LA: Way Beyond Hollywood
March 1, 2012
There’s a whole world of arts, culture and interesting experiences to be had in Los Angeles’ many enclaves. ANDREW BENDER explores a few.
What’s not to like about Los Angeles, or LA as it is fondly known? The city is epitomised by glitz, glam, the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, haute hotels and luxe nightlife on the Sunset Strip, sizzling shopping on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and the fabulous sunset over the multi-million-dollar beach houses of Malibu. But in this county of nearly 10 million people – it’s America’s largest – there’s a whole other world of eclectic neighbourhoods worth exploring.
Some are so authentically ethnic they feel like a trip to another country. Others are the symbol of LA’s global reputation as one of the capitals of creativity. Here are three clustered in downtown LA, and two others outside of the city centre. Most are reachable by the city’s new light rail system, helping you avoid something else LA is famous for: traffic.
LA started on Olvera Street, and so shall we. The oldest continuously occupied street in the city, it dates back to 1781 – when settlers first came from what’s now Mexico.
Ignore the distant skyscrapers, and you might mistake this cobblestone stretch for a south-of-the-border village. It’s car-free – you probably couldn’t fit a car around the stalls lining the centre, and drivers would have to avoid mariachis (Mexican folk music performers) and street entertainers strolling among its low-slung terracotta roofs balanced on antique wood beams and century-old bricks. Pick up a mask for lucha libre (Mexican pro-wrestling), tableware in tropical colours, candies made from tamarind or chillies and tiny skeleton figurines evoking Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration. Sure, it is kitsch but it’s so fun that it’s hard to complain.
Make time for Avila Adobe, LA’s oldest building, constructed in 1818 by Don Francisco Avila. It was once the home of a ranching family and now, a museum filled with rustic wooden furniture and furnishings of that bygone era, amid half-metre-thick stucco walls.
Food-wise, head to restaurants like Casa La Golondrina (17 Olvera Street, Tel: 1 213 628 4349) – it does brisk tourist business but also nails standards like burritos made with house-made tortillas and chicken enchiladas in mole (spicy sauce made with chocolate). Regional dishes like cochinita pibil or steamed pork marinated in achiote (a natural red colourant) are also available.
Nearby is the Iglesia Nuestra Senora Reina de Los Angeles or Our Lady Queen of Angels Church, founded in 1822 and affectionately known as La Placita or “little plaza”, and the adjoining La Plaza de Cultura y Artes or Cultural Museum. The latter opened in April 2011 and charts the Mexican-American experience complete with a recreated city block circa the 1920s. Explore an old-style pharmacy and grocer, and dress the kids up in period costumes.
The hulking, Mission Revival-style building across N Alameda Street is Union Station, the railway terminal dating from 1939. If all rail stations were as magnificent as this – its soaring ceilings suspended by intricately painted beams while gorgeous chandeliers rise above the marble floors – more people would probably take the train.
From Union Station, board the Metro Gold Line light rail – or walk it in not much more time – to Little Tokyo. Although the local population is no longer mostly Japanese, it’s still the historic heart of Japanese America. To learn about the history of the Japanese in the US, head to the Japanese American National Museum, the largest of its kind in the country, dedicated to sharing the experience of Americans of Japanese ancestry.
It’s no surprise that Little Tokyo bursts with Japanese restaurants, in unique storefronts and outdoor malls like Japanese Village Plaza and Weller Court (123 Astronaut Ellison S Onizuka Street). Daikokuya, Shin-Sen-Gumi and Orochon Ramen often have queues out the door for steaming bowls of ramen. In particular, try Shin-Sen-Gumi’s Hakata ramen, which is acclaimed for its cloudy, Fukuoka-style pork-bone-based broth. Aburiya Toranoko is a contemporary izakaya (Japanese pub) with spotlighted murals. Alongside sushi, the establishment also serves small plates of grilled or fried dishes such as fries with plum aioli and fried chicken.
After eating, shop till you drop for manga-inspired and cutesy trinkets at shops like Tokyo Lifestyle and Kinokuniya. Or take in an art exhibition at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center. Also in Little Tokyo, the Geffen Contemporary mounts exhibits of world-leading artists and is an outpost of LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). Marvel at works including those by Southern California’s own John Baldessari and Jonathan Borofsky.
Upping the neighbourhood’s hipster quotient are restaurants like Lazy Ox Canteen, which has a daily-changing farmers’ market menu of Californian comfort food like its Lazy Ox burger with cantal cheese and green peppercorn mustard. A little farther afield, Wurstkuche is the place to head to for house-made sausages sourced from local ingredients. The eatery attracts an eclectic clientele, ranging from arty types to serious foodies.
Whenever I visit Sunset Junction, north-west of downtown LA, I’m reminded of the question my East Coast-based brother-in-law always asks, “Doesn’t anybody work in this town?” Observe the full house of computer-toting bohemians, iPad crunchers and intellectual types at the low-key-chic Intelligentsia Coffee on 3922 West Sunset Boulevard at, say, 3pm on a Tuesday, and you may well wonder too. Yet to call this crowd “slackers” is unjust. People actually do work – outsiders just don’t see it. That woman in the cat glasses pounding away on her laptop is crafting a screenplay for a screen near you two years hence, and the scruffy dudes who seem to be talking about nothing in particular are building the relationships they’ll need to survive in the competitive world of the Hollywood entertainment industry.
Sunset Junction, on Sunset Boulevard between Fountain Avenue and Griffith Park Boulevard, is the fulcrum of the Silver Lake neighbourhood. It may be just 10km from the razzle-dazzle of the Sunset Strip, but this earnestly funky enclave couldn’t be farther in attitude.
Case in point: Dean, where artisans create (and sell) quietly fashionable leather messenger bags, briefcases and duffle bags. Bar Keeper carries antique bar ware, and limited edition spirits so unusual and wide-ranging – such as an entire shelf devoted to bitters – it ought to charge museum admission. The old-world Cheese Store of Silver Lake will fix you a seriously gourmet sandwich, or you can head to Forage, which dishes up organic meals so locavore the chalkboard menu lists the farmers and “foragers” of its daily changing fare. Try the pork belly sandwich with aioli, shredded cabbage and jalapeno.
Culver City has long been home to Columbia Pictures (now Sony Pictures Entertainment), and now it’s getting ready for its close-up as it hosts LA’s newest rail line: The Expo line is scheduled to connect it to downtown LA in the next few months. Here, the Museum of Jurassic Technology is perhaps California’s biggest misnomer – it houses oddball and tongue-in-cheek exhibits about subjects including the quite possibly fictitious Cameroonian “stink” ants, a carved fruit stone and the like. Otherwise, Culver City’s main street, Culver Boulevard, is pure small town America, with low-slung storefronts and single storey homes on grassy patches of lawn.
Dine at the gastropub Ford’s Filling Station where the chef is Ben Ford, son of Harrison Ford; try a world-class burger at Father’s Office; or browse the anime-inspired art collection at Royal-T Cafe.
Ah, Chinatown. Roughly a triangle between Cesar E Chavez Avenue, Hill Street and Alameda Street, it’s where yum cha eateries (for dim sum), purveyors of herbal medicine and colourful silks, and provisioners of chopsticks and bamboo steamers set up shop. But there’s more to Chinatown these days.
For over a decade, drawn by cheaper rents, contemporary art galleries and arty shops from all over LA have established themselves here in former storefronts around the pedestrian streets of Chung King Road and Chinatown Plaza. The Ed Freeman Gallery exhibits up-and-coming photographers, and Flock Shop and Fifth Floor Gallery (actually on the ground floor, but that’s part of the charm) sell crafts from LA and across America. Check the galleries’ schedules at chinatownla.com and try to arrive during the opening of an exhibition.
For a more conventional Chinatown experience, Empress Pavilion sets the standard for yum cha – it’s where up to 600 diners at a time chow on dumplings from supple har gao (shrimp dumplings) to airy cakes of fried taro (yam) and some one-of-a-kind creations like julienned mushrooms and bamboo shoots stewed in tofu skin. No-frills Sam Woo (803 N Broadway, Tel: 1 213 687 7238) does scrumptious barbecued pork, chicken and duck.
Amid all the Chinese goodies, one of LA’s most historic restaurants is a Chinatown sandwich shop. That said, there’s nothing vaguely Chinese about Philippe, which since 1908, has been serving “French dipped” sandwiches – the insides of a sliced long roll are dipped into roasting gravy before being stuffed with sliced beef, turkey or lamb.
So, while it takes a little bit of effort to get to these enclaves, it’s quite worth it as you’ll get a glimpse of LA as the locals know it.
Alex Niezgoda, a concierge at LA’s legendary Hotel Bel-Air which reopened last October after a two-year renovation, shares some of his favourite local restaurants.
CHURCH & STATE BISTRO
The food here is modern French – think tarte flambee, bone marrow and chocolate pot de creme – served in a relaxed environment in a post-industrial space. The restaurant is located in the loading dock of a former biscuit factory.
This eatery serves tapas with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences. Modern and exotic, its selections include items like lamb sliders with feta cheese and harissa aioli, and octopus with celery, crushed potatoes with lemon vinaigrette. It’s at the intersection of Hollywood and Vine, a short walk from Avalon, one of LA’s hottest nightclubs.
Peruvian cuisine had previously not been elevated to this level in LA. The highlight here is the anticuchos (small plates), with skewers like black cod and sweet potato or salmon with miso and pickled cucumbers.
WATERLOO & CITY
Although the restaurant’s name couldn’t be more British, it’s not your typical English gastropub. My favourite dish here is mussels in curry. The manager, Carlos Tomazos, previously worked at New York restaurants Le Bernardin, helmed by chef Eric Ripert, and Thomas Keller’s Per Se. Together, Tomazos and chef Brendan Collins are elevating service in LA restaurants.
Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook of the TV show 2 Dudes Catering run this bare wood space with exposed light bulbs, and that makes the experience all about the food. These guys are not afraid to take risks: Take a speciality of theirs, poutine, where a plate of French fries is topped with melted cheddar, gravy and braised oxtail.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
There’s no bad time to visit LA, but late spring and early summer can be foggy (locals call it the “June gloom”). At any time of the year, bring at least a light jacket for evenings, but something warmer from September to March.
HOW TO GET THERE
Singapore Airlines flies 12 times weekly from Singapore to Los Angeles.
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