It’s said that Dorothy Parker called Los Angeles “72 suburbs in search of a city,” which is one of the reasons even natives have a tough time getting to know all the many corners of our sprawling metropolis. This may account for the growing popularity of city food tours, which take groups on foot through restaurant-rich neighborhoods (while stopping to sample the goods along the way) — and why the group I joined consisted mostly of area residents, like me.
Melting Pot Tours
Melting Pot Tours was the brainchild of sisters Lisa and Diane Scalia, who launched their venture in 2008 with a culinary tour of the Farmer’s Market and 3rd Street. The concept sprung out of the sisters’ background: Lisa has been both a caterer and professional tour guide, and Diane is a chef. Since then, they’ve expanded to Pasadena’s Old Town and East Los Angeles, and also offer private group tours and one-off culinary experiences for members of their growing community of local foodies.
I was most intrigued by the company’s newest option: The East LA Latin Flavors Tour. For one thing, that’s a part of town I’ve not explored much — and I loved the fact that the group travels to Boyle Heights via Metro’s Gold Line. I also noticed the bargain price: $59 for approximately four hours of touring and grazing, including the cost of the Metro pass.
I joined up with the tour on a recent Saturday morning, at the Chinatown Metro Station. We were met by one of Melting Pot’s professional tour guides, Summer Davis, whose name is matched with sunny personality. She also happens to be one of the more fascinating people I’ve come across in a long time.
Summer took charge by briskly getting through the business of introductions, our favorite foods and reasons for being there and then passed out some branded canvas bags (all the better to carry anything we wish to purchase while on the tour). We learned that one of our group was celebrating a birthday — as was Summer. This was to our advantage, as the proprietors of some of the businesses we visited obviously love our tour guide. They heaped birthday treats on her — which we got to share.
We began the tour just down the street, at the Home Girl Cafe, retail outlet of Home Boy Industries, the anti-gang non-profit founded by Father Gregory Boyle in the aftermath of the 1992 L.A. Riots. Home Boy’s mission is to help former gang members and at-risk youth to become contributing members of the community through job training and experience. The Cafe was a natural outgrowth of those efforts, after Chef Pati Zarate began training “home girls” for work in her first restaurant. Zarate dedicated the first Home Girl Cafe in 2004 in Boyle Heights, moving to its Chinatown location in 2007.
Before entering, Summer took us around to view the urban garden in the building’s parking lot, where fresh herbs are grown. I was already familiar with the organization’s fresh salsa and tortilla chips, which I purchase regularly at Ralph’s.
The menu at Home Girl is heavy on fresh produce, and all the breads, cakes and pastries are baked on site. We were served samples of the baked goods, along with the cafe’s cinnamon-infused coffee while listening to the personal story of our server, a young woman named Pamela who had heard about the program while she was incarcerated. “I invested my time because I knew there was hope here.” Program participants must submit to drug testing.”This is my first time staying sober, and I’ve been sober for a year and a half now,” she said.
We finished our pastries, grabbed our coffee and followed Summer back to the Metro station, where she handed each of us our all-day passes. The ride went by quickly, as Summer had much to say about the sites we passed along the way.
We disembarked from the train at Indiana Station, in Boyle Heights. Summer’s expertise was impressive; she could rattle off facts about both the food we were sampling and the neighborhoods we walked through, with equal enthusiasm. She gave us a brief history of Boyle Heights, which has always been a neighborhood of immigrants (and was once the center of L.A.’s Jewish community — including Canter’s Delicatessen, which was located here before moving to its Fairfax location in the 1940’s).
At a later stop, we got off at Mariachi Plaza, a stone-domed bandstand that looks as if it has been there for a hundred years — but was actually opened in 1998, when it became an official park and location for the Metro station. Prior to that, it was an informal spot where mariachi bands gathered and could be hired for events.
Summer led us up First Street to Liliana’s, whose family owned-and-operated restaurant specializes in tamales created from a family recipe passed down from one generation to the next. This, by the way, was a history we heard at nearly every business we visited on the tour.
A long table was already set for us and we were quickly served about half a scrumptious fresh-tasting tamale, accompanied by a cup of champurrado — delicious, cinnamon-accented Mexican hot chocolate made thick with the addition of masa harina.
It was easy to see why Melting Pot distributes bags at the beginning of each tour. Several of us wound up in line for tamales to go. Liliana’s makes several varieties, including a few sweet ones filled with fruits like pineapple.
Champurrado was on the menu at at our next stop, too: El Mercado de Los Angeles is a three-story bazaar where you can probably find just about anything you need: from cowboy boots and hats to yarn and notions to groceries, bakery goods, deli and of course, spots to sit down and eat. Summer led us to Julia’s Antojito’s (which roughly translates to “little cravings,” or snacks). The stall was dominated by four colorful dispensers of aguas frescas (fruity beverages) — but Summer had something else in store for us: freshly made fruit sorbets in exotic combinations.
I opted for the cucumber and chile, which also tasted of lime. It was sweet and satisfying — and packed a powerful and pleasurable chile punch.
This is one of L.A.’s oldest tortillerias, operating here since 1954. Tortilla factory staffers include the third generation of founder Manuel Sanchez Behar’s family. In addition to their range of freshly made flour and corn tortillas and other Mexican kitchen staples, La Gloria offers custom masa and spice grinding for their customers (all the better to make a killer mole).
At Mariachi Plaza Station, it was too early for the mariachis on our visit, so we headed down 1st Street to Birrieria Jalisco. Summer explained that birria is a traditional goat stew. Don Bonifacio Gonzalez learned the traditional recipe as a young man, while working in his family’s birrieria in the Mexican state of Jalisco. He ended up settling in the United States and worked many years as a laborer. He was 64 years old and knew little English in 1975, when he opened his first restaurant.
Birrieria Jalisco has expanded to three locations (including one in Las Vegas) and all three are operated by Don Bonifacio’s children and grandchildren. There is only one meat on the menu: goat – unaccompanied by rice or beans. I had never tasted goat before, so was tentative about the steaming dish of stew that was placed before me. I need not have been. It was tender, savory and delicious. I could easily have eaten more.
Across the street from the Birrieria is the original site of the Home Girl Cafe. It now houses Un Solo Sol Kitchen, whose pretty dining room is filled with colorful canvases created by local artists. We munched on hearty pupusas, a Salvadoran specialty of thick, homemade corn tortillas stuffed with meats or cheese.
Carlos Ortez, whose background is in community activism, created this restaurant with an eye toward strengthening the Boyle Heights community. His eclectic menu is heavy on lighter fare (including vegetarian and vegan options), and he hosts “Community Dinner” nights on Wednesdays, featuring nourishing, filling meals at the ridiculously low price of $5 per person. And if 50 of these are sold on two consecutive Wednesday nights, mariachis play along First Street on Thursday. (At that price, my bet is there’s a lot of mariachi action every week.)
Our tour of Boyle Heights concluded at Primera Taza, which translates to “first cup.” This was the area’s first independent coffeehouse, and it remains a vital part of the community. We ended our tour much as we began it, with iced mocha latte and Mexican pastry. It was good.
Donna Schwartz Mills explores our area and writes about her love of LA at SoCal Mom.