A DISTINGUISHED NEIGHBORHOOD, UNRECOGNIZED
Understanding the individuality of a culture, person, place or thing is very often an ambiguous and arduous task, primarily for the reason that “identity” is a multifaceted makeup of idiosyncrasies cultivated into a meaning that we have all come to agree upon; as a result, it can easily be misunderstood, especially if it is lacking a clearly visible name. Such is the case for the neighborhood where I currently reside and treasure, East Hollywood; not only is it an esoteric community, but one that it is often misinterpreted.
Unlike neighboring West Hollywood, East Hollywood is not a city but a neighborhood. Located in Central Los Angeles, it has a population of approximately 48,000 people and bolsters 1.8 square miles of geometrical grid-like thoroughfares, is home to world renowned architecture, first rate medical facilities, a park and community center with magnificent views, a community college, accessible public transportation, a vigorous bike culture and is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in all of Los Angeles- making it the acme of the City’s eclectic food culture.
With such distinguished characteristics, why is it that every time I tell somebody where I live, the validity of my statement is immediately questioned and I receive looks of bewilderment? Why do friends of mine who also live in the neighborhood often refer to our community as Little Armenia? And why is it that every business in the neighborhood on Yelp, advertise as being in Hollywood, Wilshire Center or Los Feliz; not East Hollywood? In fact, to describe a business in East Hollywood is not even an option on YELP.
The most common confusion regarding East Hollywood is that it’s often thought of or referred to as Hollywood… and this is simply not the case. Even though East Hollywood is officially part of the Hollywood region, according to the Los Angeles Department of City Planning, it is not part of the Hollywood neighborhood and in my opinion, the two communities are disparately different and should not be lumped-in together.
If you come to East Hollywood looking to find the Hollywood Culture and Regency glamour that goes along with it, be prepared for disappointment. Sidewalks affixed with “stars” are not the only thing absent in this hamlet, but so are the frenzied Hollywood bus tours, the monumental and iconic movie theatres and the tourist shops selling “Hollywood” branded memorabilia. Although East Hollywood is becoming more and more recognized by those from a micro perspective, why then, you might ask, are people still having a difficult time differentiating East Hollywood from Hollywood, or more, understanding that it is its own neighborhood all together?
There may be infinite explanations for this; however, I have narrowed it down to three major reasons:
1) The concept of East Hollywood as its own, separate geographical location is a relatively new idea.
2) The official boundaries of East Hollywood overlap with other established communities in the area, Little Armenia and Thai Town.
3) Neighborhood signs that bolster the name “East Hollywood” do not exist.
As a result, these conjectures help perpetuate the anonymity of East Hollywood, and along with the City’s current budget crisis (meaning no “signs” will be going up for a couple years), its ambiguity will continue to exacerbate the erroneous understandings of this part of town.
I have therefore decided to set things straight once and for all, to show that East Hollywood is not only an actual neighborhood, but one with a vibrant history, that it is a community with clear boundaries and most importantly, a neighborhood that celebrates its multiculturalism; and there is no better way to do this than through its food.
This Three Day Food Tour of East Hollywood will take you through eleven of the communities most beloved bakeries, deli’s, hole-in-the-walls and longtime staples allowing you to sample foods from around the world, such as: Armenian, Thai, Guatemalan, Filipino, Salvadorian, Mexican, American, Chilean and Indian.
But before we dive into the neighborhoods food scene, let’s take a look into the neighborhoods past to get a better understanding of why East Hollywood has become one of the most diverse neighborhoods in all of Los Angeles.
East Hollywood today, is boarded by Sunset and Hollywood boulevards to the north, Western Avenue to the west, the 101 Freeway to the south and Hoover Street to the east. But try to imagine that upon the founding of Hollywood in 1903, Hollywood was a meager suburb in comparison to the bourgeoning City of Los Angeles to its southeast. Hundreds of years before that, the semi-arid environment, situated at the foothills of today’s Santa Monica mountains was sparsely populated with Shoshones and Tongvas (later named the Gabieleno’s by the Spanish) and was painted with scrub brush and sprinkled with oak trees.
After the establishment of Puebla de Los Angeles in the 18th Century, Mexico subsequently broke away from Spanish rule and became an independent nation. Soon, the surrounding areas of “El Pueblo” were purchased and divided into different Ranchos; the greater Hollywood area was known as the Cahuenga’s until 1821, when it was bifurcated and renamed Rancho Los Feliz to the east and Rancho La Brea to the west.
With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, California became the 31st state of the Union. During this time, most of the Rancho’s, especially Los Feliz and La Brea, were populated mostly by white Anglo’s who used the land to farm, raising wheat, dates, tomatoes, beans, avocados and a variety of citrus fruits.
In 1884, on a trip back from Ohio to California, Daeida Wilcox “was have said to have met a woman who described her own summer home in the Chicago area as ‘Hollywood,’ and liked the name so much she convinced her husband, Harvey Wilcox, to name the development of his newly purchased 120-acre tract, Hollywood. The name stuck and the community soon expanded.
A year later, just east of the Hollywood development, sprang up a small town called Prospect Park, located in and around the area of today’s Los Feliz and the northern part of East Hollywood.
According to the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council, at the turn of the century, Prospect Park was renamed East Hollywood to associate itself with the growing town to its west. At the same time, the southern portion of today’s East Hollywood was part of a small town called Colegrove.
In 1903, Hollywood established itself as its own city, but this only lasted for seven years; for in 1910, it was annexed to the City of Los Angeles out of necessity to be able to support its escalating population with a healthy water supply.
In 1906-08, a motion picture company from Chicago came to California to film some ocean scenes for the Count of Monte Cristo. Upon completion, they decided to use Southern California for future films and opened up the first motion picture studio called Edendale. Soon the word was out; Hollywood, with its abundant land, beautiful landscapes and fantastic weather were catalytic for the gargantuan film industry that would soon follow.
In 1914, over in the eastern part of Hollywood, from its original location in downtown Los Angeles, the Children’s Hospital established itself in its current location on the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, becoming the first and largest pediatric hospital in Southern California and remains so to this day.
Although Hollywood was a much traveled to hotspot, the community remained primarily homogenous, where less than 4% of its residents were non-white until the early 1920’s; when, immigrants from around the world, (mostly Russia and Armenian) fled the aftermath of the Genocide and the Communist Revolution and settled in the area of East Hollywood.
In 1919, architect Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned his first Los Angeles project. Completed in 1921, the Hollyhock House came to life on Olive Hill (Barnsdall Art Park) for Aline Barnsdall, which takes its name from her favorite flower. In 1927, Aline donated the house and surrounding acres to the City of Los Angeles to be used as a public art community center and to commemorate her father Theodore Barnsdall (Oil Magnate). In 2008, the Hollyhock House was designated as a World Heritage Site.
By the end of the teens, the Normal School moved from downtown Los Angeles to Vermont Avenue just south of Santa Monica Boulevard renaming itself University of California- Los Angeles. Eight years later, the campus moved to its current location in Westwood. In 1939, Los Angeles City College opened its doors with its first enrollment of approximately 1,300 students.
In 1930, the Kaspar Cohn Hospital moved to Fountain Avenue from Whittier Boulevard, renaming itself Cedars of Lebanon. In the early 70’s, it moved again merging into what is today’s Cedars Sinai. The left behind structure is now the giant blue Scientology Center that can be seen rising into the sky from any vantage point in the neighborhood.
Throughout the thirties, East Hollywood experienced much of its residential growth, and like most of Los Angeles, was developed mostly with Period Revivals.
By the 1950’s, the construction of the Hollywood Freeway (US 101) cut through the Hollywood landscape to accommodate the burgeoning car culture that was transforming Southern California. All the while, a few miles north, Kaiser Hospital was built along Sunset Boulevard and Vermont Avenue.
Throughout the mid 20th Century, the demographics in the area of East Hollywood changed considerably. The trend for middle class white folks to pick up and move to safer, clean, suburban communities farther west or in neighboring valley’s and counties left a large stock of affordable housing for immigrants to utilize and make their own. People arrived from China, India, Thailand, Korea, Philippines, El Salvador, Mexico and Guatemala and by 1970, 53 % of the residents in the East Hollywood area were foreign born.
In the 80’s, East Hollywood’s eclectic population continued to grow and diversify, evident from the variety of businesses that sprang up throughout the community. Though, with a fluctuating economy, the neighborhood started to experience high concentrations of homelessness, gang violence, pollution and traffic which continued until the 1992 riots, where East Hollywood was severely affected, especially at the intersection of Santa Monica and Vermont.
In 1996, local resident Elson Trinidad came up with the East Hollywood moniker when he was organizing a cleanup for the neighborhood, after being inspired while participating in a cleanup in Echo Park. Trinidad said, “This place needed a name to identify with, and ‘East Hollywood,’ backed by historical references to the area, was a logical choice. It wasn’t esoteric like ‘Lovely Meadows’ or anything like that. And being mindful of the cultural diversity, it was neutral enough that it didn’t favor any groups over another, and inclusive of all. Fifteen years later, the name remains.”
In 1999, the Metro Redline drastically increased the areas transportation options, with three stops in the neighborhood (Santa Monica & Vermont, Sunset & Vermont and Hollywood & Western). In addition, the neighborhoods bike culture on Heliotrope and Melrose (HelMel) has made East Hollywood one of the most alternative transportation oriented neighborhoods in the City.
That same year, the City of Los Angeles designated the northeast portion of East Hollywood as Thai Town, the first in the United States. Just a year later, the City then designated another part of East Hollywood as Little Armenia, to reflect the large Armenian population that has been present for so many years.
Today East Hollywood is thriving community with an enthusiastic neighborhood council, it is a community supported by its diverse cohort of residents and businesses bounded by Hollywood, Los Feliz, Silver Lake, and Koreatown; truly making it a melting pot of Los Angeles Culture.
EAST HOLLYWOOD FOOD TOUR
The neighborhood of East Hollywood is divided up into eleven districts. This tour includes an eatery (and in one case, a drinking establishment) in each of the eleven districts. While there is not one right way to take this tour, the point is to experience all the different cuisines that the neighborhood has to offer and to better understand the community as a whole. While this tour can be completed in three days back to back, if you can’t stomach it, feel free to split it up. And of course, this entire tour can easily be done on foot, bicycle, bus or subway and should be done no other way.
View Three Day Food Tour of East Hollywood in a larger map
Is there a better way to start your morning than with a hearty American breakfast? I didn’t think so. Head over to the Northeast district to the newly opened Storefront Deli helmed by the guys behind Salt’s Cure and Bar Covell. Their house cured meats and fresh breads are some of the best in town. The narrow interior is minimally decorated with framed pictures of other storefronts. Place your order and try to find a seat at one of the eight stools on the periphery. Order the bagel and thickly spread on the sweet and tangy cream cheese; upon your first bite, you too will probably agree that this is the best bagel you have ever had….
Have a big appetite? Go for a breakfast sandwich: Swiss Cheese melted on top of a slab of chorizo; topped with an over easy egg that is neatly placed in-between a freshly baked English muffin; the ginger ale that washes it down will never taste so good.
If you have some time to kill before your lunch, head over to the mini-mall parking lot at the intersection of Santa Monica and Vermont. There you will find the street lighting sculpture called, Vermonica by artist Shelia Klein.
One’s perception of the perfect lunch changes on a daily basis but today, only Chilean dishes will hit the spot. Head over to the Four Streets/Dayton Heights district to Rincon Chileno. If you arrive early, it’s likely the owner will greet you with a firm handshake and walk you over to the white tablecloth tables with faux flower arrangements. Make sure you’ve brought a friend or a good book, because once your order’s been taken the food can take a while to come out. The empanadas which are a must, are first rate, stuffed with ground beef or chicken, onion, hard boiled eggs and black olives; be sure to lather them with the spicy salsa verde.
Typically, I like to go for the Pastel Del Choclo and you should too. This large Chilean Casserole is mixed with chicken, onion, raisons, and slices of hard boiled eggs, topped with sweet cornmeal and comes out piping hot. Attempt to break the crust like you are eating a crème Brule, add some salsa and mix it all together; perfection.
As you meal comes to an end, walk across the street and check out HelMel, the center of East Hollywood’s bike culture. Here you can grab some amazing gelato, organic coffee and check out the neat little community art gallery.
It’s dinnertime and you are starving (or pretending to be). Head up to the Thai Town North district. If you have not been to Jitlada, go there, but if you are reading this, I am guessing you have.
Pull out some cash and drop by Saap Coffee Shop. This small and thrill-less Thai cafe is reminiscent of so many other prized eateries in the area; however, it possesses something all the others lack: the City’s best Boat Noodles Soup with Beef, meatballs, tendon, tripe and liver. For $5.75, this thick, gelatinous and carnivorous broth is the perfect start to your meal. The rest will continue just a few doors down at Crispy Pork Gang.
Head west on Hollywood Boulevard and just couple blocks down you will run into Crispy Pork Gang. As you might suspect from the name, it is a crispy pork wonderland. You’ll probably be happy with pretty much anything on the menu, but I suggest going for the Chinese broccoli, the papaya salad and the morning glory, which are all accompanied with large chunks of crispy pork belly. And don’t forget to order a pitcher of Singha to wash it all down.
It’s too early to go home and you are in need of some great wine. Head over to Bar Covell (Yes it really is in East Hollywood), and ask Matthew Kaner what he has squirreled away in his private collection.. You my friend, will be in for a treat.
Late Night Snack
It’s 2:00am and you need something to soak up all that alcohol, something salty and savory. El Gran Burrito located in the College district will do just the trick… open 24 hours, it’s the go-to spot.
In the mood for tacos? Fine, go to the west side of the eatery will you will find a long line of intoxicated people in search of the same heavily greased snacks as you are. Here you can order your lengua, cabeza, asada, pollo, carnitas, buche and tripitas tacos, burritos, quesadillas and nachos. While these are always satisfying, I recommend ordering your food on the eastern end of the establishment where they are typically grilling chicken. $12 gets you a whole grilled bird, a side of rice, beans and freshly made tortillas. The crispy skin along with the moist and smoky meat makes for an ideal end to day one of your food centric tour of East Hollywood.
Perhaps you are in the mood for some freshly baked Middle Eastern influenced bread from such places as Syria, Lebanon and Armenia? Then you must head over to Sasoun Bakery in the Kingsley Vista district. As you enter this monochromatic utilitarian space, be prepared to try a little bit of everything, I assure you it will not break your wallet.
Start with a lahmajune, a cheese-less, pizza- like concoction topped with minced meats, spices and herbs. The triangular and oblong shaped boreks that are stuffed with spinach, cheese or potato and mixed with chopped onions and spices will definitely have you coming back for more. And don’t leave without the Western Asia staple: maneishe with zaatar.
Head east on Santa Monica Boulevard to the Cahuenga Branch Library. Designed by architect Clarence H. Russell and funded by Andrew Carnegie, as you have a look around I am sure you will not be surprised that the building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. While there, you will undoubtedly run into Rik Martino (better known as Birdman), spark a conversation with the friendly Italian and find out what he is up to these days…besides posting flyers about his killed pigeons.
After conversing with Birdman about his alleged lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles, head down Virgil Avenue to Amalia’s in the Virgil Village South district for a homey Guatemalan lunch.
You really cannot go wrong at Amalia’s, especially if you go for the Plato Amalia, a sample plate that their website describes as (a perfect dish if you want to try a variety of Guatemalan flavors). Though on my last visit, I went with the Atol de Planto, which is a thick, caramel colored hot drink made with sweet plantains; the Yuca Con Chicharron, fried chunks of yuca served with lustful slivers of lightly fried pork belly; and the Revolcado, a dish that pays homage to the swine: pork heart, liver, ear and tripe that is swimming in a thick, porky, molten lava colored sauce.
At this point, it couldn’t hurt for you to do some brisk walking. Head across the street to the newly opened SQIRL, grab a Guatemalan coffee to-go and get lost in the nearby neighborhoods, take in the architecture and get a feel for this part of East Hollywood, to understand its culture, and to see how it differentiates from the other places you’ve been to thus far.
Located in the Barnsdall district, L.A. Rose Cafe has been serving East Hollywood with classic Filipino and American dishes for 30 years; though, you come here for the Filipino dishes, as it’s one of the very few Filipino joints in the City that actually cooks their food to order, with extremely fresh ingredients, love and enthusiasm.
Have a seat in the contemporary dining room and put in an order for some fried lumpia, (pork and shrimp egg rolls) a necessary and rewarding start to your meal. In the mood for some coconut water?..order a buko (a young coconut). The pancit is the best you will have at any restaurant; stick noodles with pieces of sweet langoniza, vegetables and chopped-up chicken liver. You will not be disappointed with the Pork Adobo (a thick sauce amalgamated with paprika, oregano, salt, garlic and vinegar). The chicken empanadas may stretch your stomach a bit beyond its limits, but it’s worth it! Oh, and don’t leave without having them hack your buko in-half so you can scrape out the fatty coconut meat for a sweet, sweet end.
Late Night Drink
Food no longer on your mind, head done to the Virgil Village North district to Smog Cutter for a much needed drink. This cash only (no ATM), dim-lit dive/karaoke bar has it just right; plenty of good to mediocre bottled beer, endless supplies of mid-shelf liquor that is bound to get you to do something you may regret in the morning (karaoke), a pool table and plenty of stools. This coupled with its friendly environment truly makes it feel like your very own neighborhood bar…even if you’re not exactly from the neighborhood.
You stayed at Smog Cutter much longer than anticipated and now have woken with muscles soar and a pounding head. Don’t worry, I know just the cure: El Pajonal. Located on Vermont Avenue in the Little Armenia East district, this Salvadorian diner has everything you need to boost your energy, or at least temporarily that is.
The large laminated menu has many of the classic Salvadorian dishes you may have experienced in the past. Here, I like to go for the familiar, a couple of pupusa’s, a side of fried plantains on a lake of emulsified black beans and perhaps a beer or two. Be sure to put a large helping of pickled cabbage and chili on your freshly made squash and cheese pupusa’s and mix the thick sweet/sour cream into the beans….within moments, your mind will become more lucid.
Head on up to Barnsdall Park, have a nap in the grass after enjoying the breathtaking views of the City. If you time it right, schedule a tour of the Hollyhock House and learn why this property has become an international cultural landmark.
Head down to the Little Armenia West district to the little hole-in-the-wall that has been serving up some of the best Armenian snacks this City has seen since 1982.
At Falafel Arax, you will find a variety of sandwiches and the ever-popular shwarma, which frankly, is nothing better than anything you can get up the street at Zankou. Therefore, it is vital that you order a side of humus, tahini and as many falafels as you can digest. The falafels, when made fresh and are drizzled with the slightly warm and creamy humus and tangy tahini, are by far some of the best deep fried chickpeas in Los Angeles.
With time to spare before your final meal in East Hollywood, make your way north back to the Thai Town North district and check out Silom Supermarket. Here you can get lost for hours in the aisles of this Southeast Asian Supermarket, where objects, foods and miscellaneous things are sold; a true cultural experience.
For your final meal, head south to the Thai Town South district for Paru’s Indian Vegetarian. Opened in 1979 on Sunset Boulevard, Paru’s specializes in Southern Indian cuisine. You won’t be disappointed if you order the Indian Thali, which comes with rice, puri (unleavened bread), curry, sambar (pigeon pea stew), rasam (tamarind base soup), padad (crispy sundried wafers), sweet yogurt, pickles and a dessert. Making use of the regions (South India) rich spices and herbs, Paru’s will effortlessly transform your meatless dinner into a truly memorable experience in a beautiful and unexpected space.
However it is you go about it, as your Three Day Food Tour of East Hollywood comes to an end, you will not only be able to see how this neighborhood differentiates from its neighboring communities, but I am now confident that you will have a solid understanding of what East Hollywood is all about: its tight-knit community and cherished multiculturalism.