Iconic Neighborhood Restaurants: Historic South-Central

I originally wrote this piece for KCET in 2015.

In 2003, L.A. City Council voted to rechristen South-Central Los Angeles — a sprawling 16-square-mile area approximately bordered by the 10 freeway to the north, Inglewood and Culver City to the west, Gardena to the south, and Alameda Street to the east — as South Los Angeles. The vote was unanimous. Shortly thereafter, a 2.25-square-mile patch of South L.A. — flanked by Washington Boulevard, Flower Street, East Vernon Avenue, and Central Avenue — was rebranded as Historic South-Central Los Angeles under the larger quilt of South L.A. neighborhoods.

The L.A. City Council wanted to erase stigmas associated with South-Central L.A. There was little official resistance from residents, although on-the-ground grumbling remains strong. For decades, Hollywood and television news told one-dimensional stories about riots, gang violence, and poverty. However, books, oral histories, and residents tell more multifaceted narratives of rich cultural life and spaces that no longer exist.

From the 1920s through 1950s, Central Avenue was the heart of L.A.’s African-American community, particularly in the realm of music. Charles Mingus played in clubs on Central Avenue, alternatively called “Brown Broadway” and “The 52nd Street of Los Angeles.” When Zora Neale Hurston came out west, she stayed in the neighborhood to write screenplays. Chester Himes penned detective novels here. The neighborhood had two pages of listings in “The Negro Motorist Green Book: An International Travel Guide,” which was first published in 1936.

Original Bill’s Tacos: Today, you’ll find almost no physical remnants of the glory days of Historic South-Central. But at Original Bill’s Tacos located on Martin Luther King Boulevard, a few blocks west of Central Avenue, you’ll find plenty of older African-American customers and their multi-generational offspring who will share stories about the neighborhood and how long they’ve been coming to eat at Bill’s. Every single customer measures time in decades. They’ve been loyal to Bill’s for anywhere from 20 to 66 years. Established in 1949, Bill’s specializes in tacos made with hamburger patties and doused with a chili gravy that’s reminiscent of red enchilada sauce from the era. The interior is decorated with homages to Martin Luther King Jr., photos of famous entertainers and politicians who’ve become loyal fans over the years, and counterculture slogans about altruism. Bill sold the restaurant to Hank Silva in the 1950s who in turn sold it to Eva Won in 1985. Won started as an employee and saved enough money to purchase the business.

219 E. Martin Luther King Blvd., (323) 233-1587

Seree’s Coffee Shop: Last century’s racially restrictive covenants affected all people of color in Los Angeles including Japanese-Americans. They moved into South Los Angeles and neighboring areas because of secret agreements that restricted where Asian-Americans could buy or rent homes. The original Seree’s coffee shop was called Kenny’s.

The founding owners were a Japanese-American couple who opened the business in the late 1960s. Two Thai exchange students named Seree and Sherry began working for the couple and eventually became the owners. The menu is all-American breakfast plates, sandwiches, Thai dishes, and a handful of Americanized Chinese dishes. Prices are dirt cheap, the food is tasty, and the walls are lined with photos of happy and loyal customers who’ve made Seree’s a neighborhood institution.

2800 S Grand Ave., (213) 747-8233

Louisiana Fried Chicken and Taco: Louisiana Fried Chicken was founded in Los Angeles by Joe Dion, a fast food industry veteran who worked at Jack in the Box and Pioneer Chicken before venturing out on his own in 1976. He partnered with Reggie Harper and Michael Eng, an African-American and a Chinese-American, to license the brand and recipes. Hence the proliferation of Louisiana Fried Chicken restaurants in African-American neighborhoods co-branded with Chinese restaurants. Yes, Louisiana Fried Chicken restaurants are typically co-branded with quick-service Chinese restaurants.

Since each restaurant is independently owned, it can be difficult to tell at times which came first, the fried chicken or the Chinese food. At Louisiana Fried Chicken and Taco on Main, there are a handful of Chinese dishes on the menu. Besides classic Southern-style fried chicken, the menu has a long list of Mexican-American and American items such as tacos, burgers, and sandwiches. If anything, Louisiana Fried Chicken owners adapt to local demands. It’s a testament to the ubiquitousness of restaurants owned by Chinese immigrants in the U.S.

4378 S Main St, (323) 233-3986

Azla: African diaspora restaurants have operated in South Los Angeles and near the 10 freeway for decades along an east-west band that stretches from Historic South Central to the Westside. While the majority of Ethiopian restaurants are concentrated on Fairfax Boulevard where Mid-City L.A. meets the Westside, a handful of Ethiopian restaurants are spread south and east of Little Ethiopia.

Located inside Mercado Paloma, Azla Vegan Ethiopian is one of them. Azla is a family affair. Matriarch Azla Mekonnen (and head chef) and youngest daughter, Nesanet Abegaze opened the food stall in 2013. The restaurant has an international customer base drawn from nearby USC, but also caters to African-Americans who seek out African heritage foods that are plant- and grain-based. And of course, the gluten-free-soy-free yoga-pants-wearing crowd. 3655 S Grand Ave., (213) 745-7455

Tire Shop Taqueria: Mexican food has been synonymous with L.A. ever since the city was founded. The taco carts come out at night in many parts of Los Angeles. They’re set up on street corners and the parking lots of businesses closed for the day. Taco cart manufacturing and sales is a robust business in L.A. An entrepreneurial-minded person can go to the Piñata District on Olympic and for a few hundred dollars purchase all the tools and ingredients needed to set up a makeshift taco stand and start earning cash. And in this age of social media and prolific food blogs, legendary status can seemingly happen overnight. Once taco hunter Bill Esparza finds it, a nameless taco stand by a tire shop can make various best-of lists.

4069 S. Avalon Blvd.