Photograph by Paola Jaime, Las Fotos Project, 2021
A Taste of
in the Neighborhood
Food touches all of our senses, we hear it speak as it sizzles and boils. The textures entice us and draw us in, color and size compel us, and the smell plays with our senses before it touches our lips. The satisfying explosion of flavors has the power to connect us to story, memory, and place.
The Boyle Heights community has a wonderfully complex and layered history with food. As a historically multicultural community, Boyle Heights used to be bustling with Jewish delicatessens and bakeries, Japanese noodle and dumpling restaurants, and many options for Mexican foods. Changing demographics and the ongoing process of gentrification continue to reshape the neighborhood and diversity of food options. Although, there have been several businesses and local entrepreneurs in the food industry that have persisted and succeeded. One example of the perseverance of local entrepreneurs can be seen through the legacy of the last Japanese standing restaurant in Boyle Heights, Otomisan. Otomisan has been serving customers on East First Street for over 60 years and continues to thrive in the neighborhood.
Other restaurants have adjusted their offerings and flavors as a response to their community needs. Manuel Rojas created El Tepeyac’s world-famous Manny’s Special burrito – a massive five-pound burrito – to challenge the appetite of local football players. On the other hand, the local paleteros, know how to cool you off on a hot summer day and adjust on flavors and spices to conjure memories of home. From restaurants to street vendors, food marks the place and memory of Boyle Heights.
New establishments- especially those transplanted from outside of the Boyle Heights neighborhood- have come under scrutiny for advancing the processes of gentrification. While new entrepreneurs see themselves as bringing opportunities to the area, others argue that they enact gentrification through food. However, Latinx entrepreneurs themselves have complicated the narrative of gentrification and have started discussions around the concept of gente-fication. A generational issue has taken shape in which younger and college-educated residents establish businesses to meet the needs of a younger generation. Latinx people themselves have participated in economic development practices which also contribute to the displacement of long-standing residents of Boyle Heights. New businesses coupled with the Metro Gold Line expansion have contributed to the rapid process of gentrification in Boyle Heights.
In a “Taste of Boyle Heights,” we highlight the innovative spirit of the individuals and teams that feed and nourish locals and visitors to the neighborhood. In Boyle Heights, food powerfully connects us to memory and place. We encourage you to remember that food doesn’t have to be romanticized to be appreciated and to be part of our daily lives. We invite you to ask questions as you visit these places with us: Can food as a commodity gentrify spaces? What do we know about people working in the food industry? What role does food play in our memories and in history?
El Tepeyac Café had its birth in American food of the 1950s.
Here is the story of how it was created. Salvador and Rebeca Rojas immigrated to the US in 1914 during the Mexican Revolution. Salvador tried his hand at various occupations, even working as a barber in the 1930s before opening his first restaurant with his wife, Rojas in 1942. After two unsuccessful restaurant ventures, the couple opened El Tepeyac on N. Evergreen Avenue in Boyle Heights in 1955.
The first menu at El Tepeyac had hamburgers, hot dogs, and milkshakes – the iconic and trendy 1950s café staples. But on his menu were also taquitos- a nod to Salvador’s Mexican American patrons and to his own Mexican roots.
His café became popular with local patrons but unexpectedly, Salvador passed away a year later. Rebeca asked her son Manuel, “Manny,” Rojas to take over the business.
When Manny went to work with his mother, he was only twenty-four years old. He had served in the Army since he was a teenager- so adamant that he wanted to serve that he had asked Rebeca to sign for his early service. Manny saw Rebeca’s desire to keep the restaurant open and decided to run the business with her.
Manny was immediately received by his patrons. His personality, customer service, and good food made him popular in the neighborhood. He began to adjust the menu to foods to match his customer’s preferences.
Officers from the Los Angeles Police Department, Hollenbeck Community Police Station, started taking their breaks at the El Tepeyac. When they playfully asked Manny to add a little more to their burritos, Manny obliged, piling on the rice, beans, and avocado. He made a monster burrito to match his customer’s request and called it “The Hollenbeck.” Stuffed with goodness and covered in chili sauce, Manny began adjusting his menu to the desires of his patrons.
He soon developed Manny’s Special- a burrito designed with the bantering and requests from the East LA college football players who asked him to add a little more. Manny’s Special captured the attention of people across the nation and the Food Network highlighted the restaurant, the long lines, and special food on their shows.
“Many have tried but few have accomplished it,” reads the restaurant’s website of the giant five-pound burrito. The public highlights have drawn famous people and folks from all over the world to try the food at El Tepeyac but it is the local folks that have kept the business steady.
It’s more than a sensation, it’s the recipes, according to Manny’s daughter Elena Rojas, that hasn’t changed, and the nostalgia and home-cooked food that brings the neighborhood back.
By the time Manny started running the business he had been married but separated from Mercedes, also known as Mercy. Their daughter, Elena, was just a young girl and still remembers spending the weekends in the family restaurant.
“I would sit right over there while he worked,” she says, pointing to the old-school counter. She got to know the regulars who lined up just to get a seat at the restaurant, and she got to know Manny’s staff. “When I was old enough the waitresses would let me take orders and serve the customers,” she remembered with a smile.
From the restaurant counter, Elena’s childhood point of view was centered on her father working. She remembers his smile beaming as he greeted and chatted with people waiting in line. Entertaining the couples, bending down to say hi to kids, and laughing it up with the old-timers. She smiles as she recalls his ease with people. Customers would wait up to 45 minutes just to get a seat, but they would keep a careful eye on the line as sometimes celebrities would often show up and try to cut in. Everyone was treated the same, like friends and neighbors, with no special treatment even for celebrities or camera crews. But Manny made sure those waiting in line were greeted- shaking hands and kissing cheeks as he caught up with his regular customers.
Even though Elena’s parents had split up, they still had an amicable relationship. One day when Mercy was dropping the young Elena off at the restaurant for a weekend visit, Manny asked if Mercy would fill in because they were short-staffed. Mercy stayed to help, “and she never stopped,” Elena recalled. The restaurant employed about 40 to 50 employees, a sizable crew for the small but busy restaurant. “He was old school,” Elena remembered smiling, “he paid everyone cash.” But the large crew and the cash flow needed management and Mercy took over as General Manager and kept the business in shape.
When Elena was a teenager, she and her friends started working in downtown Los Angeles as stockers at Back Street, a department store that Elena said, “was real foo-foo,” an upscale shop that catered to the wealthy. It was because of Elena’s energetic personality and hard work that they offered her a position on the floor as a salesperson. Elena was excited to gain a position in which she could earn a commission, but her father objected since this would also put her on public transportation late at night. Instead, he offered her a job at the restaurant as a cashier.
Though she missed out on the commission, she was thrilled to work with her parents. When I asked her how it felt to work with them every day, she said, “I was very spoiled. To have my parents with me, we were together all the time.” Elena ran the cash register, her mother Mercy ran the business, and her grandmother Rebeca waitressed while Manny captivated the hearts of the customers. Their clients became regulars as the business grew.
Manny had a big heart. Everyone who knew him knew this about him. When Mercy got sick Manny insisted that she move back home with him. He cared for her until she passed.
Elena’s heart swells as she tells this story, a true testament to the way Manny cared for those around him. When Manny passed away in 2013 the lines to his funeral service reminded her of the lines of people who came to eat at their restaurant. People waited in line around the corner to pay their respects.
Elena is adamant about keeping the spirit of her father alive and in a very natural way, accomplishes this through her love of the customers. After his passing, Elena took over the family business, no longer with the support of Rebeca, Mercy, or her loving father, but nonetheless continuing with family support.
When I ask Elena about the restaurant menu she tells me that the recipes have not changed. For example, the man who makes the green chili arrives early every morning to make it and has been doing so for the past 37 years. She jokes, “and the man before that for 37 years!” The people that work there are consistent and keep the quality and the spirit of the place unchanging. But her smile really lights up when I ask about their customers.
Scrolling through her phone she tells me story after story of their longtime customers. She tells me about Rudy as she stops on his image. She smiles and tells me that he had been coming to the restaurant since the 1960s. He was a morning customer and the waitresses always knew what he would order. Then she tells me the story of the man who used to visit the restaurant with his family when he was a child. When he became a teacher, he started bringing 60 to 70 students to eat at the restaurant whenever they had out-of-school field trips. Looking through more photos she then tells me about the 95 and older club- meaning that anyone who is 95 or older eats for free. One of their longtime customers, Roy, stopped driving when he turned 95 so he would get a ride to visit the restaurant. He lived in the neighborhood until he passed away at 99 years old. Though there are celebrities and people who traveled a long way to try their food, it is the local people she sees day in and day out that she tells me about.
As we wrapped up our talk, Elena tells me about a woman who lives in the neighborhood, who is at times unsheltered. One day a staff member told her there was a woman looking for discarded food in the garbage. Elena went to speak with the woman, telling her that if she wanted to eat to just simply ask. She got to know her over some time and found out that the woman had suffered abuse along with dealing with mental illness. When they first met “she wouldn’t look me in the eye,” Elena remembered, “But now, she’s built up some trust with me and will come by if she needs to. I haven’t seen her in a year.”
Every story seems to warm Elena as we talk. After our interview, we walked outdoors to get some photos. We had not made it out the door before someone got up from their seat to hug her.
Hugs, chisme, laughter.
We continued outdoors. Another gentleman walks up to her, “Elena!” They, too, hugged and asked me to take their picture. “How long have you been coming here?” Elena asked him. He responded, laughing, “I don’t know, thirty, forty years?”
As he chuckled and waved goodbye, we turned around to finish our conversation, and Elena spotted walking up the hill towards El Tepeyac, the woman she had told me about. She waves at Elena and they hug each other. “I haven’t seen you in a year!” Elena tells her. The woman whispered to Elena as I walked away, carrying a Manny’s Special burrito with me.
Mariachi Plaza is identifiable by the bandstand in the heart of the plaza and the rotating cadre of Mariachi’s dressed in full attire with their instruments. Restaurant Santa Cecilia is one of the first businesses visible as you approach Boyle Heights Avenue. Santa Cecilia specializes in mouth-watering traditional Mexican dishes like barbacoa, caldo de res, carne con nopales, tortas, tacos, and burritos. Armando Salazar opened Restaurant Santa Cecilia with the support of his wife. Salazar began his career in the food industry by working in Italian Restaurants. He held onto the dream of opening his own restaurant as he moved from different Italian food locations across Southern California and Las Vegas. He would finally open his restaurant and cultivate a strong presence in the community. His catering service has grown significantly over the years and has provided him with the opportunity to embed himself in community life. As a long-time client, Sonia Rodriguez shares, “Memories of Armando’s food are associated with many of my family’s significant moments.” Through catering birthday celebrations, baptisms, and academic lectures. By enriching the personal, public, and academic events with his food, Salazar’s restaurant has truly become a social and economic pillar for Boyle Heights. This sense of community was crucial to confronting a development project that threatened to upend Mariachi Plaza and the local businesses it hosts. Salazar joined other community members in meeting with the property owner and developers to air their concerns.
Over the years, the cultural and economic value of Restaurant Santa Cecilia has been recognized by local and state politicians like Antonio Villaraigosa and Lucille Roybal-Allard. Today, Salazar continues to be a pillar of the community demonstrating the resilience and power of the neighborhood.
Casa Fina Restaurant & Cantina opened on Cinco de Mayo, 2017 as an extension of the cultural life on First Street in Boyle Heights that allowed those going to the CASA 0101 theater to compliment it with a full dining experience. Painted a bright purple outside and promising a fiesta inside, Casa Fina is the creation of Josefina López, writer of Real Women Have Curves and creator of CASA 0101, and Emmanuel Deleage, Executive Director of CASA 0101. López and Deleage hired Chef Augustin to create special dishes and invent Chicana/o cuisine, wanting to feature local Mexican food and wines from Mexico. But the restaurant also houses a collection of locally produced art and regularly holds special events like Speed Dating, Stand Up Comedy Nights, Open Mike Nights, Bohemian Nights, and Karaoke Nights. All are intended to give local Boyle Heights residents an opportunity to try performing in front of a crowd in order to be discovered as a new talent or help nurture talent in Boyle Heights.
Josefina López and Emmanuel Deleage obtained the property when the famed La Serenata de Garibaldi Restaurant shut down in that space in January 2017. That iconic restaurant had been a mainstay for the neighborhood for 32 years, featuring big weekend family meals with a long-running menu of seafood favorites. When La Serenata abruptly closed its doors across the street from Mariachi Plaza, rumors had it that it had been purchased by a “consortium of restaurant tycoons looking to jump into the address.” Rather than allow the location to be part of the gentrification forces attacking Boyle Heights from the outside, López and Deleage were able to secure the location to make sure that it stayed in the hands of a local that would continue to serve the neighborhood population.
López and Deleage have hired local cooks and waiters to staff the restaurant from the start-- but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Los Angeles, the value of having local ownership became even more clear. In addition to continuing to serve the community through take-out orders and outside dining, Casa Fina went beyond that to make further commitments to the neighborhood. In March 2020, Casa Fina partnered with Proyecto Pastoral at Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights to donate meals to their Guadalupe Homeless Project Shelter for men and women. For every meal purchased at Casa Fina, the restaurant donated one meal to some of the community’s most vulnerable members. Because of social gathering restrictions, the shelter could no longer rely on donated food supplies that allowed them to help prepare and distribute meals two times a day. Instead, Casa Fina’s already prepared meals replaced this process to help fill this need. In addition, Casa Fina opened “La Tiendita'' section of their website to provide basic grocery and household essentials for delivery, such as toilet paper. Raquel Román, Program Director of the Guadalupe Homeless Project at Proyecto Pastoral Dolores Mission said, “We are grateful to Casa Fina Restaurant & Cantina for reaching out and partnering with us to help homeless men and women dwelling within our shelter. Acts of human kindness like this are what we need most, not just now, but at all times, good and bad.”