This is the latest in our series on underrated destinations, It’s Still a Big World.
The busiest intersection in the world is Japan’s Shibuya crossing; it’s fascinating to watch from above the way tiny people weave in and out on foot, just walking—never talking—and always with a destination in mind.
A sharp contrast to Tokyo, nobody really walks in Los Angeles. This is a city built around cars, so it’s no surprise to find the busiest freeway interchange in the world a stone’s throw from Downtown LA. The East LA Interchange runs through Boyle Heights, a historic, multicultural borough just east of the Los Angeles River and a 10-minute drive from hipster Silver Lake.
If you happen upon Boyle Heights, you’ll want to check out historic spots like the Benjamin Franklin Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, which has been open for more than 100 years. Then there’s Mariachi Plaza, where musicians have gathered since the 1930s to vie for the attention of passersby who might be looking to hire a band. Those who don’t know much about Boyle Heights will probably end up there for the food. The original Guisados, serving up Mexican comfort food (homestyle braises on corn tortillas using fresh masa that’s made at Carniceria Uruapa just next door), is a main attraction and the perfect start to an afternoon getting to know the neighborhood.
I find myself in the area on a chilly March day, passing Farmacia Ramirez on my way in before securing street parking in front of a Jack in the Box. There is mild traffic, but nothing to write home about. I am meeting up with Mario Christerna who is a Boyle Heights native and for him, there’s no place like home. The Chicano chef travels abroad with his wife and daughters as often as possible, yet LA is still his favorite. “I’m a custodian of my neighborhood,” he tells me as we embark on a walking tour of Cesar Chavez Ave.
He’s promised me food and fun and stories that are sure to blow my mind. “How much time do you have again?” he asks, and I already know I’ve messed up by not blocking an entire day, at least.
Formerly known as Brooklyn Ave., everything you could possibly want or need is here on this one street. Its name was meant to entice travelers from the East Coast to settle in LA’s first suburb, and it worked. For quite some time, this was the Ellis Island of the West, home to the largest Jewish population in the US outside of New York. The neighborhood’s nickname? “The Lower East Side of Los Angeles”—a melting pot of Japanese, Mexican, Italian, and Eastern European working-class immigrants. Native to LA, indigenous people from the Tongva tribes also made Boyle Heights (at the time it was called El Paredon Blanco) their home in the 1800s.
There is an instant connection when I tell Mario I originally hail from Miami. “Oh, Miami’s my second home,” he says. “I love Miami.” It turns out we have friends of friends in common since Mario was once a tour manager, hanging around megaclubs like the infamous Space and the (now defunct) Prive and Mansion. As a young chef, he moved to Spain to pursue a dream job with three-Michelin-starred Chef Martin Berasategui and continued working in music, simultaneously. When he wasn’t in the kitchen, he was probably at an electronic music party in Ibiza.
Christerna greets people left and right, pointing out the artistic intricacies I might’ve missed if I were here on my own. He finds beauty in everything, from the hand-lettered storefronts to the sidewalk planters (really), which have little mosaic tile designs on the sides to represent the diversity of the people who have lived in the neighborhood over the years. It’s his personal mission to fight gentrification while preserving everything that’s special about Boyle Heights.
We stroll down Cesar Chavez Ave. and at times, I feel like I’m in a movie. There are women selling frutas, nodding as we pass; a fluffy white dog runs out in front of a truck at a green light. I hold my breath and feel the whole block let out a collective sigh when the pup is spared another day. We cruise into La Barbacha, a small Mexican shop still not allowing indoor dining because of the size of the space, but the woman working is in good spirits nonetheless. “¿Qué quieren, mijo?” She asks Mario, and he orders gorditas for the two of us: de barbacoa — the regional style of Hidalgo, Mexico — and chicharron.
They smell so good, yet there’s no time to sit and eat as we move from one shop to the next. Mario tells me we’ll take our food back to his restaurant after we’ve made a few more stops, the next being Sonido del Valle. The only record store in Boyle Heights, it has more Latin vinyls than I’ve ever seen in one place. Cumbia, mariachi, Spanish rock — you name it, Sonido’s got it. Mario picks out and pays for two records: Cumbias con Mariachi by Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlan and The Kennedy Dream by Oliver Nelson and His Orchestra. “You sure you don’t want one?” he asks me on the way out.
We grab a burger to share at George’s Burger Stand (owned by the same people as the well-known Guisados) along with a couple of grape sodas, which remind me of hot Florida summers and old, faded vending machines by the pool. Mario is approached by two kids selling bouquets of flowers who can’t be older than 10. They speak both English and Spanish, jokesters trying to hustle him for $20. “OK, OK, come with me to the ATM,” Mario says, and they go. He pays the boys for the flowers and points to a street vendor nearby. “See that lady selling produce over there? Go give these to her and thank her for providing fresh food to our community.” The boys run over, hand off the flowers and she waves at us, grinning from ear to ear.
With our bags of food, we stop in to say hi to his barber, then Mario points out the neighborhood plant shop, LatinX With Plants. The owner’s mission is to build a community that tackles environmental racism in communities of color and, in collaboration with plant designer Plantitas Verdes, she’s recently brought life to Mario’s restaurant window with fiddle leaf figs and other flora. Friendly competition and unconditional support seems to keep the locals in business here. This includes two ice cream shops within 700 feet of each other, La Michoacana and La Jerezana Ice Cream Parlor.
Our last stop of the afternoon is Chef Mario’s pride and joy, the beautiful brick building that’s home to Brooklyn Avenue Pizza Co. Opened inside the historic Paramount ballroom at the height of the pandemic, this space has a 100-year history that includes performances by Sonny and Cher (when they were called Caesar & Cleo) and Afro-Cuban musician and composer Arsenio Rodriguez, who had a weekly residency there in 1965. Before all that, it was used as a meeting hall, barbershop, a center for socializing and organizing, and a place for the Jewish Bakers’ Union to work.
Mario takes me up a narrow staircase to show me the rest of the space and then all of a sudden, we’re on the roof. “Come on,” he says. “We’re going to eat up here.” If he’s trying to convince me how amazing his neighborhood is, I was already sold, but there’s nothing like seeing a city from above. Finally, I can dig into the food we picked up earlier, while remembering to save room for some pizza. I’m in awe of the views — the Downtown LA skyline to one side, and to the other, the expansive greenery that is Evergreen Cemetery.
The first official and sanctioned cemetery in Los Angeles, Evergreen is nearly 150 years old. The 67-acre cemetery is where many notable Californians are buried regardless of race or ethnicity. The Lankershim/Van Nuys families (LA real estate tycoons with full-blown city subdivisions named after them) are buried here, as is the founder of Ralph’s supermarkets. Then there’s Biddy Mason, a formerly enslaved African-American woman who was successful in real estate and philanthropy and even founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. The cemetery is segregated into sections (Armenians, Japanese, Chinese, European, Mexican), and unlike other cemeteries in the country, never banned African-Americans from being buried there.
Back downstairs, we talk about Mario’s life before opening Brooklyn Ave Pizza Co. and how he’s managed to stay true to his upbringing. The menu pays homage to his heritage and his hood with Flaming Hot Cheetos wings, mole pizza, Chicano gravy, boozy horchata, and cocktails like the elote old fashioned and an Evergreen negroni named after—you guessed it—the neighborhood graveyard.
By merely doing business in Boyle Heights, by getting his haircut there, and filling his restaurant with plants curated by the local shop, by hosting musicians and live concerts post-pandemic, Mario is giving back to his community in the most organic of ways. Growth is inevitable, but he sticks close to his roots which I think is the secret for everyone who’s chosen to stay and flourish there.
My time is cut short, and before heading back to my car, ready to brave rush hour traffic, I tell Mario I wish I could stay a little longer. He has a piano in his office at Brooklyn Ave Pizza Co. and another in his kitchen at home; music is still a major part of the process in everything he creates and this feels familiar to me.
“If you ever come over for dinner with me and my wife, you’ll see it,” he says about the piano. I’ll hold him to it, too. Even if it means crossing the East LA Interchange during gridlock, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.