Forget those far-off projections about the imminent browning of the United States. In Los Angeles, the new America has arrived. In fact, it’s so real you can taste it.
In the nation’s second largest city, Latinos make up 48 percent of the population. Whites haven’t been in the majority in L.A. and its surrounding suburbs for decades. The numbers of African-Americans, too, are in decline. In 1990 blacks made up 11 percent of the Los Angeles County population; today they make up nine. Meanwhile, 14 percent of Angelenos are of Asian and Pacific Islander descent. It is a rich, complicated city, and its food culture puts all of this on display.
In L.A. it’s possible to eat a range of inexpensive, delicious single-culture cuisines. You can get Memphis-style ribs and Ethiopian beef tartare (kifto), the Thai garlicky pork salad nam sod and Salvadoran pupusas.
But in this town you can also see a shift in food culture. At sit-down restaurants, cafés and food trucks around the city, cooks are trying out something new, something that reflects Los Angeles.
What happens, for instance, when Filipinos who’ve grown up around black, Asian and Mexican families open a barbecue joint inspired by their childhoods? Many call it fusion, in part because there isn’t a well-defined vocabulary for the multiethnic mixing taking place on the Los Angeles food scene. But fusion has historically implied the high-end reformulation of people of colors’ cuisine to make it more palatable for rich, white customers.
That’s not what Filipino restaurateur Oscar Bautista and the co-owners of The Park’s Finest are doing, though. Their eatery is located in Historic Filipinotown, a section of the rapidly gentrifying, working-class neighborhood of Echo Park. Bautista offers Filipino-style barbecue inspired by his and his four lifelong friends’ Echo Park childhoods.
The Park’s Finest in Echo Park, Los Angeles
Think American cuts of meat—pork rib tips, beef short ribs, tri-tip, quartered chicken—smoke-roasted after they’ve been marinated with classic Filipino combinations of garlic, onions and peppers. Bautista and his friends opened their doors last January as a way of giving back. Making barbecue saved them from the streets, so the story goes, and they want to be a positive hub for the community’s youth now.
The food is as noble and down-to-earth as their mission. In the tradition of Filipino home-cooking, there are bottles of a vinegar-based sawsawam sauce and tomato-based coconut pineapple barbecue sauce on every table. You can douse your meat in these flavors then soak up the remaining sauce with cornbread bibingka, a soul food take on the steamed Filipino rice cake.
“There’s really no fusion about it,” says Bautista, who was born and bred in L.A. “When it comes down to it, all of us here, we’re American to the bone. These are the flavors we grew up with.”
Take their elote, a version of the standard Mexican street snack of barbecued corn on the cob. At The Park’s Finest, the corn is stripped from the cob, smoked then topped with a few squeezes of mayonnaise and grated Parmesan. “The elote is L.A.,” says Bautista. “The corn man was always down the street from us. Everybody grew up eating elote if you were from the area, no matter what ethnic background you had.”
Beef short rib, cornbread bibingka and elote-style corn at The Park’s Finest
The multiethnic mixing isn’t so personal for everyone. In Koreatown, home to the nation’s largest Korean-American community (as well as plenty of Bangladeshis, Salvadorans, Pakistanis, Brazilians and Guatemalans), Teddy Zou has been pairing boba tea with hookah smoking at Boba Bear since 2010. Zou immigrated from China when he was 11 and considers himself an L.A. native, but he didn’t know too much about hookah before a friend pointed out that his café was ripe for it. And thus, Boba Bear was born.
By combining café cultures that revolve around hookah, the Persian waterpipe used to vaporize and smoke flavored tobacco, with boba, Chinese tea with tapioca milk, Zou has done something novel. It speaks to the cultural mishmash that happens in a city as diverse as Los Angeles.
In Southern California, which has large Persian and East Asian communities, many youth are used to partaking in tea and hookah separately. At Boba Bear they can do both simultaneously. “It was something new. It spread out rather quickly,” Zou says. Quickly enough that Zou’s going to try out the same concept in July with a new location opening in El Monte, a suburb east of L.A.
Yet it’d be wrong to think that the exciting food culture in Los Angeles means that the sociopolitical future of the city or the country is going to be an all-you-can-eat buffet of multicultural experiences. Poverty, racial exclusion, mass incarceration, educational inequity and joblessness are pressing issues and we won’t be able to just eat our way to racial harmony. Multiethnic food offerings aren’t necessarily indicative of deeper multiracial bonds. Just as in music, art and fashion, the food traditions of people of color make a hot commodity. Food is culture. And culture is business.
The window on the side of Don Chow Tacos’ truck greets customers in Chinese and Spanish.
Los Angeles certainly nurtured the eating sensibilities of Roy Choi, the Korean-American chef and entrepreneur whose Kogi Korean BBQ taco trucks kicked off a food craze in 2009. Today his mini-empire boasts two bricks-and-mortar restaurants and five trucks that fan out across Southern California every day. The trucks serve up Korean-Mexican street food such as marinated Korean beef tacos and kimchi quesadillas. His success has inspired legions of imitators. Name any ethnic cuisine and, by now, someone in Los Angeles has tried to put it on a baby corn tortilla.
It being Los Angeles, where Latinos make up the single largest ethnic population, Mexican cuisine seems to be the default base upon which to reinterpret other food traditions. Ara’s Tacos in Glendale, Calif., merges meat spit-grilled Armenian-style (shawarma) with tacos. White Rabbit Truck serves fantastic Filipino adobo chicken, sausage and chopped, fried pork with onions and peppers in a taco. Boba 7 in downtown Los Angeles sells the Kogi concept in drink form: To create its horchata boba, the eatery throws tapioca pearls into the Mexican cinnamon rice drink. El Sushi Loco in El Puente, Calif., offers Mexican-ized sushi rolls.
A Kung Pao Chicken “chimale” from Don Chow Tacos
Don Chow Tacos takes things a step further with what they’ve dubbed a “chimale.” It’s a Chinese tamale that’s entirely Mexican in form and presentation but filled with Kung Pao Chicken or Chinese barbecued pork. When I tasted a chimale this week at their lunchtime stop in Hollywood, the dish itself wasn’t that impressive—the masa served as a fluffy cocoon for a nondescript Asian chicken stir fry. Yet as I ate it I could not help but think of my grandparents, who emigrated from rural China to a small Arizona mining town called Superior some 90 years ago. My grandmother ran a grocery store where she would butcher meat with my father strapped into a baby carrier on her back. She spoke Spanish more fluently than she ever did English and learned to make chorizo to sell at the store; her decisions were governed by the demographics of her customer base.
My grandmother, who is long gone now, predated this food craze by decades.
In Los Angeles we can experience the future “New America” through the city’s emerging food culture. But the nation’s shifting demographics been underway for a very long time.