Sunday, June 20, 2010

In the shadow of Chicken Boy

Highland Park is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. It's in the rolling hills north of downtown, along the Arroyo Seco - a dry gulch that channels run-off water from the San Gabriel Mountains into the Los Angeles River. The Pasadena Freeway - America's oldest freeway - runs along its south-east flank, and the hills of Eagle Rock are to the north. The streets, lined with small bungalows, crumbling victorians, and stucco apartment houses, roll up and over and curve around, revealing views of the arroyo and hills beyond.

We took the Gold Line, Metro's light rail from downtown to Pasadena. Out of Chinatown station, the train curves along the reclaimed industrial land known as the Cornfield, crosses the Los Angeles River, and climbs the Arroyo Seco.

We got off the train at the Highland Park stop on Marmion Way, just a block west of North Figueroa Avenue, one of the main shopping streets of the neighborhood. From the station, we could see the rooftop sign of the Highland Theatre, an old Spanish-deco pile that offers $3 movies on weekdays.

We walked down Figueroa to get a good look at Chicken Boy, a neighborhood landmark. Rescued from a building on South Broadway downtown, Chicken Boy stands proudly atop Future Studio Gallery, right next to the La Fuente Restaurant #2.

Just next door to Future Studio is the La Arca Restaurant & Pupuseria, featuring Salvadoran cuisine. We walked into the cool, blue-painted interior with its tiled floors and high ceilings and sat at a booth. Potted palms, bright tapestries, and even a wall-hung woven hammock lent a tropical feel to the place.

There were only a few customers in the place. The TV was tuned to the World Cup, and loud Salvadoran music blared from a juke box where a man and his young son were pressing the selection buttons.

There's another restaurant in the neighborhood called El Arco Iris - named after the rainbow, like a sandwich shop we visited in Tampa. This is La Arca, which refers to the Ark of Noah.

It was a warm day, so we ordered a bottle of Regia extra, a lager beer imported from El Salvador. It was served with two frosted mugs and a dish of lime wedges.

La Arca's menu features Salvadoran specialties, including a large selection of seafood. We were stopping in for a quick lunch, though, so we stayed with the list of pupusas and antojitos.

Pupusas are the national dish of El Salvador. Masa dough is hand-formed into a thick disc, with cheese and other fillings folded inside. Then it's heated on a griddle til the cheese melts and the outside is seared. Pupusas are served with a vinegary cabbage slaw called curtido, and hot sauce. The fillings can be plain cheese, beans and cheese, meat or vegetables, including a Salvadoran herb called loroco.

I ordered a pupusa with calabacita y queso - that's with shredded summer squash and cheese. [The Man I Love] ordered one with chicharron. In Mexican cuisine chicharron usually means pork skins, but in Salvadoran cuisine it usually means pork meat ground to a paste, which is what we were served here. I liked the delicate flavors of mine, but I really loved the rich porkiness of his.

We also ordered plantain empanadas and two Salvadoran corn tamales - one steamed and one, at the waitress's suggestion, fried. [The Man I Love] also ordered a side of Salvadoran chorizo - these were three short plump links similar to Oaxacan chorizo - rich, dark, almost winey tasting with a hint of herb and orange peel, the ground pork dark, dry and crumbly.

The tamales were solid clumps of masa with a few whole corn kernels mixed in. They were light, yet bland, and served with a dollop of crema - sour cream. The fried ones were tastier, with their outer bits crispy and brown. The empanadas were small football-shaped things, fried crisp and containing molten sweetness.

It was a starchy lunch - we couldn't finish it all, but it was darned good. While we ate, the little girl at the table nearby made a break for it, toddling as fast as she could across the room. Her father scooped her up and brought her back to the table, stopping by on the way so she could wave hello at us.

Stuffed just enough but not too much, we wandered back out on the street and strolled along Figueroa. The neighborhood is mixed - rocker/hipster funk mingles with working class Latino. A magnificent old Masonic temple advertises its ballroom for rent for parties and quincineras.

Tattoo parlors thrive next door to Mexican juice bars. There was a store selling futbol attire and equipment, and perhaps the only remaining typewriter repair shop in America. On our walk back to the train station we passed a gourmet pizza cafe and a botanica advertising itself as "New Age" and a tiny produce stand.

We waved goodbye at Chicken Boy before we got back on the train.


LemonyRenee' said...

Cute and fun post. For a moment, I thought you would be posting about one of my favorite blogs, "Chicken Boys." Fun landmark, fun post.

Lisa Paul said...

I'm loving your LA Excursions. Like and insider's armchair tour of the undiscovered parts of the City. When I get down there again, I may retrace your steps.

M. Bouffant said...

Many (hell, most) of the people in my one-time party clique ("Rocker/hipster funk," but old!) moved to H.P. from East Hollywood/Silver Lake/Echo Park. They haven't managed to ruin it yet though.

El Arco Iris is pretty good Tex-Mex fare. Sort of El Coyote's menu, but good.

Went on an art-drive (It's L.A., baby!) one evening when most of the area galleries were offering refreshments. Interesting stuff.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Curtido is good stuff- Haitian cuisine features a similar condiment called pikliz. It poses as cole slaw to trap the unwary.

I like the loroco pupusas myself.

Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

I swear, you should lead tours of our great city. I would totally go. I'm so impressed that you get out and see it. Jason (from The Jason Show)were just talking the other day about how we need to visit some of the places you've posted about on your blog. :)

Queenly Things said...

One of the sights I never tired of seeing was traveling toward Pasadena on that lovely old highway and looking out at the AMAZING graffiti in the arroyo.