is the business consultant for the project and is responsible for working with small businesses in a variety of capacities, including- permit regulations, façade improvements and with guidance in finding access to capital and qualified employees. Christopher- one of the most gregarious and generous guys I have ever met- finds great pleasure in assisting local businesses and restaurants in Boyle Heights with menu pricing, parking related issues and marketing to develop a micro economy that crescendos.
A few weeks ago, Chris wanted to take me to some of the restaurants he has been working with. The following is a short rundown of just a couple of the places we visited in one afternoon. I have highlighted and given walking directions to only my absolute favorite eats in the neighborhood.
Let me start by saying- make sure to eat a large dinner the night before- to stretch your stomach for the unhealthy amount of food you are about intake.
When making your way to Boyle Heights- I recommend taking the Goldline to Mariachi Plaza. As you emerge from the underground- you will notice dozens of Mariachis, practicing their instruments, chatting- and patiently waiting to find work. You will also notice the south end of the Mount Pleasant neighborhood that has remarkable architecture and exemplary views of downtown.
Head east on 1st street about one block and as you near State Street- you will run into La Placita Del D.F. Go inside, practice your Spanish and order the first cemita on the menu (Cemita Milanesa). What is a cemita you ask? – A cemita is a Mexican sandwich differentiated from a torta from its lightly toasted sesame-seeded egg roll. Between this golden sesame delight, there are large slices of lightly fried beef, white onion, Oaxacan string cheese, chunks of avocado- so much so- that the top of the bun is hallowed out to allow for more alligator pear and of course, all smothered with Chipotle salsa…… Wow- they’re delicious, a perfect blend of textures, a great balance of spice and earthiness! Just one of these mouth watering sandwich’s will fill you up for the rest of the day, so I recommend splitting one with a friend- so you will have room for all the other treats you are about to experience.
Continue your way east and you will quickly make your way under the Golden State Freeway- once you emerge from the other side, you will find the lending and used book store Libros Schmibros on the south side of the street. Do not ignore this place! Stop inside, talk to David Kipen (Libros Schmibros Founder) and get some books and some great conversation.
Once you leave Libros Schmibros, (hopefully laden with some great treasure for your late night reading), cross to the north side of the street and you will abruptly run into Al’s and Bea’s. This unassuming façade is home to Los Angeles’ best Burrito. Have your $3.00 ready and get the bean and cheese- either with red or green sauce. A burrito should be prepared no other way-with a thin fresh tortilla about 6 x 2 ½ inches. Not only is it a perfect size, but the flavors of each ingredient shines through impeccably- who knew the combination of refried and regular beans could be so good? Take your time- soak in the sun and imagine how many wonderful burritos this place has made in its 50 years of operation.
Carry on east to the end of block and turn left (north) onto St. Louis Street and walk all the way up to Cesar Chavez Avenue (formerly Brooklyn Avenue). As you make your way up, take in all the eclectic architecture- most of which has been altered, commonly with stucco, vinyl windows and with outlandish additions that have not been built to code. But while appreciating the few unaltered properties, imagine what the neighborhood looked like in the early 30’s- and you will see a tale full of life- just as it is today.
On the east corner as you approach Cesar Chavez, you will find yourself in front of Guisados- the hippest taco joint in Boyle Heights. As you walk inside, the scent of fresh maize will consume you immediately. To not overdue it, I recommend getting the taco sampler. This dish comes with six-miniature tacos- most of which you will find to your liking. My favorites are the Tinga, Cochinita Pibil, and Chicharon. The Cochinita Pibil is a slow roasted pork marinated in acidic juice, annatto seed that is wrapped in a banana leaf. This taco comes with an extremely hot salsa -temperatures ranging from (1-10). I got the 5 the first time and had a hard time finishing it- and I can handle spices pretty well. Only the brave try the 10! The Chicharon may be a little different from other chracklin pork rind tacos you are used to. These Chicaron tacos are marinated so long that its texture is synonymous with sea urchin- but are absolutely delicious.
Guisado’s tacos are excellent, but I am sure you know dozens of places to get a sound taco. What differentiates these tacos from your local 24-hour taco eatery are their amazingly fresh thick tortillas and the use of black beans. Tacos are almost always satisfying, but a processed tortilla cannot compare to the real thing, along with impeccably spiced and tender meats.—mmmhh Guisados..
At this point your stomach will be protruding over your trousers and you will undoubtedly feel as if you have just experienced gavage. I urge you to continue, you’re on foot, and it is time for some sweets. Trust me, the short walk will help alleviate the tightness in your jeans, if only for a short while. As you make your quick sojourn over to La Favorita Bakery your satiety will slowly dissipate. Head east on Cesar Chavez and take in all the beautiful murals and didactic romances of Brooklyn Avenue. 70 years ago, this stretch was the fashionable place to be seen; this is where my grandparents Shirley and David spent their evenings immersed in the varying happening things of the day-twisting and spinning at local dances- dining at delicatessens, running up and down the street as foolish adolescences do- beyond all- it was the center of this thriving neighborhood just as it evidently still is today. Turn right (south) on Breed Street and take note of Breed Street Shul (Congregation Talmud Torah of Los Angeles) on the west side of the street- which was the largest Orthodox Jewish Synagogue in the Western United States from 1915-1951 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Keep note of where you are, since you will definitely want to venture back to Breed Street after sundown on the weekend. Upon your return, you will find Los Angeles’s best Taco crawl. Imagine all your favorite Latino street food vendors congregating in this condensed area. It started informally a few years a go with just a few vendors, but now it’s a full blown food “flea market” as one website describes it.
As you near 4th street, your vision will be blinded by a building on the east side of the street that possess excellent examples of the faux architectural decorations/materials and will alert you to your arrival at your new favorite bakery. La Favorita Bakery has been serving Boyle Heights for 40 years and has some of the best Mexican pastries I have ever had. As you near the entrance to the building you can get a glimpse inside to the back where all the pastry preparations take place. Men covered in flour- mixing, rolling and kneading dough into dangerously delicious farm animals and marine gastropod molluscs pastries, and any other shapes you could never imagine, at all hours of the day. As you walk inside, hurry in line and grab a bright orange plastic tray and tongs and make sure to try everything this place has to offer- and don’t be modest- it is extremely affordable. The mini-conchas and cerdo are among the most popular. As you make your way around the U-shaped corridor with sweets piled higher than your vision permits on both sides of you, your blood starts to rush and you will have forgotten about the disgusting amount of food you have just consumed and will have to hold yourself back from devouring everything in site. Hurry and eat your prize while they are still warm- or for those with great discipline and patience- enjoy them with your favorite cup coffee- a very traditional light dinner to many families in Mexico. I could never wait for such a thing- as I always overwhelm my body with these luxuries within minutes on the sidewalk out front. If you’re lacking discipline like myself and want to continue your pleasant afternoon- I recommend continue walking.
Make your way down 4th street (west) and as you near the Golden State Freeway –again, Hollenbeck Park will draw you over from the south. Hollenbeck Park has been a lush oasis in the neighborhood since 1892. With green and rolling hills, towering Mexican Fan Palms and a lake, it is one of the most beautiful parks in Los Angeles. As you finish the last of your pastries while admiring the skateboarders – downtowns skyscrapers will never look so majestic as they tiptoe over the hills of the park and freeways to remind the Eastsiders that they too are apart of this mass metropolis; have a lay in the grass and accept the short siesta your body is yearning..
As you wake up from your nap, continue west on 4th Street and turn right (north) on State Street to head back to Mariachi Plaza. Turn left (west) on 1st Street and at this point it will just so happen that you will probably have an innate desire for some goat. Birrieria Jalisco is situated across the street from the overrated La Serenata De Garibaldi. Goat, is usually served on festive days such as Christmas, New Years, Mothers Day and weddings is fortunately available for you here- anytime of the year. Upon the warm greeting from a waitress I recommend ordering the Spinazo y pierna con consome (goat leg and back with consome). To your delight you will receive a bowl of addicting broth with freshly chopped roasted goat. Fill up your corn tortillas with the meat, onions, cilantro and garnish with lime juice and submerge it into the broth. In an instant you will find a perfect combination of flavors and textures blending and circumventing around in your mouth. The goat- so tender and marbled with fat it melts while the acidity and cilantro cut through the highly spiced broth and salsa –it will unquestionably put a smile on your face.
As you make your back to Mariachi Plaza – you might question why you never made it to this side of town, why none of your friends live over here, or perhaps you may ponder your excusable mistake on believing that you in fact live on the Eastside and how wonderful it feels now to be more informed on Los Angeles’s geography and it’s wonderfully diverse neighborhoods. Within the two minutes it takes to cross the river, I hope you have been inspired enough to realize that this entire city should be utilized by all, regardless of race or income. And despite where you manage to spend your time, – keep in mind what author David Kipen once said “Los Angeles is a lot like our brain, we only use twenty percent of it, but imagine if we use it all”.
GOAT TACO RECIPE
20 corn tortillas (I recommend making your own)
4 lb. of cubed goat
2 cloves of garlic
1/2 cup Cascabel Chiles, seeded and deveined
1/2 cup Ancho Chiles, seeded and deveined
3 tablespoons cumin
4 tomatoes, diced
1 finely chopped onion
Some freshly chopped cilantro
Salt to taste
On a hot griddle toast the ancho and gaujillo chile and submerge in hot water. Let chiles sit for 20 minutes. Remove from water and puree in blender with a cup of warm water. Set aside.
In a deep Dutch oven, add the beef and ribs, water, onion, and garlic cloves. Bring to boil and cook for 1 hour. At this point add the bay leaves, thyme, chile puree, cumin, oregano, salt, and pepper simmer for 30 minutes. To make sauce, puree the garlic, vinegar, and chile powder in a blender.
Serve the stew in a big bowl with a sprinkle of onion and cilantro and a squeeze of lime on top. Serve with corn tortillas and some of the sauce on the side, as well.
You Will now be happy.