Monday, January 12, 2009

An untold tale of community and good food:Eating our way from Huntington Park to Watts

Tamales Elena-estilo Guerrero

Los Koritas-authentic sabor de Mexico

This says it all, harmony through bar-be-que, and tacos.

Watts towers get a makeover

"If you don't read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed."-Mark Twain

Tim and Nina Zagat's friend don't go to Watts, nor do the food writers at Los Angeles Magazine.The local news mostly relays sensational tales of gangs and and violence.Search engines pull up pages that talk about the '65 riots.But, would you believe that Watts is a hotbed of amazing Mexican food?Or, that right across from the Nickerson Gardens projects lies one of the best Nayarit style seafood restaurants in LA?How about the black-owned restaurants that serve burritos and enchiladas?Did you know that people in Watts are living harmoniously, giving to each other without the pretense of public praise?Did you know that Wilmington Ave. has more hospitality than Ventura Bl. or Little Santa Monica?

Right after Christmas I gathered a fellow food adventurer for what turned out to be a very special day for the both of us.Our food crawl started at the Blueline stop at Florence Ave., near Alameda Ave in Huntington Park.We were heading to Watts for the bulk of our dining, so this was to be a few bites and some recon.Our first stop was at Birrieria Tlaquepaque for a traditional Mexican breakfast, tacos de birria de chivo.Absolutely slammin' tacos for those looking for some delicious goat birria.Tlaquepaque is a nice neighborhood in Guadalajara, so these are estilo Jalisco.Tapatios(people from Jalisco) are famous for their birria.

Florence Ave. is littered with Mexican restaurants, some fresh poultry markets promoted by people in chicken suits dancing, the eateries all with a regional lean.On the way back to hit Sinaloa restaurant, a very humble establishment near the Florence station, we met with quite a thrill.As we walked towards Alameda I noticed a bunch of police vehicles from multiple units closing off the street.Before I realized what was happening there were about 10 police cars and officers were out yelling with guns drawn right in our direction.About 100 ft in front of us was a Suburban with presumably a very dangerous person out of the SUV with his hands behind his back walking backwards, the other passenger receiving ultimatums fired over loud speakers.After snapping a couple of shots, I thought, maybe I should move out of the way! We manuevered around the road block and made our way to Sinaloa Restaurant after all the excitement to enjoy some Sinaloa home cooking.This place looks like an abandoned restaurant inside, a small kitchen with a visibly unkept storage alongside.The owner and cook, and elderly gentleman from Culiacan.Our chilorio(spicy pork)plate, famous in Sinaloa, was something your Mexican uncle would make.Simple, and absolutely comforting.The ceviche wasn't bad, but this isn't a seafood place, stick to the typical plates.Machaca, chilorio, etc.The man can cook, and another Sinaloa restaurant for the rolodex.

My comrade drove us to Wilmington and the Imperial Hwy. to walk through a part of Watts I had ventured into on a recent meandering.Here there are soul food, and mexican restaurants in a mixed Latino and Black neighborhood that has seen Latinos stream into the area in recent years.Our first taste of Watts, a tamale truck, estilo Guerrero, Mexico.Guerrerenses are renowned for their tamales.Tamales Elena has a truck on Wilmington near 110th street open daily until 2PM that is probably one of the best tamales hits in LA.Nothing fancy, standard offerings, but tender and flavored with a Mexican grandmothers love and care. Our chicken tamale was outstanding.On the walk up the street three characters on the street wished us a good afternoon, very rare in Los Angeles, and when my friend took a call announcing,"you'll never guess where I am right now", one of the men walked by and chimed in, "you in Watts, ha HA, you in WATTS,man."Across the street a gathering of about 15 men outside Lee's Market and Chicken Wings provoked our interest.My friend peeked over and said "looks cool, but....."I smiled,"Oh yeah man, we are definitely going over there."Outside Lee's Market, a black owned market and restaurant, was a tent with a group of black men cooking and serving food to Latinos.Lee is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, a national black fraternity he joined back in his college days.Each year, after Xmas, Lee and brothers from his fraternity do a toy giveaway and donate a fine catered meal to people in the community.Turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potato pie, greens, and a roll, made by Lee and his fraternity brothers, a southern Xmas for the Latinos in Watts.The Alpha Phi Alpha brothers showed us around to where the toys were and talked about their efforts in the community, and even offered some food.We didn't want to impose, but couldn't keep our eyes off of those greens!They insisted."OK, just a bite", as we devoured an entire meal, some of the best greens I've had.Too bad Lee only makes these during Xmas.Lee's is known for his fried chicken, but his menu has changed in recent years to reflect the local tastes; enchiladas and tacos are offered right next to burgers and fried chicken.We were welcomed as family here, and we were both very moved by this experience in Watts.Too bad, the media doesn't cover these stories.

Our last stop of the day was to eat at a Nayarit style Mexican seafood restaurant occupying a former auto repair lot.The property has a parked catering truck and the former aluminum sided auto shop garage as the dining room.Mariscos Los Koritas estilo Nayarit is located on Imperial Hwy, right across the street from the Nickerson Garden's projects in Watts.Once you enter the parking lot you are in Mexico, though.A few decorations, some corridos on the jukebox, and among of the finest Mexican seafood in LA make for a fantastic time.Los Koritas has callo de hacha(scallops), pescado zarandeado(tomato based sauce), aguachiles, and other regional cooked and raw seafood dishes.After Mariscos Chente in Mar Vista, this is another must for fans of Sinaloa/Nayarit style seafood.The callos(rare)and aguachile(raw shrimp in chile and lime)are excellent, true Nayarit flavor and presentation.The pescado a la diabla(mojarra frita in a spicy sauce) and camarones al vapor(steamed shrimp in spicy sauce)were super, but the real treat here is the callos de hacha, raw scallops with lime, seasoning, fresh purple onion and cucumbers, along with the aguachile make up the richest "Mexican sashimi" offerings.The zarandeado also looked fantastic although I've yet to try it.This family is from Nayarit, another matriarcal arrangement with son and daughter-in-law working with la duena.Great people, authentic mariscos, an interesting menu, and a real downhome feel.Can't wait to try more of their food.

The day was memorable, touching, and full of flavor.I recommend experiencing these places and treat yourself to the real Watts, and south-central Los Angeles, a place where Blacks and Latinos help each other, smile, and enjoy each other's culture.

Birria tacos Tlaquepaque

Lee(far left in full view)and the Alphi Phi Alphi fraternity spreading holiday cheer

Lee's Xmas for Watts

Los Koritas

callos de hacha-Koritas

chilorio-Sinaloa Restaurant

Tamale de pollo-Tamales Elena

Public enemy No.1

Mexican flag at Koritas lot waves with Nickerson Garden's in background

Birrieria Tlaquepaque 1753 E. Florence Ave. Los Angeles,CA 9001

Lee's Market 1908 E.110th St. Los Angeles,CA 90059

Mariscos Los Koritas estilo Nayarit 1310 E. Imperial Hwy. Los Angeles,CA 90059

Sinaloa Restaurant 1720 1/2 E. Florence Ave. Los Angeles,CA 90001

Tamales Elena Wilmington Ave. near 110th ('til 2PM daily)

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