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.
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.
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.
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.