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Cook's Walk

Riches of the East

Delicate pan dulce, fragrant fresh masa and beautiful plates all can be found on one short stretch in East L.A.


A few miles east of downtown Los Angeles, tucked near the Long Beach Freeway, a short stretch of Cesar E. Chavez Avenue is like an old-time Mexican settlement. It's an area where immigrants arrived long ago, a part of town where Mexican heritage thrives. It's a place where tortillas taste like tortillas should, where a bakery still makes pan dulce as it has since 1928.

In one small, easily walkable area, roughly bounded by Ford Boulevard and McDonnell Avenue, you'll find shops, restaurants and bakeries that are both historic and fascinating.

This part of East L.A. feels like a small town from the 19th century. The avenue is quiet, not crowded and bustling. Spiky maguey cactuses stand outside the parking lot of one restaurant. Not far away there's a memorial chapel, now empty, that looks like the location for a western film shoot. Even the bus stops are ornamental, with curlicued black iron enclosures.

Merchants tell how their businesses originated generations ago in Guadalajara or Zacatecas or Guanajuato. Barreras Chicharrones on Ford Boulevard traces its origins to 1875. Panaderia La Fama has been in business since 1928. El Gallo Bakery opened in 1949. The quaint, white, country-style church El Mesias was constructed in 1924 by members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the large bell in the enclosure outside Our Lady of Solitude Church (La Soledad) dates from 1937. Next to it, the Plaza La Soledad offers a place to rest for a moment.

The food is genuinely Mexican. Tortillas are made from ground corn, not commercial masa flour. Shops sell succulent tamales, intricate Mexican sweet breads and snow cones with natural fruit toppings--even pinatas for a party.

In addition to three restaurants, two bakeries and two tortillerias, the businesses range from a pet store to beauty and bridal shops. Galeria Xochitl displays original work by Latino artists. Botanica La Merced sells Mexican medicinal herbs. A sign in the window of Sloan's Dry Cleaners advertises nopales limpios (fresh, cleaned cactus paddles) for sale. The Brooklyn & Ford corner market recalls the era when Cesar E. Chavez was Brooklyn Avenue. Farther north on Ford is Majestic Poultry, which sells live chickens.

Parking on the quiet residential side streets is unlimited, allowing plenty of time to stroll, browse and shop.

1 Tamales Liliana's. This place has much more to offer than tamales. It's a full-fledged Mexican restaurant with a lively menu of flautas, sopes, gorditas, huaraches, enchiladas and tacos and a few meat dishes. The tamales, $1 each, are packed to go at a takeout counter. Fillings include meat in red or green chile, chicken with vegetables and chile strips with cheese. There are also sweet tamales that contain raisins and pineapple and a sweetened tamal de elote that is made from ground fresh corn. As the waitress said, it's "muy rico."

Tamales Liliana's, 4619 Cesar E. Chavez Ave. (323) 780-0989.

2 Gallos Grill. Savory aromas waft outside, luring you into this Southwestern-style restaurant, which specializes in Mexican cuts of beef grilled over an almond-wood fire. Try gallitos--a sabana steak, which is a long, thin sheet of meat, folded around Jack cheese, ham, onion and tomato and grilled. It comes with a quesadilla, grilled green onions--the Mexican kind with a bulb at the end--rice or beans, tortillas and a selection of salsas. Other choices include arrachera (flap meat), carne adobada (marinated meat), carne asada, New York steak, filete and brochetas. To go with them try the tall, sweet drink called pepino. It's made with cucumbers.

The grill offers taco combos and tortas (sandwiches) for lunch. On weekends, a brunch menu includes enchiladas, sopes and chilaquiles. The patio out back is nice on a warm day.

Gallos Grill, 4533 Cesar E. Chavez Ave. (323) 980-8669.

3 El Gallo Bakery. The sweet perfume of freshly baked pan dulce entices one to take home sacks full. This is a good idea, because El Gallo makes breads that require so much hand work they have disappeared from many panaderias.

A specialty is the rosa, a strip of dough twirled in the air to form a rose that is then painted with pink sugar. Negritos are capped with cinnamon dough hand-pinched into little points. Airy, round campechanas resemble glazed puff pastry. Libros (books) are glazed rectangles with many "pages" (layers) of dough. Monos (bow ties), raisin buns called guayabas (guavas) and huge, slightly sweet yellow cuernos (horns) are only a few of the many temptations. Cookie-like chamucos, with an outer rim of cinnamon dough and an inner circle of egg and sugar paste, are especially good at this bakery.

In addition to pan dulce and bolillos, El Gallo sells soft, slightly sweet dinner rolls that are wonderful for ham sandwiches.

El Gallo Bakery, 4546 Cesar E. Chavez Ave. (323) 263-9551.

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