With its wealth of cultural and ethnic enclaves, Los Angeles singles can feel like they’re traveling the globe without driving far from home.
You’re in a place where exotic smells waft from sidewalk cafés. All around you, signs are scrawled in foreign scripts and people speak in unfamiliar languages. Food-market bins are crammed with piquant spices and unusual produce. Colorful curios line the shelves of neighborhood boutiques. Surely, you’re very far from home. Or you’ve just stumbled into one of Southern California’s numerous ethnic enclaves, where a few quarters in the parking meter will buy cultural immersion so complete, you’ll feel like you’ve fled the country.
Though it occupies only a short stretch on Fairfax Avenue between Olympic Boulevard and Whitworth Drive, the neighborhood dubbed “Little Ethiopia” offers an authentic slice of Addis Ababa. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, and many of the restaurants host traditional coffee ceremonies complete with burning incense. The aromas are potent up and down the block.
At any given hour of the day, you might find a cluster of men at a sidewalk café sipping the ebony brew, absorbed in a conversation. Merkato Ethiopian, a hybrid coffee bar/restaurant and market/gift shop, is a notable landmark. Pull up a stool at the thatched coffee counter and shoot the breeze with a local, and pick up a bag of imported roasted beans to take home.
Ethiopia’s diversity of spiritual beliefs is evident along the avenue. Restaurant offerings reflect religious dietary customs. Islam, Judaism and Orthodox Christianity — Ethiopia’s main religions — all prohibit the consumption of pork and shellfish. But meat eaters and vegans alike can feast richly in this African enclave. Some restaurants specialize in beef dishes such as tibbs (cubes of beef with onions and chiles), while others serve vegetarian or vegan dishes only.
Although the religious significance of certain foods makes dining in Little Ethiopia a thoughtful affair, there is also the sheer fun of eating with your hands: The ubiquitous injera, a pancake-like bread, is the tool you use to scoop up your food.
Rastafarians, who claim Ethiopia as their spiritual homeland, also have a presence here. Practitioners of the religion, most famously Bob Marley, regard the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie as their spiritual leader. In specialty boutiques, you can find clothing and adornments in the faith’s signature red, green and yellow colors. You’ll also find hand-woven cotton garments commonly worn in Ethiopia and so feather-light, they’ll make you feel ethereal.
Ethiopian immigrants gather here each fall for the Little Ethiopia Cultural Street Festival, a carnival of music, food and dance that turns this block of Fairfax Avenue into a corner of Africa. You’ll depart with the driving beat of the kebero drum resonating into the night.
Perched on the bluffs of the Los Angeles River east of downtown, Boyle Heights has long cradled freshly arrived immigrants to the city. The neighborhood was named after Irish settler Andrew Boyle, but today, it’s like crossing the border into Mexico. Beckoning are the smells of freshly baked tortillas and spicy Oaxacan mole sauce, the sound of mariachi guitars and the sight of colorful murals.
The main thoroughfare bears the name of Mexican labor leader Cesar E. Chavez and buzzes with activity. Toy emporiums decorated with colorful piñatas share the avenue with beauty salons and zapaterias (shoe stores), and boutiques hawking fashions for women are nestled alongside suppliers of vaquero (cowboy) apparel. The Catholic faith finds its way into all the commerce here, with tiny botanica shops crammed with herbs, santos (saint figurines) and veladores (colorful prayer candles).
Farther east, between Ford Boulevard and Dangler Avenue, Mexican culinary treasures await. Produce markets sell mangoes, chiles and nopals (cactus paddles). La Fortaleza, a tortilla factory, is open to the public and offers both corn and flour varieties. Restaurants along this stretch of Chavez Avenue serve up classic dishes with a twist, like Oaxacan mole sauces in a rainbow of unconventional flavors — from passion fruit to tequila-lime — and tamales stuffed with savory chicken or sweet raisins and pineapple. The panaderias (bakeries) turn out golden pan dulce (sweet breads) in a kaleidoscope of shapes and tastes.
With its distinctive gazebo and large murals, Mariachi Plaza, situated at the intersection of Boyle Avenue and First Street, is the site of the annual Mariachi Festival, a celebration of Mexican music, food and culture typically held each fall. On almost any evening, musicians for hire, outfitted in traditional embroidered bolero jackets, gather in the plaza to strum sonorous ballads. The plaza is a stop along the Metro Gold Line Extension.
Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia — the main artery of “Little India” — is redolent with saffron, pistachio and rose water. These fragrant flavors sweeten made-from-scratch ice cream and multihued, cheesecake-like treats known as barfi, available at sweets shops along this commercial thoroughfare. Resplendent in equally vibrant colors, the bejeweled saris that line store windows seem to take their cue from the desserts.
The Indian community in Artesia traces its beginnings to the ’70s, when a major wave of immigrants from the Asian subcontinent made its way to California. In addition to their colorful attire and aromatic sweets, these newcomers also brought their spirituality. The Hindu practice of yoga has had an enduring impact on legions of Southern Californians.
Vegetarianism is common among Hindus, so the cafés offering flavorful meatless specialties like masala dosa (rice-and-lentil crepes stuffed with spiced potatoes) and palak paneer (spinach-and-cheese curry) are plentiful along Pioneer Boulevard. Many of the stores stock Hindu altar pieces with likenesses of deities such as the elephant-headed Ganesh.
On Diwali, or the Festival of Lights, which takes place each fall, Hindus light lamps to signify the victory of good over evil. Pioneer Boulevard closes to accommodate live entertainment, food booths and a special light show. It’s also the site of the annual Indian Independence Day celebration held every August 15.
Though many Indian families have moved away from the area, they return for festivals and on weekends to shop, eat and stock up on staples like curry powder and garam masala. Men look for silk suits and imported music, while women spring for eyebrow threading, henna and bindi (forehead jewelry). Bolts of ornate fabric, sets of dazzling bangles and sacks of basmati rice change hands.
The bustle and riot of color make for a street scene straight out of Mumbai. For the full experience, your day trip should have a Bollywood movie. This popular cinema tradition features outlandish dance numbers and escapist story lines with uplifting endings. Take in one of the fanciful musical flicks, and you’ll be sure to leave Little India with a smile on your face.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer size of Koreatown, a highly dense 20-block-by-20-block area between Hancock Park and downtown that is home to the largest Korean population outside of Asia. Korean businesses began taking root in this district in the wake of the 1965 Watts Riots, when a wave of Korean immigration revitalized an area that had fallen into disrepair. Today, the neighborhood seems defined by the totems of fashion, technology and commerce: sleek high-rises tattooed in neon, gleaming malls and exclusive late-night clubs filled with well-heeled hipsters.
But if you look more closely, you’ll find another Koreatown, one of quiet retreat, serenity and a little more “Seoul.” Tea ceremonies offer an ancient path to relaxation and harmony. Duck into a teahouse, find a nook behind a bamboo screen or with bright floor cushions and you’ll be transported far from the frenetic traffic. The numerous Korean bathhouses in the area are also popular destinations for rejuvenation. Soak in steaming mineral water, then enjoy an invigorating seaweed scrub or massage.
After nourishing your spirit, you’ll probably be ready to nourish your body. Korean markets are packed to the gills with fresh seafood, beef (a staple of the Korean diet), and kimchi (spicy pickled vegetables) in umpteen varieties. Noodle and tofu houses dominate the street scene, but you haven’t had the full Koreatown experience until you’ve cooked your own dinner at one of the many Korean barbecue houses that emanate the smoky scent of short ribs. Just remember to save room for dessert — dessert cafés are a popular hangout spot for both sweets and socializing.
Koreatown residents take their favorite pastimes — golf and karaoke — seriously. Tee up at one of the neighborhood’s many driving and putting ranges, some wedged between high-rises. Or reserve your own private “music studio” at a karaoke parlor if you prefer to unleash your singing voice in the company of friends. Learn more about the cultural significance of these pursuits at the Korean American Museum, where exhibitions of art and culture illuminate the fortitude and ingenuity of the people who developed this dynamic neighborhood.
Other Day Trip Destinations in L.A.
Sandwiched between Santa Monica and Olympic boulevards, this stretch of Sawtelle is fertile ground for several generations of Japanese newcomers. The concentration of boba teahouses, fusion cafés, karaoke studios and “J-pop”-influenced boutiques caters to a young, hip crowd.
While their parents may have visited traditional teriyaki and tempura houses in the 1970s, today’s Sawtelle seekers have palates influenced by American and international tastes. Ever-popular sushi bars and ramen noodle houses share dining territory with the food trend of the moment, be it boba smoothies, chicken wings fried in peanut oil, curry spaghetti or green tea cream puffs. Food markets sell staples like udon, milk tea and fresh seafood alongside imported novelties like Pocky candy.
The din of Sawtelle’s bars and clubs — jammed on weekends with stylish crowds — doesn’t diminish the richness of the area’s history. If you wander one block off Sawtelle into the residential area, you’ll find the peaceful, manicured garden of the West L.A. Buddhist Temple, an early source of support for the issei community.
Brazil By Way of Culver City
Within a few blocks of Venice Boulevard and Overland Avenue, Culver City seems to give way to Rio de Janeiro. With their aroma of grilled meats and sounds of abataque drums, the critical mass of Brazilian businesses here has created an unofficial “Little Brazil” and a carnival for the senses. On Saturdays, Zabumba offers live bossa nova music and samba lessons.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, dig into traditional feijoada (pork stew) or grilled specialties on the charming patio at Café Brasil. Or graze at the buffet of delicacies like fried plantains, yucca and banana squash at Pampas Grill.
As you pick up beach essentials like Havaianas flip-flops, string bikinis and açai smoothies at Supermercado Brazil in the Brazilian Mall, you can pretend you’re en route to Ipanema, not Santa Monica.
Crammed with lively pho (noodle soup) cafés and punctuated with contemplative Buddha statues, a roughly three-square-mile area centered at Bolsa Avenue and Magnolia Street in Westminster is ground zero for all things Vietnamese.
A good place to start exploring is the Asian Garden Mall with its jewelry and knickknack stalls and bustling food court featuring steaming bowls of pho and freshly squeezed sugarcane juice. You can offer a prayer accompanied by incense at the altar on the second floor. Across the street, A Dong Supermarket stocks exotic produce like durian, green papaya, bitter melon and tamarind and a dizzying selection of fresh and fried tofu.
Flirt with Vietnam’s French colonial past at Bánh Mì & Chè Cali Bakery with their banh mi sandwich on fresh baguette, or at Le Croissant Dore where the flaky, not-too-sweet croissants are accompanied by French roast coffee sweetened with condensed milk.
Faith and food commingle in the Byzantine-Latino Quarter, a stretch of Pico Boulevard between Normandie Avenue and Alvarado Street where Greeks, Mexicans and Central Americans have forged a distinctive multicultural neighborhood.
Within a mile, you can venture to both the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. The community, formerly known as “Greek Town” for its concentration of Greek businesses, is anchored by the grand St. Sophia Greek Orthodox and historic St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church.
After Sunday Mass and Divine Liturgy, the streets are a flurry of vendors hawking shaved ice and fresh mango, and churchgoers making their way to a midday meal of Mexican birria (goat stew) at El Farolito or Greek gyros at Papa Cristo’s. Pick up Greek delicacies at the adjoining C&K Importing or Central American curios at Guatemala Village.
Copyright © 2014 Rachel Levin, Felipe Dupouy, Singular Communications, LLC.