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Follow Your Nose

Qevin Oji's guide to the sweet smells of this particularly odorous city so I kept on driving until I arrived at a sweet spot in this desert of a neighborhood: the Watts Senior Center Rose Garden.

April 23, 2006|Qevin Oji | Qevin Oji is a contributing writer for West.

Not long ago, I set out in pursuit of a really good teriyaki sub on the recommendation of my sister. Big John's, a joint on Yates Avenue in the city of Commerce, was my destination. It was a long drive, but the directions were perfect. The alternating odors that greeted me in the parking lot, though, threw me totally off track.

Chocolate. Sour apple. Peach.

Nothing close to teriyaki approached my nostrils. I entered and read the menu. Nothing chocolaty. I inquired. The Asian man behind the counter gestured around the corner.

So, after ordering my teriyaki sub, I headed in that direction. I saw a sign that read Gold Coast Ingredients. Inside, Laurie Goddard, vice president of Gold Coast, explained that the company manufactures kosher, organic, all-natural flavors for food. When I commented on the chocolate smell, she said, "It's interesting everyone senses a different smell." I asked her what she smelled at that moment. She sniffed. "Maple, maybe . . ."

I went back to the car and ate my sandwich. The air reeked of blueberries. It was right then, my olfactory senses heightened, that I decided to wake up and smell Los Angeles. I would take a drive and explore the city as I never had before--at least not consciously: with my nose.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 07, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Barbecue restaurant: An article in the April 23 West magazine on L.A.'s various smells said Phillips Bar-B-Que, at the corner of Crenshaw and Adams, was formerly Mr. Jim's. It was called Leo's.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 21, 2006 Home Edition West Magazine Part I Page 7 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
In the article on L.A.'s various smells ("Follow Your Nose," Style, April 23), it was incorrectly reported that Phillips Bar-B-Que, located at the corner of Crenshaw and Adams, was formerly Mr. Jim's. It was called Leo's.

A few weeks later, I made a beeline for "Watts Adjacent," my nickname for my old neighborhood. I once associated Watts with the smell of dead dog because there was almost always a bloated, about-to-burst beast on some street. Not so much anymore.

Heading east on Century Boulevard, I passed a city sign: "Magnolia Square." I wondered whose dream it was to line this street with magnolias, wondered when the first one was chopped down and replaced by a sidewalk-busting ficus. The fresh orangy smell of magnolia, that smell that makes me wish that I could jump like Kobe to fetch a high-up bloom, was about to burst. But it didn't quite fill the air.

So I kept on driving until I arrived at a sweet spot in this desert of a neighborhood: the Watts Senior Center Rose Garden. What looked to be a 20-foot-high chain-link fence enclosed regimented beds of rose bushes. As I laced my fingers through the fence, the padlock rattled. Clink. A Ft. Knox of flowers.

A man approached. "Come back in late April or early May. They'll be in bloom then." I promised I would. As I walked away, I heard a pop and up jumped a citrus smell. I looked around, then down. A sprig from a mock orange bush peeked out from underfoot. I picked it up and looked for its source. It wasn't within noseshot. I stuck the sprig in the bud vase next to my steering wheel. Lovely.

Suddenly, something smelled electric-y, like a toaster or iron blowing out. I drove on.

Motoring north on Central Avenue, I approached Slauson Avenue. I slowed down as I neared the Tampico Spice Co. I inhaled deeply, relishing the scents of cinnamon, sage, curry and other exotic spices from far-off places that I couldn't immediately pick out as I started to go by the imposing, half-block-long building. Far-off places like Costa Rica, like Madagascar. Lucky me: A train halted traffic and prolonged my lingering. Tarragon. Rosemary. Vanilla. Cayenne. Especially the cayenne.

And then I was off. As I hit La Cienega Boulevard, the oil wells looked like they were doing something nasty. I guess they were. They were pumping oil, and I smelled it as I passed. Trying to count the pumps, I missed my turn at Stocker Street. Quickly, I doubled back to sniff what's up on "The Boulevard." Crenshaw.

No arch, fountain or lighted sign marks the northern entry into the Crenshaw neighborhood. A curtain of scented smoke does. It's Phillips Bar-B-Que, at the corner of Crenshaw and Adams, housed in what used to be Mr. Jim's. "You need no teeth to eat my beef," went his radio slogan. That said, a nose sure helps these days, given the pungent aroma outside Phillips. I took it in before making a U and getting onto the 10 East.

The driver behind me seemed determined to make me exit at Arlington. Car exhaust. Diesel fuel. A ripe homeless encampment. I turned up the music as if it would sweeten the stink. There are limits even to Carmen Lundy's singing. Thankfully, up popped a waft of honeysuckle. There, too, was that electric smell again, my sister's hair burning in the morning.

I headed north, crossed Cesar E. Chavez Avenue and passed under the Chinatown arch straddling North Broadway. I slowed down. Open shop doors emitted the smells of garlic and dried fish and ginseng. I tried to sniff out the scallion pancakes of the Mandarin Deli. As I departed, the smells fell away as quickly as they had risen.

Leaving C-Town, I got another blast of that short-circuiting smell. I looked to the left, and there was the MTA Gold Line. I elected to move to higher ground.

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