8.72: PBJ.LA

PBJ.LA at Grand Central Market is evidence of the insufferable aesthetic produced and reproduced by today's most virulent invasive species: the tech industry. Photo by Dan Johnson.

PBJ.LA at Grand Central Market is evidence of the insufferable aesthetic produced and reproduced by today's most virulent invasive species: the tech industry. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

I saw an Eater LA article recently in which the brain trust over at PBJ.LA, Grand Central Market’s posh peanut butter and jelly eatery, griped about Yelp shelving four and five star reviews that could salvage their otherwise lackluster online presence.

The punitive screed came in the same week that Hillary Clinton announced she wasn’t beyond challenging the legitimacy of the 2016 election. Weirdly, I had the same basic reaction to both statements.

In each case the challenger is right—the institution in question is flawed, skewed, corrupt, shitty and broken. Yet, simultaneously, I can’t help but wish each would stop talking.

Hill, thank you for your service. You will never be president. I’m sorry. It’s over. You were the one person on either side of the political spectrum that people would go to polls just to vote against. I appreciate what you’re saying and the way you’ve conducted yourself since the drubbing. Legitimately, you got robbed. Please walk away.

Similarly, PBJ.LA, I’m sorry that Yelp is a festering asshole that makes it easy for some of the shallowest, most intellectually bankrupt and entitled trolls in our already boot-fucked society to digitally vandalize your business. That’s got to be frustrating. Especially after you pay for the service of filtering out shitty reviews. With that in mind, you sell peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Nuance is a lost art. Ours is, after all, an age where people love to use the partisan sledgehammer when the state of affairs calls for a scalpel. It’s important that we all develop a knack for splitting hairs. It’s the only answer when the rhetorical poles have become magnets for lazy thinking and other manifestations of degeneracy.

In keeping with that modus operandi, I went to Grand Central Market where Downtown’s “foodie destination” has helped reinvent culinary privilege and gestation status with a decade long remake that has yielded mixed fruit.

I do a lot of head shaking when I stroll through GCM. There’s some truly great food to be had for often egregious amounts of money. Still, you can nab a pupusa or tacos or some China Café with a short stack of dollar bills. There’s hope.

On the opposite side of the spectrum are businesses that I can’t really fathom. I come from the Dr. Ian Malcolm school of life. There’s a difference between can and should. It seems like a lot of “concepts” at Grand Central fall into the dubious category of the former.

Like Little Damage, I feel as if PBJ.LA is a business that was crafted to capitalize on Instagram culture and the irrational fear of missing out that causes mentally feeble consumers to spend a lifetime in dutiful servitude to tastes foisted on them by vapid bloggers and food svengalis in unwitting conformity to a culture staked in fostering envy.

Still, there’s merit here. I can honestly say that the Old Fashioned peanut butter and jelly sandwich I ate yesterday was amazing. Truly. Blew me right the fuck away. It’s made from salted pecan butter, apple jam, angostura bitters and orange zest. Yes, it tastes like the drink. The bread is a nutritionally wanting generic white that is crimped and de-crusted before being wrapped in purple and white paper for serving. It is easily the finest three dollar peanut butter and jelly sandwich I will ever taste.

You like this sandwich. Trust me. Your Instagram followers like this sandwich too. Now hand over the money. Photo by Dan Johnson.

You like this sandwich. Trust me. Your Instagram followers like this sandwich too. Now hand over the money. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Unfortunately, it costs seven dollars. Again, I understand that rent is sky high in GCM and labor costs more (rightfully so) than it used to and good ingredients require investment. I get all of that.

What I can’t process is why anyone would habitually frequent a peanut butter and jelly stand to spend the ten-plus bucks it takes to get full here. It’s not like this is a difficult thing to manufacture in one’s own home.

With all due respect to a tasty albeit skimpy sandwich and the culinary reputation of PBJ.LA creator and erstwhile Umami guru Adam Fleischman, this is exactly the sort of bad optics that feeds accusations of out-of-touch liberal elites whose callous disassociation with any objective reality lends credence to the notion that our world is being commodified out of existence.  

This seven-dollar sandwich represents thirty five minutes of minimum wage labor in Los Angeles. Then it’s gone. Nothing left. Just residual hunger and the promise of a future bowel movement. Also, the lingering fear that nothing with ever satisfy our voracious lusts for the radical experiences we think we want and work hard to achieve before realizing that they are nothing but a temporary reprieve from the gnawing void that is life in a society where the novel and unfulfilling are inherently conflated with the substantial just because someone says so.

As the recipient of a slew of daily press releases from people who want me to feel enthusiastically about the disposable cultural product they’re pushing, I am familiar with the careful employment of jargon to manipulate supposed tastemakers into creating a favorable profile as if their client is going to radically alter the course of life on earth.

I recognize Adam Fleischman’s game. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a chef in Los Angeles. It’s just not enough to do good food anymore. You have to actively fabricate a narrative around your food that justifies cost with a larger experience. We’re not just eating food. We’re tasting evolution here, folks.

Fleischman is a master at the presser. Amy Scattergood over at LA Times is similarly gifted at balancing the enthusiasms of restaurateurs with a subtle side-eyed sense of the absurd. Her article on PBJ.LA has an appropriately nauseating title (The guy who brought you Umami Burger wants to reinvent PB&J) that serves both susceptible customers and other, more discerning skeptics who are tired of this shit.

The best quote she pulls from Fleischman’s profile is “we’re trying to create disruptive products.” Wow. That’s a buzzword that doubles as a dog whistle for the moneyed tech crowd re-populating West Coast cities. It’s so goddam astute, I can’t even fault Fleischman for saying it.

It gives you a good idea of where the money is in today’s society. It’s bilking the tech set of their hard-earned IPO cash with the promise of helping them reinvent a childhood that was either ruthlessly banal or fucked up enough to push them into coding or corporate finance in the first place.

PBJ.LA's tone deaf attempt to "reinvent" the PB&J as a "disruptive" product begs the questions "why does the PB&J need to be reinvented?" and "why are you disrupting my sanity?" Photo by Dan Johnson.

PBJ.LA's tone deaf attempt to "reinvent" the PB&J as a "disruptive" product begs the questions "why does the PB&J need to be reinvented?" and "why are you disrupting my sanity?" Photo by Dan Johnson.

I’m not a luddite or a nostalgia sycophant by any means. I don’t believe that old necessarily equals better. I just want Los Angeles (and really society at large) to have more nice things that aren’t two-dimensional gimmicks or brazen money-making schemes.

Anyway, you know the rules. It was under $8.72 and even though it was nowhere near filling, the Old Fashioned PB&J did not make me shit myself. So I award PBJ.LA a “1” on the binary.

I would also like to single out the tattooed fellow who works the counter there while also holding down a job at Mel’s Deli. I’ve encountered him twice in the past week. Each time, he’s been genuine, gregarious and professional. He is a gem. He deserves good things from the service industry gods. Bless you. Five stars.


8.72: BBQ King

BBQ King just wasn't meant for Downtown. Or maybe Downtown wasn't meant for BBQ King. Photo by Dan Johnson.

BBQ King just wasn't meant for Downtown. Or maybe Downtown wasn't meant for BBQ King. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

Join me on a jaunt down memory lane.

The year was 2006 and I was a vegetarian. It was my first foray into compassionate dieting. One that ultimately came to grief as the swells of time pushed the flimsy raft of idealism against the shoals of my meat-friendly upbringing.

On the precise six-month anniversary of taking a no-meat pledge, I trucked my happy ass on down to the corner of Figueroa St and Cesar Chavez Ave where the pre-Geoff Palmer intersection was routinely awash with a cloud of mesquite smoke emanating from the many smokers at BBQ King.

I’m a sucker for BBQ. It’s in my blood. When I first moved to Los Angeles, BBQ King was my go-to. Despite their preference for drowning every last shred of product in an obnoxious brown sugar sauce, I found that their commitment to smoking made the meat just as delightful sans sauce.

That’s how it should be done. Eating BBQ without sauce is the true measuring stick of BBQ. Like test driving a car in first gear before shifting it up to fourth. If it doesn’t pass on its own merits, you should not eat it dressed up in liquid flavor.

Sadly, BBQ King’s days at Fig and Chavez were numbered.

In 2008, Eater LA chronicled the joint’s wrecking ball destruction complete with dutiful documentation of the “Fuck Orsini” tag gracing the once proud smokehouse’s exterior.

As silver lining, the crew at BBQ King secured another brick and mortar location on the newly minted Restaurant Row. Not the impressive roster of eateries it is today, the 7th St corridor was then making the tough transition from Carol Schatz pipe dream into be-capitaled reality. BBQ King was but one of many brief interlopers in that process.

It wasn’t a pretty chapter.

The endearingly lackadaisical way with which they carried out business was a source of frustration at the new location. So too was the lack of once abundant parking that made the original a joy to visit. Still more disconcerting was the obvious fact that this smoked BBQ joint was somehow functioning without a smoker.

Their now defunct Yelp is an ugly scrawl of disappointment written in the language of indignant culinary graffito. Much of it speaks to these same frustrations while others spice up the convo with accusations that BBQ King isn’t true Texas BBQ, which is a bit funny given a state that prides itself on individualism and vast geography would probably not have a single homogenous marker for its prime food export.

I went to the 7th St location one too many times before rage quitting after a meal of dry meat drenched in sugar paste landed in my gullet like an anvil. It was a superlative instance of mediocrity. One I had paid too much for. I said sayonara and never looked back. By the time I got the heart to swing back around, it was a corpse of a restaurant with a leasing sign for a tombstone.

Flash forward nearly a decade. I was recently a guest at a catered event with some fairly fantastic BBQ. Lo and behold, it was the work of the fine folks at BBQ King who are alive and well.

Sometimes it's refreshing to go to a place with un-ironic vintage wood paneling. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Sometimes it's refreshing to go to a place with un-ironic vintage wood paneling. Photo by Dan Johnson.

They’ve set up shop at 54th St and Vermont Ave. It is a few short miles and a cultural world away from the current state of Downtown restauranteuring. The location itself is aggressively modest, but in an authentic way. It reminds me less of the uber-polished simulacra of country BBQ joints that typically push the smoked stuff in LA north of the 10 Freeway.

“The Pit” is spelled out in tile on the floor. Un-ironic vintage wood paneling lines the walls along with a television and a crooked photo of Michael Jordan and Kobe. The menu is a vinyl print tacked to the wall. Half of the tables are stacked with chairs.

There is a smoker. That’s all that matters.

$6.75 will get you a sandwich. It’s extra for the sides, which come in a non-standard variety of sizes. The corn bread is not worth calling home over. Stick to the sandwich. If you’re picky, order it without sauce, because that is the dominant taste feature of an ordinary plate here.

The crowd is sparse and a mixed bag of Latino, African-American and white. We take it for granted that smoked, roasted, grilled or fried meat is the true glue with which we bond together otherwise formidable cultural differences.

So too is common hatred a valuable unifier. During lunch, I find myself staring up at a particularly egregious collection of lies, untruths, omissions, careful hedging, politicized hogwash and general slovenly mind-rape executed in a marathon of idiocy by America’s favorite ventriloquist dummy: Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

I maintain that there are no coincidences in this life. The great, unseen cosmic game instills meaning in even the most trivial details. This helps explain why Sarah Huckabee Sanders looks eerily like the human manifestation of a Goomba from Super Mario Brothers. Her mealy-mouthed deceits and appeals to base patriotism are the contemporary political equivalent of a two-dimensional, eight-bit piece of shit that worked decades ago, but stinks of shit as we lift it to our noses today to blow on the cartridge so as to prevent catastrophic freezes in game play.

I’m not alone in my spite. The only other customer at BBQ King is a Latino man who is chowing down on an $11 combo plate with double mac and cheese sides while surreptitiously glugging from a paper bag clad tall boy of Tecate Light. He’s sighing loudly with every slipshod disavowal that spills out of Sanders’ mouth like another loose turd her boss has made her gargle just to see if she can.

We can't let mealy-mouthed members of the Trump orbit get in the way of our enjoyment of BBQ sandwiches. That would be disrespectful to our country. Photo by Dan Johnson.

We can't let mealy-mouthed members of the Trump orbit get in the way of our enjoyment of BBQ sandwiches. That would be disrespectful to our country. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Our takeaways are a bit different. I see the moral degeneracy the Puritans feared accelerated by complacent thinking, educational ineptitude and the asinine force multiplier that is mass media. My meal-mate sees betrayal. “You can’t trust nobody,” he chirps. On my way out, his parting thought is, “anything can happen—you gotta look over your shoulder.”

That’s about as close to the centerline of American thought as you will get today. This is a fundamentally moderate and popular opinion spoken in a restaurant that represents the mean.

It is not pretty. It seems almost barely chugging along. It is surrounded by a burned-out church and row after row of early twentieth century bungalows in various states of repair that testify to the drawn-out process of fading hopes that separates our 1900 ambitions for a prosperous 360-degree city from the reality of a post-modern metropolis in a fractured world.

In retrospect, BBQ King was not exceptional enough to participate in the Downtown rebirth. It wasn’t a prize-winning gem that online outlets raved about and lunch-hour sycophants were drawn to like moths to a flame. That’s what our city center requires now—extraordinary status. Without it, you’re a goner. A flash in the pan. A coulda, shoulda, woulda.

It’s an interesting thing to build a city off of. Los Angeles mythos is steeped in the fact that the best and most exciting things will rise here while the average will disappear into obscurity. Many of us support that narrative, because we like to imagine we are the best and most exciting ourselves. Mostly though, we are tepid and forgettable so we affiliate with wondrous things so we can hide our shortcomings in plain sight beneath the glow of a lauded other.

Still, there is always that gnawing feeling as if ours is not the real world and the bubble will burst one day and we too will appear as we truly are—less than electric and just fine despite it.

The cosmic game is not about sprinting forward to snatch divinity from the jaws of destiny, but enduring quietly in our own way amidst a scene whose dynamic qualities promise little but eventual oblivion and an opportunity to serve up our own modest smoked goods with the time we have.

I award BBQ King a “1” on the binary and offer a moment of silence to honor their resilience.  


8.72: Juanita's Cafe vs. Tacos Acapulco

In the blue corner.... JUANITA'S CAFE!!! Photo by Dan Johnson.

In the blue corner.... JUANITA'S CAFE!!! Photo by Dan Johnson.

In the red corner...TACOS ACAPULCO!!! Photo by Dan Johnson.

In the red corner...TACOS ACAPULCO!!! Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

Juanita, you cunning fox.

I was all jazzed to chronicle an on-going food war between two similar restaurants on opposite sides of the seven hundred block of South Broadway. I could practically taste the lede: “Juanita’s Café v. Tacos Acapulco—First Wave Taquerias Pull No Punches!”

Alas, I and many others have been had. There is no rivalry. Only quiet and somewhat confusing collusion. Juanita’s is Tacos Acapulco. Tacos Acapulco is Juanita’s.

Your first hint that all is not as it seems comes with careful attention to subliminal paint schemes. Each of the establishments in question has its interior painted off-orange like some kind of not-quite-ripe pumpkin.

Next in the litany of suspicious coincidences is the identical taste of the carne asada and al pastor at both Juanita’s and Tacos Acapulco. The flavor profiles suggest they were prepared by the same hands in the very same batch. The carne asada is tender, flavorful and not at all gristly (***cough cough*** Casa India). The al pastor is salt-rich and imbued with a certain chorizo-ish crumble texture.

These beautiful, affordable and delicious tacos are the main attraction at Juanita's Cafe... or is it Tacos Acapulco...it doesn't really matter because it's actually the same. Photo by Dan Johnson.

These beautiful, affordable and delicious tacos are the main attraction at Juanita's Cafe... or is it Tacos Acapulco...it doesn't really matter because it's actually the same. Photo by Dan Johnson.

I knew conclusively that something was up when I approached the register at Tacos Acapulco and found the cashier wearing a Juanita’s apron and matching hat. Even when the woman confirmed that the two are but different hands of the same body, I doubted.

After all, there is a not insignificant price disparity between the two. At Juanita’s, three tacos ran $6. Down towards 8th St and across Broadway, that same meal (plus cucumber garnish) cost me a meager $4.50.

The only thing I can figure is that Juanita (if there is even a Juanita, which I highly doubt given the high caliber deception preferred by this organization) has wisely coopted all taco-pushers on the same block. Like the Democrats and the Republicans, she offers the appearance of choice while pushing the same product at both places.

The only difference between Juanita and our fine nation’s esteemed political parties is that Juanita’s product is actually good, which is a nice change of pace. You can get the same delightful meat on flat corn with cebolla at a cinderblock shack where “Hello” by Adele blasts intermittently or you can pay a bit more and enjoy the same delightful cuisine across the street where the airy Juanita’s celebrates its new annex with cheap decorations and high ceilings.

Ordinarily, I’d let well enough go. Especially given that I received exemplary service at each place and feasted on some delightful meats (try the pollo at Juanita’s or the cabeza at Acapulco for a little variety).

Like a glitch in the matrix, I can’t let go of that nagging wonder in my heart that wants to reconcile why one would be so much cheaper than the other. Is décor really that much of a premium? Is the Juanita consortium trying to pay off the new expansion by jacking rates at one location only? Why would someone eat at Juanita’s when the same meal costs significantly less across the street?

Perhaps the spacious interior and multi-colored flags at Juanita's Cafe are what justify the higher price point than her across-the-street sister Tacos Acapulco. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Perhaps the spacious interior and multi-colored flags at Juanita's Cafe are what justify the higher price point than her across-the-street sister Tacos Acapulco. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Someone sketch it out for me. I’m having Jim Garrison heart palpitations trying to figure out why Lee Harvey Oswald’s Fair Play for Cuba Committee at 544 Camp Street was actually the same building that housed Fed arch anti-Communist Guy Bannister at 531 Lafayette. Add it up!

We’re wildly off topic now. I apologize. I have a deep scorpionic need to reveal the hidden cosmic relations between seemingly unrelated things. It’s in my nature.

The important take away is that both Tacos Acapulco and Juanita’s Café offer excellent tacos. If you want to pay a bit extra and sit in a brightly lit dining room with high backed wood furniture and traditional music, go to Juanita’s. If you’re content to sit on busted naugahyde chairs in a tiny structure that feels as if it’s going to pancake with the slightest tremblor, Tacos Acapulco is your jam.

I award both a “1” on the binary while quietly noting that Juanita has the upper hand.


Q&A: Tony Noceti of 720


Engaging Physically Through Community: Building A Multimedia Platform in DTLA
A Q&A with Tony Noceti of 720

With 720, Tony Noceti has created an ever-evolving multimedia arts platform that includes projects in print media, apparel, photography, design, street art and archiving. We caught up with him at his studio at Spring St and 5th St to talk about his influences, practice and plans for the future.:

GDT: How long have you been Downtown?

TN: I moved down here in 2007.

GDT: You’ve hit ten years! We should call this A Decade in Downtown: the Tony Noceti Story.

TN: It really snuck up on me! And I never originally thought I’d move down here let alone stay for ten years. I was in the apparel manufacturing industry up in the Bay Area where I grew up, but then I started getting work in LA, so I moved into Santee Court for about 3 years. Plus I was in the skate and surf world, and I found such a strong community of that here. Those years offered a beautiful introduction to the city. The vibe of the city struck a chord right off the bat.

GDT: How did 720 come about?

TN: 720 came about when I transitioned out of [working in] apparel. I always had this inner fire burning to make art, in different forums and mediums. But it was always just a hobby. I then hit a transitional period - I left fashion, was out of a long relationship, and decided I wanted to more fully pursue a relationship with the city and with art. I started doing a lot of 35mm photography around the city, utilizing what and who I knew in fashion, and starting using social media - which at that time was just really booming as a tool for artists to share work. But I wasn’t feeling fully fulfilled through the internet.

GDT: 720 plays on the Metro Rapid Bus line 720, and Metro buses’ design principles, which creates a very localized iconography. How did the 720 bus become an influence for you?

TN: I started taking the 720 bus every day in the morning to Lafayette Skate Park, where I was engaging myself with this very tight circle within the LA community. It took a long time for me to be accepted into that group of people who are very indigenous to the area, but through that I became more aware of our shared environment, like public transit. So one day I was taking the bus, and I looked up at the bus map, liking its design sensibility, the way its maps are printed and folded, and I wanted to play on that. 720 seemed like a perfect symbol for me to share my work and others who share in this urban experience.

GDT: How did 720 grow to become a shared printing platform?

TN: By engaging physically through the community. And not having any revenue generating initiative attached to it. That really messed with people. It was so much fun. It’s all part of this art inspiration I’ve gotten from Andy Warhol, from the New York art scene, which has shaped my life here in the studio, here at 5th and Spring St. All the work we’ve produced really attracted this whole city kid art aesthetic, which has become more and more the focus.

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GDT: Speaking of these “city kids”, you’re amidst starting a practice aimed towards young artists here.

TN: Yes, Young City Arts. I want to bring young, talented artists through, help curate their works, and use it to reflect the culture that the project is rooted in. And not just here in Downtown LA, but this being a post-internet day, we’re very tied to other major cities. It’s an opportunity to take the creative output of 720, put it in the hands of young people, and spread it farther and make it relatable in other cities. 

Through 720, we’ve been archiving work for a long time. We want to honor the place and time that this project exists in and what that experience of life looks like. They’re gonna look back at this work they created in this time and place, and what it was like taking initiative, being inspired by such beauty around.

GDT: Sounds like prepackaged nostalgia.

TN: It’s very romantic, yes. We have archives of work here in the studio, I upload their stuff online and on Youtube, we produce booklets and distribute special projects for other liaisons of work like Get Down Town. It’s been a very collective experience.

GDT: What is currently the most difficult part of actualizing your dream in Downtown?

TN: The financial aspects. It’s been really hard, I’ve had to mostly wait tables my whole time here in order to advance the goals of this projects. And there’s a lot of production equipment needs to maintain - my ability to print, screenprint, manufacture, archive. It all adds up. The other is my time. I wish I had the capital to do this full time and really explore the trajectories that exist if I could devote all my time to it.

GDT: Do you worry that 720 and this project will eventually get pushed out of Downtown?

TN: We have such a creative city here, and space here, and sometimes that can feel like we’re competing with each other for this place. I try within my practice to consciously not invest myself in exactly where I sit. But I don’t know if the concept will ever get pushed out. I hope it inspires others elsewhere to do things. And maybe someone will beat me to the punch of what I’m aiming to create here. But to me, the ideas behind the project are rooted in such love and infatuation, and when you come from that place, you’re just fluid.



8.72: Loss-Leaders

Ledlow's happy hour burger and beer special seems like it was designed with 8.72 in mind. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Ledlow's happy hour burger and beer special seems like it was designed with 8.72 in mind. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

Josef Centeno has a van. Not just any van, but a tremendous black rig with a custom paint job that makes it look like it belongs to an early ‘80s power metal band.

Like Glenn Close in Hook, I did not believe in Josef Centeno. You will excuse me while I fold myself into the proverbial boo-box.

Now that I look back on it, my initial non-faith in Centeno had less to do with the man himself. More the outright gush that surrounded his ascent to Old Bank District acclaim. There’s also the prickly matter of Tom Gilmore using Centeno’s rocket-like ascent to cull a block of businesses I enjoyed.

Circumstances aside, the prima facie of the issue is hard to ignore: Centeno has a gift for food. Most of this cuisine is out of the $8.72 price range. Especially over at Orsa & Winston (the former Rocket Pizza) where a meal is equivalent to a few months’ worth of $8.72s.

Recently a sandwich board sign appeared outside of Ledlow (neé Pete’s). During Happy Hour, all are invited to partake in an eight-dollar beer and burger special. Like a leg-hock hanging conspicuously amidst the vegetative landscape of the forest moon Endor, I found the temptation too great to resist.

From 5pm to 7pm, you too can bask in this demi-meal. It isn’t a jumbo burger and the beer is a house-selected Abita Amber. Unless you’ve had lapband surgery, this will likely not fill you up for the night. Still, it’s a hell of a deal.

A burger and a beer for $8 isn't the best deal the author has ever seen, but it is for a Centeno place and it definitely lured him inside. Photo by Dan Johnson.

A burger and a beer for $8 isn't the best deal the author has ever seen, but it is for a Centeno place and it definitely lured him inside. Photo by Dan Johnson.

The whole point of this experiment in cheap eats is not to indulge in punitive politics or poverty porn. There’s enough of that already. The idea is to document and encourage the creation of a viable middle ground, by which people of all stripes inherit a neighborhood stocked with things they can afford.

At Ledlow and many other dining establishments many would ordinarily associate with “gentrification,” there is an abundance of loss-leaders to be had. Thanks to the owners and managers who program a modicum of affordability on to the menu. It’s nice to have a frugal option.

The loss-leader is a long cherished tool of commerce. Bring rubes in for a product that doesn’t net much profit and you will inherently fill your coffers with up-charges, add-ons, returned business and proximity purchases.

It’s cold logic that yields a larger neurological benefit here in Downtown where the boundaries between haves and have-nots feels stark. Tucked away deep within all of our noggins is an amygdala and hippocampus duo that tends to the creation of emotional memory. More than any other region of gray matter, these two crucial entities are subject to degeneration as a result of psychological trauma. With prolonged exposure to duress or sharp snaps of tragedy, these function centers can deteriorate.

It doesn’t take a grand horror to chip away at the hippocampus. I suspect month after month of culinary drudgery punctuated with occasional forays into the unsavory greasy spoons chronicled hereabouts can and will do damage to human mental hardware.

Properly employed, the loss-leader can be a tremendous antidote. Even if you’re not ordering top flight menu items, there is an opportunity to hide away for a few minutes and receive a decent helping of food for around eight dollars.

Over at Everson Royce Bar, you can snag a biscuit (really three biscuits) that are incredibly fresh and fluffy without the burdensome feeling as if you’ve just injected refined white flour into your bloodstream. In terms of food volume, you’ll get more bang for your buck with the Colonel, but the superlative biscuit is not to be overlooked.

Superlative biscuits at Everson Royce Bar are cheaper than they should be given the overall chi-chi atmosphere of Everson Royce Bar...perfect for 8.72. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Superlative biscuits at Everson Royce Bar are cheaper than they should be given the overall chi-chi atmosphere of Everson Royce Bar...perfect for 8.72. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Across Downtown along the concrete banks of the 110 Freeway, the Wilshire Grand-adjacent Harbor House will gladly sling you a half serving sandwich with a fresh salad drenched in a robust citrus dressing that tastes like it was made by an actual chef with the intention of nourishing actual human beings, not preservative-fiend cylons walking dead-eyed amidst the horrorscape of the urban 21st century.

Happy Hour at Stocking Frame at 9th St and Hill St or Engine Co. 28 at Wilshire Blvd and Figueroa St means you can take down a variety of sub-8.72 offerings in a restaurant setting that is typically beyond the financial purview of us cheapskates. Have a water and take your time.

Those seeking less refined (and possibly intoxication-friendly) digs are encouraged to get some tater tots at Arts District Brewing or an absolutely stellar $3.50 bacon and cheese pretzel at Mumford Brewing. If you’re in Skidrokyo already, you may as well pound down an order of unlikely, but delicious, buffalo mushrooms at the Escondite.

Meanwhile on Spring St, Saturday mornings find the Down and Out offering up a complimentary breakfast buffet for those who buy a drink. Miller High Life is $3 all day, every day. Do the math.

There is a treasure trove of low cost food in Downtown geared to lure you in off the street. Assuming you have the discipline not to overindulge, there are ample opportunities to eat, drink, be merry or wallow in your own misery without eating like too much of an asshole.

I award all participants in the novel concept of loss-leadership a “1” on the binary and doff my cap.


8.72: Yuko Soup Bar

In Downtown it's all about managing expectations. Photo by Dan Johnson.

In Downtown it's all about managing expectations. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

I received a large and glossy advertisement from FryMadness in the mail the other day. I’ve known the frou-frou potato spot from the visionaries who decided to name their Los Angeles café after a season in a city 3,000 miles away was coming for quite a while. The foresight didn’t help me to answer that lingering question “why?”

They say you should dress for the job you want. Here in the New Downtown, some Svengali or another has convinced restaurant owners to dress for the Spring St they want. However divorced from reality it may be.

Even as the corpse of Artisan House decomposes a block away, FryMadness offers a selection of bougie fried spuds that have Yelpers raving. Many have flooded in with the customary five star reviews that come after you have a friends and family night with a red carpet.

I’m a little hung up on the $11-30 price range and the 5:30pm open time. Still, it’s not my problem. Do what thou wilt, FryMadness.

The strong likelihood is that no one actually gives a shit what I have to say. Given that I have this platform on which to spew opinions no one actually gives a shit about, I’ll just go out and say it: the new name of the game here in Downtown and elsewhere across America is managing expectations.

I love the way expensive food tastes. Truly. But anyone asking stadium prices for rebooted interpretations of things that should cost under five dollars needs to understand that they’re gambling on the sort of prosperity that doesn’t always materialize or last. Drive on up to Clovis and ask Tabachines what I’m talking about.

It’s nice to think you’ll reinvent the way the world sees _____ in Downtown Los Angeles, but it’s even better to create a democratic product that people can afford to buy with regularity during somewhat reasonable business hours.

Incidentally, I was heartened to see Yuko Kitchen open up a soup spot on 5th St. I know food writers aren’t supposed to review a place right when it opens, but one out of ten food writers polled called me an irrelevant clown with the other nine responding, “who the fuck is Dan Johnson?”

Without the burden of a professional reputation choking me at the gullet like some toxic albatross, I went and got some hot soup to help wash down the summer heat wave.

Full disclosure: I don’t enjoy Yuko Kitchen. This isn’t a judgement, just a subjective statement. Everyone else loves Yuko. I’ve ordered everything that trusted friends have gushed over and found it all disappointing. But I’m me. I have persnickety tastes. Also possibly a spiritual defect. I do, after all, despise the Beatles.

(The Beatles are the epitome of lukewarm to me. I don’t care for them, nor the way people fawn over them as if they invented electric light. One more thing and I’ll let it be: nothing offends my sensibility more than the false sanctimony of that wishful thinking opus that is John Lennon’s “Imagine.” It’s the one song that has instilled the most unreasonable expectations on the Western World. Nice as it may be to imagine a world without hate and greed, it’s probably smarter to reconcile your utopian visions with the reality of a planet that has never been without either. Which is not to say that there’s something fundamentally wrong with being a dreamer. Fine by me. It’s the expectation that because the rich guy who got shot to death outside of his fancy New York City apartment told you we should live in utopia, that’s what we’re all going to get one day. Sheesh.)

Again, I’m me and you’re you. Gauge accordingly. I’m delighted that Yuko makes so many of you happy, while maintaining a toe hold of sanity at 5th St and Main St. Really, truly – thank you for that.

A few times this weekend, I cupped my brow and pressed my face to the glass at their new soup spot on 5th St. It looked great. Cheap food with a decent threshold of nutrition is a big win for the Nickel.

I kept fixating on a $6.50 bowl of soup that featured an impossible amount of side items. Unfortunately, this was my turn to manage expectations.

The soup + salad/rice + choice of meat or tofu or avocado offering was not, in fact, $6.50. (The actual $6.50 menu item was a plain bowl of soup).

General rule of thumb: don't plan your day around confusingly placed prices on handwritten wall menus. Photo by Dan Johnson.

General rule of thumb: don't plan your day around confusingly placed prices on handwritten wall menus. Photo by Dan Johnson.

That whole other package went for ten bucks. Tack on fifty cents worth of jalapenos and fifty cents worth of crispy wontons and we’re well above $8.72. $12.08 was the grand total. I went ahead and tipped a dollar on the off chance that the hundred cents would somehow dissipate my grimace.

I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, lady. You’ve got a variety of soups and I’m happy you’re doing what you’re doing. I’ll eat my humble pie.

The vegetable miso soup was stocked with onions, tomatoes, zucchini and mushrooms. I recognize the flavor as reminiscent of the twelve bean gulag soup my mother used to make in the dead of winter for us to feast on for two weeks straight while I watched and rewatched a VHS copy of Jeremiah Johnson and thought to myself “gee, I’m sure glad people don’t have to live like this anymore” while a smaller, deeper seated, more convincing part of my being kept admonishing me, “just you wait, fucker—the 21st century will be a cruel mistress.”

Fond memories.

Anywho, I know for a fact that this brand of base nutrition can sustain low-metabolism human life through the drudgery of winter months. It may not foster a sense of joy or exuberance, but you’ll stay nice and scurvy free. Mostly, as we approach spiritual nadir, that’s what we need.

My experience was skewed as I went ahead and consumed the full twelve dollar ration. Robust as the soup alone may have been, I doubt it’s enough to keep me going through the day without having my hanger flare up. That’s the thing, though. I don’t need to be blown away. I just need something to keep me going.

People are always griping at me for not being optimistic enough. “Set a positive intention, Dan, and wonderful things will materialize!” Yeah? Did you set the intention of having a nickel dictator attempt to subvert the United States from the inside out while world order decayed around him and the stark contrasts between the elite upper crust and the rest of us pee-ons widened and the earth set out to destroy us like the virus we are? Because that’s what The Secret got you.

I prefer to assume shitty things are going to happen so I’m not overwhelmed or shocked when they do. The management of expectations makes life so much easier.

Yuko Soup Bar is not going to reinvent broth. You won’t see stock differently for having eaten here. On the up side, there are five flavorful varieties of vegetable laden liquid with which to ensure your enduring survival here amidst the great wonder we call humanity. Have some.

I award Yuko Soup Bar a "1" on the binary and congratulate myself for no Seinfeld references.


8.72: Taste of Fifth Street

7-Eleven — a prolific producer of 5th St dystopia porn — was the author's final stop on his inaugural "Taste of Fifth Street" gastronomy tour. Photo by Dan Johnson.

7-Eleven — a prolific producer of 5th St dystopia porn — was the author's final stop on his inaugural "Taste of Fifth Street" gastronomy tour. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

While many of you packed into Row LA this weekend to sample a cornucopia of culinary delicacies at Smorgasbord, I embarked on a different journey into local food.

The inaugural Taste of Fifth Street was an informal opportunity to peruse the gastro-wonderland that is the stretch of 5th St between the Metro stop at Pershing Square and Broadway. Three food locations go largely neglected thanks in no small part to the perpetual dystopia porn unfolding on that lively block.

First stop on my west to east cheap-o tour was Jacky’s Restaurant. Whether the “B” in the door was a grim warning or a subtle homage to the 2005 Houston Astros was uncertain. What I can confirm is that I’ve walked past Jacky’s hundreds of times and never thought to patronize it.

There’s a stigma here. Bad things happen here. The cops are here too often. Then again, there’s another school of thought that says the cops aren’t here enough. Either way the cookie crumbles, the bare bones interior at Jacky’s does not inspire the level of confidence I would ordinarily need to sit and spend a few minutes.

Yet, I’ve been lusting after the $7 four taquitos con arroz y frijoles special advertised in the window. With an eye toward self-preservation, I opted for the papa filling over the pollo because one has sustained the Irish for millennia and the other comes with a stigma for salmonella.

The wind began to luff out of my sails almost immediately as the counter-man announced a seven-dollar total then gave me twelve dollars change off a twenty-dollar bill. Bad arithmetic skills or subtle grift? You decide!

The Taste of Fifth Street is not for the impatient or picky, so I pocketed my suspicions and settled in for what was ultimately a delightful little meal. Nothing tasted rancid. The red sauce was delicious. The papas were perfectly cooked.

The potato taquitos at Jacky's proved to be colon-friendly, cost effective and perfectly cooked. Photo by Dan Johnson. 

The potato taquitos at Jacky's proved to be colon-friendly, cost effective and perfectly cooked. Photo by Dan Johnson. 

If you’re not put off by the lethal overtones of passing street traffic or the décor that has clearly been purloined from other, now defunct businesses—give Jacky’s a shot.

Just to be crystal clear, I spaced out each meal by a few hours on the off chance that one would make me shit my brains out. It’s important to know where guilt falls. Four hours after my Jacky’s dalliance, I felt no colon quivers whatsoever.

For the sake of this review, let’s call the next establishment “Espresso Bar.” It doesn’t have an actual name posted on it. Nor does it have a business listing online. It may as well not exist, which seems to be a selling point for the clientele.

At $5.99, the half pasta plate offers a slightly less than adequate portion of whichever generic house pasta style you would like. I ordered the #3, which is actually the #2 sauce. This took a little bit of careful negotiation to get right. Now that I think of it, I could very well have gotten the #3 sauce, which is actually the #4.

None of this matters. The real selling point here is the opportunity for making new friends. A jovial fellow across from me was enjoying his first Boba ever. We bonded after he wondered aloud if he should drink the little balls at the bottom of the drink.

Everywhere else in America, this query would be greeted by a roast. “Jesus, you dope, they served it to you! Of course it’s edible.” Alas, this is Downtown Los Angeles and his survival instinct was well honed.

I had a damn enjoyable time with my new friend. He was exactly the sort of overly candid, salt of the earth presence I used to really savor in Downtown. Mostly gone, I was delighted to have spotted one in the wild. Bless you, sir.

Alas, the pasta was not great. Ambiguously flavored and imbued with that unsettling crunch that soft pasta should not have, I found it to be slightly burdensome. On the plus side—it was not objectionable to my intestines.

The pasta at the place that may or may not be named "Espresso Bar" is unquestionably better than Pestolini's offering down the street — in fact, most edible things are. Photo by Dan Johnson.

The pasta at the place that may or may not be named "Espresso Bar" is unquestionably better than Pestolini's offering down the street — in fact, most edible things are. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Last on the pain train was perhaps the most worrisome monument to dubious edibility available in Downtown. 7-Eleven. It had been years since I’d last wandered in. After all, this place is fucked.

If a fluke fatal bus crash isn’t a major warning from the fates that you should stay away from an establishment, I don’t know what is. Hell, I got another warning last week as I strolled down 5th St in front of a pack of overly gregarious young women who looked eerily out of place in their rompers.

Not out of place was their uniform high spirit. There are many manic people here, but most of the others are spiritually prepared for the security guard at 7-Eleven to bust out the door and start indiscriminately spraying liquid habanero at a man who had just stolen a Gatorade. The look of disbelief on these girls’ faces after they found themselves in the splash zone was a true Taste of Fifth Street.

Conscious of the 50/50 chance of being fucked on a whim inside, I made quick moves to snag two slices of pizza. You don’t have a choice of toppings here. Well, check that—you can choose to peel off the awful looking ham and sausage. The logic at the 7-Eleven hot food counter is “you should take all of the protein you can.”

And take I did! $2.43 later, I was outside chatting it up. It was fifteen minutes until maximum eclipse and at least one individual was staring directly at the sun with only two pairs of sunglasses to protect his eyes. A woman scooted up in a wheelchair to ask if I could get her a cup for her ice. I offered her the pizza instead, at which she immediately scoffed. She’d been hurt before.

Once across the street, another individual in a 94.7 The Wave shirt spotted the cardboard pizza triangle and immediately made me for an idiot. His pitch was necessarily direct—he needed $2.71 for a pint because he was on the edge of the Delirium Tremens. At $2.71, Delirium Tremens has easily the cheapest remedy for possible death of any ailment. Still cheaper is not binge drinking to begin with.

Despite what you hear on the internet, I am not a total dickcheese, asshole, chode farm, turd bucket, weasel. Only partial. In keeping with that distinction, I gave the man my pizza. Now that I think of it, he probably didn’t eat it. Because carbs only soak up alcohol. That would be counterproductive.  

The kicker of the 7-Eleven pizza was that it tasted better than the much more expensive pizza up the street at Pestolini. Sorry to keep beating that dead horse.

I’ll call Taste of Fifth Street a rousing success. My stomach is no worse for the wear. My wallet is not that much lighter. My spirits are lifted now that a once obscure pocket of local dining has been revealed to suck much less than initially suspected.

My only regret is that the cafeteria turned rat-trap at Fallas Paredes had to close years ago due to rampant drug dealing. That would have been a lovely 8.72 capstone.

I award each “restaurant” a “1” on the binary and give Jacky’s the Klonopin Cup for Excellence.


8.72: Café Feliz

If you are going to Café Feliz, prepare to perspire. Photo by Dan Johnson.

If you are going to Café Feliz, prepare to perspire. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

Café Feliz is the hottest restaurant in town.

Despite an array of fans and what appears to be a serviceable hood, the aggressively modest grill top at 8th St and Towne Ave is a blast furnace that makes that sunny eighty-six-degree day outside feel like an Antarctic vacation.

Café Feliz works on an unorthodox system by which whosoever happens to be behind the counter at any given moment takes your order and then cooks it up. This is a testament to both the versatility of their staff and the extreme discomfort of standing in their fire and brimstone kitchen area.

Both employees are drenched in sweat. There is a dehydration threshold at which a person can still function effectively, but the niceties that lubricate social grace are greatly diminished. The woman does not fawn over me. Nor does she seem excited to tend to the creation of my $2.50 breakfast burrito.

Bless her buttons, the cellophane shrouded assemblage of cheese, egg and microwave-warmed tortilla comes with all due alacrity. For an extra $1.50 I pick up a Mineragua and adjourn outside to the makeshift table that is actually a (rare) functioning payphone.

Even the burritos are sweaty at Café Feliz. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Even the burritos are sweaty at Café Feliz. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Above the restaurant comes the churn of dozens of sewing machines. The building is home to a plethora of textile and clothing manufacturers. This is bedrock Americana. Even despite the glut of factories that have become maquiladoras in other countries across the globe, America’s need for inexpensive garments outweighs the fiscal convenience of advantageous import markets.

For over a century and a half, the barren districts of American cities have been festooned with these no-frills establishments. To be fair, the term “sweatshop” is a neologism dating to mid-19th century London. It may as well have been coined this year in reference to the host of anonymous semi-industrial spaces north of 9th St where the chatter of trotting needles and whirling bobbins nearly outweighs the Doppler roar of the passing buses the staff uses to arrive at our modern-day Lowell.

The demographic is working class and largely Latino. Low wages exacerbate low social agency. This is, by and large, a cross section of voiceless people who rarely appear in history books. They meet a very real need in our economy and fill in vast, undocumented plots of land in the metaphorical tapestry that is America.

Café Feliz exists to serve these people. The food is priced relative to low wage labor. The menu is compiled with an eye toward a certain no-frills sensibility. They sell Aspirin and Tylenol in the space other places reserve for their “People Love Us on Yelp” sticker.

Don’t get used to it. Here in the Fashion District, the times they are a-changin’.

A few hours before I popped into Café Feliz, the fine folks at Urbanize announced a sixty unit live/work adaptive use project for the building at 8th St and Towne Ave. This should be considered de rigueur for the foreseeable future. Textile factories are nowhere near as alluring to building owners than the prospect of covetable housing bulwarked by ground floor restaurant/retail space.

This too is America—the constant reworking of existing landscapes to the gain of some, the detriment of others and the possible apathy of those who are completely disgusted by the prospect of sweating through another day making four dollar huevos rancheros.

You needn’t wander more than a block south of Café Feliz to really get a good glimpse at the future. The zone of fashion retail beneath 9th St is the Downtown equivalent of stumbling a NASA rover finding The Grove on Mars. How did this end up here?  

Long avenues named after railroad magnates now house an impressive display of tony garment purveyors that make Santee Alley look like a trailer park. Nearly every store has a “help wanted” sign out front. Inside staggering arcades crowned with aerial sculpture, broad outdoor thoroughfares are lined with posh retail outlets that keep their doors open so the fresh air conditioning rolls out into the summer heat.

If you didn’t know any better, you might wonder why all of Downtown wasn’t this clean and prosperous.

Maybe it's these string lights and LA Public Library-esque aerial sculpture that make the Fashion District look like a luxury shopper's paradise, but be warned – it's all a façade. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Maybe it's these string lights and LA Public Library-esque aerial sculpture that make the Fashion District look like a luxury shopper's paradise, but be warned – it's all a façade. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Hey, no judgement, but this is a façade. One facilitated by an aggressive Fashion District BID and an LAPD substation at 12th St and Crocker St. More importantly, the whole area is a one-dimensional hub for sales and shipping. Stop through during off-hours and you’ll feel as if you’ve entered a ghost down.

Those eager to look behind the proverbial curtain should stroll through with an eye toward cuisine. The lunchtime concentration of taco trucks and stands is astounding. They represent fully 90% of the food options in the new Fashion District.

Elsewhere you can grab generic Sysco fare at Café Anzio or at bare bones panini outlet Wien on 12th St.

Then there’s Q Café at 12th St and Paloma St. This is very clearly where the owners come to dine. Everything inside the tiny hideout is painted black including the ceiling. The menu is written in Korean with English in parenthesis.

For a mere four dollars, I pick up an order of “Toast on the Street.” Unfortunately service is molasses slow and a French Bulldog in a shame-cone occupies the lone open seat in the room. So I shuffle around trying to pretend as if I belong in the Fashion District, which I clearly don’t because I don’t smell like cologne and freshly unwrapped clothing.

They sense this weakness and hone in.

When I eventually come to rest in a spare stool, an imposing and chic Korean woman comes to stand over me. “Did I take your chair?” I ask. “Are you take out?” she replies. Well, moving on…

Next on the docket of places to pass twenty-five awkward minutes spent suspecting that my order has been forgotten is a counter space situated at perfect lean-against height. No, Dan. That’s for take-out orders.

I briefly adjourn to the bathroom under the pretense of washing my hands. It smells like a Florida hotel room after Spring Break—Marlboro red smoke, bleach and humidity.

Finally, almost thirty minutes into the game as I managed to claim a now abandoned chair, the cashier apologizes profusely, takes my ticket into the kitchen and hands me an iced tea to compensate for my inconvenience.

“I don’t drink Iced Tea,” I say. “You’re welcome,” she responds.

Not knowing how to counter what appears to be an elaborate production staged by an absurdist hidden camera crew, I go ahead and dine outdoors where the utter lack of seating is a fair price to pay for not having to interact with these humans anymore.

It seems likely that Q Café's lack of seating is the inspiration for their "Toast on the Street" menu item. Photo by Dan Johnson.

It seems likely that Q Café's lack of seating is the inspiration for their "Toast on the Street" menu item. Photo by Dan Johnson.

As it turns out, the food is fantastic. There’s a savory jam coating a perfectly browned slab of egg and vegetables between two pieces of sandwich-paper wrapped white bread. Also, the tea is pretty good.

Consider this the taste of a new Fashion District that operates in ways I’ll liken to basic meteorology. When a high pressure system abuts a low pressure system, there will be a storm.

It’s apparent that the development gale has begun. To what end or benefit is uncertain. We can dicker about the morality of redevelopment until the cows come home, but for those who live or work in proximity to Café Feliz please consider this a warning.

Hurricane’s a-comin’. Stock up on breakfast burritos, Mineragua and Tylenol Extra Strength while you can.

I award Café Feliz and Q Café each a highly-coveted “1 on the binary.


8.72: Casa India

Casa India on Broadway came highly recommended to the author. His experience was...noteworthy. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Casa India on Broadway came highly recommended to the author. His experience was...noteworthy. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

As a quick prelude, let me just clarify for all of you who are new to the 8.72.

I’ve written this weekly column for the last year and change because I harbor a strong belief that inexpensive, but tasty food is the mortar that holds together a functioning society.

I do not delight in Hershey-squirting all over restaurants and their ownership. This column is not an outlet for my sadism. Nor is it a place for troll screeds.

If you peruse the last year of 8.72, I think you’ll find that I bend over backwards to find something acceptable in every cheap-o joint I review. It’s a challenge some weeks, but I give my approval to restaurants with the same spirit of generosity with which Big 10 professors hand out passing grades to corn-fed offensive linemen.

Moreover, I neither need nor want lackluster restaurant experiences in my life. Money’s tight and so is my patience. I would much rather have the opportunity to write about a decent meal others will enjoy while delving into some larger aspect of the human experience than take time out of my day to explain why a restaurant is on death’s doorstep.

With that in mind, let me just say for the record that the carne asada burrito I ate at Casa India on Sunday was the worst thing I have ever paid to eat in Downtown Los Angeles.

Given last week’s brush with spiritual death over a Pestolini semi-edible discus, I figured I might as well round out coverage of 4th and Broadway.

Casa India is one of those iconic little hovels that feels as if it’s been a fixture of Downtown dining since long before my time on this earth. It’s habitually occupied by a crew of men and women peering up at futbol on a pair of TVs carefully mounted so as not to give an inch of entertainment to people other than paying customers.

Talk to Casa India loyalists and they’ll gush about the place in a vernacular of superlatives. It has made a lot of people happy over the years. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people.

My dining experience peaked in the moments before I entered the restaurant. The annual Peruvian pride parade was crawling up Broadway. One of Casa India’s customers, a chubby man with bleary eyes floating above a Modelo stained powder blue polo was standing directly in front of the last car in the parade.

He was stumbling through a dance of his own creation. Equal parts seizure, Madonna homage and prelude to an inevitable vomit session, the dance was greeted by nervous grimaces from the Peruvians and loud hoots from his fellow Casa India customers. What a greeting.

The dining room is defined by crookedly hung scenic portraiture and a ceiling ridge of fluorescent lights that are mostly burned out. In the darkened back end by the bathrooms, a regular room fan is positioned next to a window air conditioning unit so as to maximize the cooling power of both.

A prominent Spanish language sign alerting customers to a new house policy by which customers are limited to six beers with their meal was cause for alarm.

If only they had a sign with a backstory to this sign. Photo by Dan Johnson.

If only they had a sign with a backstory to this sign. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Just what the hell happened to inspire this fiat from management? My guess: inebriation, misplaced rage and eventually sorrow. Soon, I would know plenty about the latter two.

Let’s just pretend, for the sake of this 8.72, that the waitress didn’t take one look at me and decide I was a schmuck not worthy of her time. Let’s not get mired in that aspect. Let’s assume that she has a naturally dour disposition and a tendency toward a way of speech that could be misconstrued as passive aggressive. Failing that, let’s just agree that maybe she had other shit pressing on her mind—a pending root canal or forthcoming estimated tax payment, for instance.  

In the moments before the tin foil wrapped turd muffin plopped on the table in front of me, I worked through the mental rolodex of friends who had spoken so highly of Casa India. Numerous parties have expressed its near-divinity. It was pitched to me as seven dollars worth of holy sabor.

As I struggled to ingest the tortilla tube of gristle beef and flatulent rice, I briefly envisioned every person who had thought to recommend Casa India. Fixing their faces in my mind one at a time, I meditated on the word “betrayal.”

This burrito was an abomination, an affront to every single iota of renown that the world of Mexican food has ever earned. If given a choice between eating the whole thing and chowing down on three pieces of toast buttered with Chris Christie’s toe jam, I would have seriously considered the Jersey foot smegma.

I tried to eat it. I really did. I almost got through the smaller half before my plate was littered with half chewed bits of fat and muscle.

As an added indignity, they served the post-beef hate log with a tiny serving of red salsa. Attempting to down this burrito with such a meager complement of dressing is the culinary equivalent of trying anal sex for the first time with nothing but a thimble full of Elmer’s Glue for lubricant. It cannot be done without causing undue harm to the body and soul.

“Done already?” the waitress smirked as I handed her a twenty dollar bill at the register in the beer room.

Fun fact about me: I tip extra well when I feel aggrieved so that I can be absolutely sure I leave with the moral high ground from which to rain down hell on the offending kitchen.

She got more dollars than I’m comfortable admitting and a curt, “Sure.”

Again, just who am I to presume to represent the unilateral tastes of every human being? It’s clear that some people really dig Casa India. The fellow in the powder blue polo shirt was certainly having a fantastic morning there.

It takes all types to make this wide world go around. It takes a lot of dives to satiate all of those lusts. If some people enjoy Casa India, so be it. Good enough for me. It’s not my business what they do with their time there so long as it doesn’t affect too many parades.

If you’re anything like me, you might do well to enter at your own peril. I have a hunch it takes six beers just to make this place’s food palatable.

I award Casa India a “0” on the binary while a part of me continues to wonder if I wouldn’t have gotten a better bang for my buck around the corner at Just Food For Dogs.


Framing Downtown's Fenced Off Spaces: Q&A with S.c. Mero and Wild Life

You may have noticed some new additions to construction / security chain link fences around Downtown - holes with picture frames inserted into them. They're part of another urban intervention by some of our favorite artists around, S.c. Mero and Wild Life. We spoke with both of them about the project, what it's like putting up their work, and what inspires them in Downtown LA.

GDT: How did you come up with the idea for frames?

SM: Like a lot of the work we do, we simultaneously thought of it and we just went ahead and did it.

GDT: How did the idea of putting frames and fencing come up for you?

WL: When I was six, I used to love to hop the fence over to Mr. and Mrs. Tarbox’s house. When I would hop that fence, I would imagine myself entering a completely different world, like what was beyond the fence was an unexplored universe. I drew from that imagination when I was working on this project.

SM: We were walking together one day and Wild Life was carrying a frame for something unrelated. And we held it up, and thought, wouldn’t it be great if we removed part of a fence and created a picture based on that.

GDT: Did it feel like the goal was more about creating a picture, or creating transparency into a space…

SM: Both. It’s all based on perspective and landscapes. When you’re removing part of a fence, it calls into question why that fence is there to begin with, which can be for a lot of different reasons. For a construction site, for a parking lot, for a park that’s closed down...

GDT: I’m assuming you’re referencing Angels Knoll?

SM: Yeah, that’s always a go to for us.

GDT: You both have done a lot of work in Angels Knoll alongside Calder and others too. What is about Angels Knoll you love working with?

SM: For anybody who was here when the park was open, it meant something special for them. For people who weren’t here then, it’s sort of a “What’s going on with that space?” You always hear different things about it. I personally really love the park because it’s in between what Downtown used to be and what it is now. It felt like a very spiritual space.

GDT: I think the frames get exactly at this “in between” you mention - it separates. It’’s an untouchable space that’s being worked on and something’s supposed to be happening. A lot of Downtown projects appear to live in a limbo state, especially for those of us who walk these streets every day.

SM: Yeah, like “Broadway Construction Site 24”, the one at 4th and Broadway. 

[Deciding they did not wanted to be recorded, Wild Life draws a message to us to talk about the titles]

SM: I don’t know if you noticed the tag on that one, but it names all the elements of the “picture”. So for that one it was dirt, concrete, but then we thought we should write in a bulldozer since it’s under construction. But when we went to actually install the frame, they had actually put a bulldozer, right smack in the picture. It’s almost like we had planned it.

GDT: Where else are these located? Are they all gone?

SM: We have some around Civic Center, two in the Arts District - we put up 7 so far and envisioned 10 total, like an album.

[Wild Life scribbles: We’ll send you pics]

SM: One key thing about this project is that different photos taken of it reveal completely different scenes from different angles. It’s an interesting perspective about perspective - I’ve seen other pictures people have taken of them, and it really changes what you see in the frame. Thus, the artist really becomes the person taking the picture - it’s about what they choose to frame.

GDT: What’s next in the Downtown landscape for you two to work with?

SM: We can’t reveal what’s next. But I will say, one of the many reasons we work well together is because even if we’re doing something that people really like and that works, we don’t beat it to death. Like with these frames, we might do two or three more but then we’ll move on. We’ve already started working on something completely unrelated to this.

[Wild Life notes to us: Mention the security]

GDT: You two have always teetered the line - all of your work involves messing with the public realm in some way.

SM: Yes. While many recognize our work as art, to security guards and others the intention isn’t so clear. With this one, we had wire cutters and we’re cutting apart fences. The one by City Hall was a funny example - we just showed up to do it with the largest frame of any of them. There was a security guard who came over right away, and as I’m cutting the fence, he asks, “What are you doing?” I reply, “Oh we’re just putting up some art,” and he responds, “Oh cool, I thought you were cutting the fence, I thought I was gonna have to bust you,” even though we were clearly cutting the fence. It wasn’t til later he realized what we had done, but as he yelled at us and ran to get a supervisor, we made a run for it.