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The South Meets South of Border

At a restaurant in South L.A., the cuisine reflects tastes of a changing community.

October 30, 2003|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

"Cornbread? Or tortillas?" The question comes with every lunch order at Family Soul Food-Mexican.

Maybe it was inevitable. Traditionally black South Los Angeles is now, in most parts, at least half Latino, so the two cuisines seemed destined to collide.

But it's been slow in coming. Black and Latino culture sometimes appears to dwell apart. Carnicerias and pupuserias are advertised in Spanish, and serve a Latino-immigrant clientele. Fish markets and fried-chicken outlets cater to the tastes of Southern black migrants and their descendants. There's soul food on one hand, tacos on the other. But few street stands offer both on one menu.

The Family restaurants are an exception: not just tacos, but black-eyed peas; not just tortas, but chitlins.

The owners are the Aldana brothers, three siblings from Mexico City. They speak little English. And they love soul food.

"We stand for mixing of the cultures," Rigoberto Aldana says.

The eldest brother, Pedro, worked for years as a dishwasher in a black-owned soul food restaurant in the Crenshaw district. His Mississippi-born boss taught him much about the cuisine.

He speaks of her gratefully. "She trusted me. She took me aside. She said, look Peter, it's done like this." He learned about the barbecued sauces, the macaroni and cheese, the greens (the Aldanas call them hierba -- the Spanish word for grass.)

"Delicate and delicious," Pedro says of this fare of the Deep South.

"Mexican food is just simple -- tortillas and meat," said Rigoberto, also an enthusiast. "But soul food is complicated. Everything has so many ingredients."

So a year ago, the brothers opened the two hardscrabble outlets of Family Soul Food-Mexican, with third brother Rogelio. One stand is at Gage Avenue and Figueroa Street, and one is in a swap meet on 130th Street and Avalon Boulevard -- just inside Compton, a city whose black population has declined from 75% to 40% since 1980.

Clintina Jones, counter clerk at the restaurant, says she has been eating soul food all of her life, and when she heard Family Soul Food-Mexican was in Compton, she thought, "they are Mexican ... I've got to come here."

"When I tasted it, I couldn't believe it," she said. "Best food in the world."

She applied for a job.

"You've got soul food," she told the Aldanas, "now you need a soul face!" She had been unemployed for one year.

"They gave black people a chance," she added. "Ain't this great?

Black customers often ask warily if she does the cooking. She likes the look on their faces when she points to Pedro, and says, "He does!"

Some admit they were skeptical. "It just shocked me," said customer Darcelle Blockmon, 31, who is black, and a butcher. "But the food is good.... Try the chitlins."

Lisa Davis, another black customer, is also convinced. She would like to nominate the Aldanas for an award: "Best food in the 'hood," she said.

Customer Ramon Pinzon is a fan solely of Mexican fare. But he hasn't ruled out trying soul food. "We are together, and we can learn to live together," he says. "Food, culture, everything."

At first the Aldanas resisted making Mexican food, said Rigoberto. But no matter what was on the sign, Latinos asked for tacos. So they gave in.

Today, the customers are about 60% Latino and 40% black, he said. The black customers ask for Latino fare often. And bit by bit, Latino immigrants are exploring the menu, he said. Fusion is occurring.

Customers of both backgrounds ask for oxtails and gravy on Mexican rice, or barbecue beef with tortillas, Aldana said. More surprising was how black customers embraced birria -- goat meat -- a traditional Mexican dish, but one that Latinos seldom order.

It's possible to find ethnic tensions in this part of the city if you look.

There are a few warring Latino and black gangs. Black residents sometimes fret that Latinos are taking jobs or loans from them; Latinos sometimes blame blacks for crime.

But Rigoberto says he believes relations have gotten steadily better.

Still, it's not easy to see your neighborhood change, said Yolanda Martel, a black customer at the Compton restaurant. "At first, I was a little overwhelmed, and I felt crowded" as Latinos settled in the area, Martel said. "And then they started changing the signs to signs in Spanish. I had a major beef with that ... I still do."

But other than the signs, the change in the neighborhood no longer bothers her, she said. Then she ordered a carne asada burrito.

Likewise, Rigoberto Aldana admits that "at first I felt a little afraid" of his black customers.

Now, with a year in the business, he says he likes the cultural difference. Blacks, "treat you like you treat them," he said. "It's very open. Whatever it is, it comes back at you."

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