by Dan Johnson
If we were betting on which Downtown Los Angeles street was built on an unseen portal to hell and the stretch of 5th St between Wall St and San Julian St was already taken, I would bet the farm on Vignes St.
The bending side street arcs between Main St and Cesar Chavez Ave before funneling into a 101 North onramp. That meager stretch of asphalt and the land beneath has borne an inordinate amount of misfortunes.
Vignes is a bucolic French word meaning “vines.” It’s also the family name of one Jean Louis Vignes, a mid-19th century French immigrant to Los Angeles whose verdant vineyards produced some of the earliest privately made vino in the city. Never mind that Vignes used Native American land, likely exploited Native American labor and pushed a product with inebriating qualities that we can assume further destabilized the Tongva community centered around the Yangna tree located in the present day median of the 101 Freeway.
The area’s incredible string of bizarre mishaps continued nearby in 1911, when luckless LAPD patrolman Cecil S. Bowman got the bulk of his legs torn from his torso before the train that slew him dragged his body a few hundred yards rendering the corpse unidentifiable except for the badge number.
During the plague outbreak of 1924, the “Mexican Quarter” bounded by Macy St (now Cesar Chavez Ave), Alameda St, Alhambra Ave and the river became a quarantine zone. Thirty people died including the plague’s patient zero, local resident Jesus Loujon.
Later, not too far away, glass jaw Joe Dacy Coleman got knocked around on the night of May 31, 1943 thus igniting an orgy of racially motivated violence known now as the Zoot Suit Riots.
None of this historical mumbo jumbo even gets into the sluice of sorrow that is the history of not one, but two jails in the immediate area: Men’s Central and Twin Towers Correctional Facility. Lee Baca’s tenure as Sheriff was far from sunshine and lollipops over in those squat monuments to the prison industrial complex.
Walk down Vignes St today and you’ll pass no less than eighteen bail bonds institutions. Light poles are papered with fliers seeking information about Gerald Sakamoto, an alzheimer’s patient jailed on suspicion of DUI and then released on his own recognizance on Aug 1. He wound up dead by the Denny’s at Vignes St and Ramirez St two days later.
Given the karmic weight of this asphalt asscrack, my hopes for the block’s lone food serving establishment were justifiably low. Even with their chipper, if redundant, sign out front, Richie’s Cafe Grill had little if any chance to be anything but hellacious.
The management team at Richie’s is hip to the fact that your only excuse to be in their restaurant is that a loved one has been incarcerated. This poly-ethnic fast food meets mini-mart joint is custom built to serve the countless men and women sitting in running cars around the block as their fists tense on the wheel, pondering just how catastrophically their recent run-ins with law enforcement will affect the course of their lives.
As I walk in, two diners reminisce without any trace of emotion:
“You remember when she beat the shit out of that girl?”
“How could I forget?”
The scene inside isn’t that much of an improvement. Framed portraits of pristine fruits and vegetables advertise a caliber of food no amount of money can purchase at Richie’s. You’re free to peruse the wall of snacks or mad-dog the picture menu advertising selections from the three pillars of dirt-cheap LA food: American, Mexican and Korean cuisine.
I ask the counter woman, “what’s good?” She recommends half the items on the menu. We both know that it doesn’t matter. Nothing is good here.
I opt for the cheeseburger combo. What could go wrong for $6.99? I forego the bottled coke for a water. She says, “Hmm. OK. I’ll let you have a small water” as if she’s doing me a favor by upgrading my beverage from the ultra-small sized water.
There are no bathrooms here. She mutters something about one upstairs that’s “closed now.” Think about that for a second. The nearest restaurant to the overcrowded jail has absolutely no opportunity for you to wash your hands before you eat. Did we learn nothing from 1924?
I managed to crack the Richie’s code while I waited for my meal. The absolute glut of informative signage on the grease-pit’s walls only make sense if you add “, You Stupid Bastard” on to the existing text.
Here are some examples:
“Cash Only, You Stupid Bastard.”
“We Reserve the Right to Reserve Service to Anyone, You Stupid Bastard.”
“ATM Machine Inside, You Stupid Bastard.”
“Warning: Customer Parking Only, You Stupid Bastard.”
“Smile—You’re On Camera, You Stupid Bastard.”
“Push, You Stupid Bastard.”
The ATM, I might add, features a $3.75 surcharge, you stupid bastard.
Déjà vu strikes violently upon receipt of my food. The fries and Styrofoam plate are nearly identical to the sub-par Sysco feast you get down at Sam’s Hofbrau. This bodes poorly.
Meanwhile, the burger itself is really a marvel of modern cooking. I would be interested to see if Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck or Downtown’s own wunderkind Josef Centeno could challenge Richie’s for a burger with a sheet of beef this razor thin and devoid of taste. Extra points if they manage to lube up the bun with as much mayonnaise as these pestilent patty pushers.
The dominant flavor profile of the Richie’s hamburger special is jarred pickle and viscous egg derivative. Granted, had I spent the past three days in a black jumpsuit trying to call my Ma so she could wrangle up enough cash to get a bail bondsman to pull me out of a holding tank where I’ve been wasting away with a man who has a swastika tattooed on his cheekbone, I would really dig this meal.
Blessedly, Vignes St doesn’t have its claws in me…yet, at least. So I flee. You should too if you have that option.
I sigh heavily and award Richie’s a “1” on the binary and advise those stuck on Vignes St to use the pay phone bank outside the prison to call in a pizza order instead.
You too can visit Richie's at 965 N Vignes St.