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How do you say “goodbye” to a city? How do you wave bon voyage to a booming metropolis? This is a dilemma that puzzled my friend Philip on the eve of his departure from Los Angeles for a two-month stay in Slidell, Louisiana.
My suggestion was to… you know… not. If I were him, I’d pack my bags, call a Lyft, and spend the entire drive from my house to LAX on Twitter reading about the fall of American democracy or Ariana Grande or whatever. I could use a few months of not thinking about Los Angeles. But Philip is a sentimental guy and I’m inclined to enable this sentimentality, us being best friends and all. So I suggested we send him off by doing what we do best — chopping it up over good food in the city that raised us.
For Philip and me, an LA food odyssey doesn’t mean racing around to the city’s five-star restaurants. Those joints have their place in the food scene, obviously, but that’s not what gets us feeling nostalgic (or full). We wanted to flip the script — go cheap, ditch the chains, see some sights, and find the food that helps define our diverse, eclectic, ever-changing city. Here are the details from Philip’s epic full-day sendoff tour.
Breakfast At Arthur’s Restaurant, Journey Through East LA
Our food tour began in the small LA gateway city of Downey. In the southern suburbs of Los Angeles, far from the notable establishments that populate “Best of LA” lists, lies a hidden gem of a breakfast joint known as Arthur’s Restaurant.
Downey isn’t a particularly significant city. Once upon a time, it was the birthplace of the Apollo space program, which seems dope until you realize they tore that facility down and replaced it with a Benihana and a Walmart. Now all Downey has is the oldest operational McDonald’s, which some consider “something” but I most certainly don’t. In any case, Downey does have Arthur’s and that’s the reason we went.
Arthur’s itself is totally unremarkable. It’s got the look of a 70’s roadside diner, with hardly a barrier between the kitchen and the dining area. The barstools are all intimately close to one another — providing you with the unique experience of hearing the people beside you chew. One wall contains a giant mirror that gives the illusion the restaurant is much bigger, but it’s a lie. Arthur’s is smaller than an average Taco Bell.
In short, Arthur’s is small, cramped, always crowded, closes at noon, and has a drive-thru for some reason despite being a straight up breakfast restaurant. And yet, I literally couldn’t love it more. It’s got some of the best breakfast in all of Los Angeles and most people don’t even know it exists. I shouldn’t even be telling you it exists, God knows there aren’t enough damn tables already.
At the start of a day of eating, I kept my breakfast simple — four slices of fluffy french toast with two slices of thick cut bacon. Flavor-wise Arthur’s outpaces legendary LA breakfast spots like Chinatown’s Nick’s Cafe or the bougie over-priced Silverlake brunch offerings. (To be fair, certain items on the menu will puzzle you to as why they’re so bad. Word to the wise, stay away from the biscuits.)
My bacon was cooked to perfection, evenly fried and crispy, awakening my tastebuds. Can you call fried pig belly beautiful? Because I will. My french toast was stunningly aromatic, with vanilla and rich cinnamon mingling with powdered sugar and butter. This is the only way I ever want to wake up.
By the meal’s end, Philip and I had planned out our route for the day. For the moment, we were going to skip out on the I-5 freeway to avoid traffic, and instead drive to downtown through East L.A. along Whittier Boulevard.
Whittier is the main artery of East LA and cuts straight through the Latinx neighborhoods of Montebello (where I was born) and Boyle Heights, eventually leading into Downtown via the sixth street bridge, which is currently closed. In the 1970s, 80s, and 90s young Latinx teens and adults cruised the boulevards in now-vintage low riders, blasting the smoothest music ever made and chilling out in those warm Southern California nights. Sadly, it’s something we just don’t do anymore.
The boulevard has gone through some serious redevelopment over the last decade, essentially positioning itself as the east side’s largest continual strip mall. The changes have created more commerce, which I suppose is good, but it also means more traffic, and crawling through bumper to bumper traffic is definitely not the same as cruising.
I can’t speak to the actual scene beyond what I saw as a kid, but after looking at family photos from the era, I imagine the experience is something along the lines of the car cruising scenes of George Lucas’ American Graffiti set to the soundtrack and style of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. If we were going to “cruise the boulevard” that meant the experience would be accompanied by lowrider oldies like Smokey Robinson’s “Agony & Ecstasy” and the Delfonics classic “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time.”
Los Angeles is a lot of things to a lot of people, but to me, the city will always be open skies, oldies, palm-tree lined streets, and the smell of Mexican street food filling the air. Drive along the main streets with the windows down and the buttery falsetto-heavy sounds of vintage Smokey and the Isley Brothers in your ear one day, and it’ll make you understand a bit about what makes this city so special. It’s a side of LA mostly ignored by the media in favor of celebrity obsession and the sun-kissed beach vibes of the west side. That’s a shame, East LA deserves your attention.
On our drive into the city, we passed the Hollenbeck Skate Park. The skate park is fairly new, but Hollenbeck has been a Boyle Heights staple since 1892. The park is similar to classic Los Angeles parks like the nearby Echo and MacArthur — all grassy knolls and man-made, palm-reflecting lakes. It hasn’t always been safe, but it’s always been gorgeous. If you want to catch a sweet spot to skate that is directly adjacent to some of the finest Mexican food in the entire city, this is your jam.
From Whittier, we made our way toward Cesar Chavez Avenue, over the LA river, and into downtown Los Angeles.
Lunch At Howlin’ Ray’s, Plus A Little Tokyo Boba Run
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Our journey to downtown brought us to Chinatown, home of the famous Howlin’ Ray’s. Howlin’ Ray’s specializes in Nashville-style fried chicken that is freshly prepared to your liking — allowing you to choose from six different levels of spiciness. From virtually no heat to so hot that it’s served with surgical gloves, Howlin’ Ray’s is so sought after and beloved that lines extend far out the door and through the entirety of the Chinatown Far East Plaza, every day, without fail.
There are a lot of local hacks and schools of thought regarding the best time to go to Howlin’ Ray’s. Some say to hit up the line 45 minutes before closing, others advise you to line up an hour before opening. I say just go. If you’re going to Howlin’ Ray’s, expect to wait at least an hour and a half to eat, if it takes longer you won’t be surprised and if you’re lucky and it’s shorter it’ll make your day.
Since it only takes one person to stand in a line, Philip decided to hold our spot while I made an afternoon snack run for some boba at Milk + T in nearby Little Tokyo. This is why going to Howlin’ Ray’s in a group is key, the wait becomes a lot more bearable if one person can volunteer to make a snack run or take care of an errand while everyone else waits. The Far East Plaza is full of gift shops and Asian specialty markets, so there’s plenty to do if your friends aren’t down with you venturing to another neighborhood. Philip is wise enough to know that ice cream and boba is a winning combination, so my journey to Milk + T wasn’t met with any skepticism.
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If it’s a #SIPNDIP , it’s gotta drip. 💦 – LINE UP: 💯 (Left to Right) – A) “Pink Panda” • Handcrafted strawberry 🍓 syrup with lactose-free milk bombed with cookies and cream ice cream inside, and on top. B) “Know Your Roots” • Handcrafted taro syrup and purple yam bits with almond milk, bombed with vanilla ice cream inside, and on top. C) “Guilt Trip” • Blended lactose-free snow ❄️ sweetened with brown sugar with vanilla ice cream inside, and on top. And YAS. We got some chocolate drizzles here, caramel drizzles there. Drip drip drip. – 📸: @dongkyuverymuch
Milk + T has a simple menu, but they use natural ingredients like honey syrup, real tea, and stay away from artificial flavors, which is rare for boba establishments. Philip ordered Thai milk tea, boba, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and I kept it simple with just a green milk tea. Linking back up at the line — which, to my dismay, hadn’t moved much — we enjoyed our milk tea and made conversation with people standing near us. This is a phenomenon that is unique to Howlin’ Ray’s, the lines are so long, the wait so arduous, that you experience a war-like bond with your fellow linemates.
Us Howlin’ Ray’s line-waiters, we’ve seen some stuff. All in the name of spicy chicken.
When we finally made it to the counter I ordered a quarter bird, white meat, and Philip grabbed the Howlin’ Ray’s Sando, a boneless breast sandwich on a butter bun. I’m not a stunt food eater, I’m here to enjoy my meal. So I conservatively ordered the “hot” heat level, knowing full-well what I could handle. The chicken at Howlin’ Ray’s is tender and melts in your mouth as it simultaneously explodes with flavor. The spice is a constant invitation to indulge in bite after bite.
To truly enjoy the fine craftsmanship that is Howlin’ Ray’s, you should always stay in your lane regarding spice, which I did. Philip, on the other hand, decided to also order “hot” which is far above his spice threshold. Howlin’ Ray’s is not the type of place that you experiment with what you can handle — “hot” is hot, even for spice-lovers. Over the course of my meal, I got to enjoy the hilarious sight of Philip struggling with his decision. In fact, while I highly suggest you know your place on the spice scale, encourage your friends to test their limits. There is nothing quite as funny as watching your friends struggle to not touch their eyes, while they sweat over their food, and brace themselves between every bite.
It’s mean, but harmless. Mostly.
Our meal ended as we approached 5:00 p.m. and, considering we’re not senior citizens, that left us some time to recover and work up an appetite for dinner. Our plan was to take Ceasar Chavez until it turned to Sunset Boulevard, taking us through Echo Park towards West Hollywood and Amoeba Records. Originally, we’d decided on Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles for dinner, but feeling a bit chicken-and-breakfast’d out, we left those plans hanging in the air for another time.
Recording Shopping At Amoeba, Sunset driving, and Dinner In Long Beach
The city of Los Angeles is no stranger to great record shops, but Amoeba is so massive that you’re guaranteed to find something to pique your interest every time you visit. Everything from classic 45s, to contemporary vinyl, CDs, and cassettes in genres as far-ranging as heavy metal, electronica, and imported Brazillian psychedelia can be found at Amoeba. I scored Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and Kero Kero Bonito’s Time ‘n’ Place on vinyl, and Philip picked up Vince Staple’s FM, which, if you haven’t heard, is essential listening.
If you’ve never been to LA, it’s worth driving up the Sunset Boulevard through West Hollywood at least once if you can stand some traffic. After a couple of hours of record shopping and aimless driving up the Sunset Strip, we finally agreed upon dinner back towards home, at late night taco spot El Sauz in Long Beach.
In what will sound reminiscent of SNL’s “The Californians” skit, we took Fairfax to swing back around Hollywood Boulevard and took the 101 South toward the 5 freeway and onto the 710 toward Long Beach to the sounds of local hero Vince Staples “FUN!”. Long Beach is a haven of great food (and music). There are so many delicious restaurants crammed into the small city that we could’ve done a breakfast, lunch, and dinner tour set entirely within its boundaries. For late night tacos, El Sauz is unparalleled and worth venturing south of downtown Los Angeles for.
The major draw of El Sauz is their green salsa — a blazing mix of serrano and jalapeño chili that elevates the charred meat and indulgently oily soft corn tortillas. The vibe of the place is reminiscent of eating tacos in the streets of East LA. In the later hours, the restaurant serves food from a small take-out window in the parking lot. The parking lot tends to fill up after hours as people eat their tacos at outdoor tables, standing up, or in their cars.
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I ordered three carne asada tacos with green chili, cilantro, and Monterey jack cheese
Many tacos later, we left for a stop at the nearby Pike bar and the rest of the night extended into a blur, as weekend nights in Los Angeles often do. Scattered recollections of further adventures across the city with donuts, punk bands, and an underground Long Beach speakeasy lingered in my memory the next morning.
I’ll have to ask Philip if the experience was the type of send off to the city he envisioned, but I know for me it reaffirmed my love for the place I grew up in and still call home. Los Angeles is a city in which you can eat classic American diner food, Nashville spicy chicken, drink Taiwanese milk tea, buy decades-old records, and eat tacos in a parking lot near the beach all in the same day. I guess it’s true what they say — to live and dine in LA, that’s the place to be.