8.72: La Cocina

Need to get away? Sick of the suffocating constraints of urban living? Take a trip to fabulous Santa Clarita, where the warm booths and cheap booze at La Cocina await you. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Need to get away? Sick of the suffocating constraints of urban living? Take a trip to fabulous Santa Clarita, where the warm booths and cheap booze at La Cocina await you. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

I see it all the time these days: “if you don’t like it, move to the suburbs.”

It is the height of rhetorical inanity and the go-to nuclear defense for triggered urbanites who have mistaken a global communication network for a universal invitation to issue opinions on subjects they will never be qualified to discuss.

A kindred spirit to jingoist Arizona hicks who sputter “If you don’t like America, leave it,” when anyone has the temerity to criticize the myth of their fucked but somehow infallible country, the suburb jab has become the moth-eaten blanket statement of choice amongst Downtowners (and Downtowner wannabes) who feel the need to defend a neighborhood that is growing more indefensible by the day.

The suburbs are shorthand for mediocrity, insularity, boredom, cultural atrophy and spiritual death. What could be spookier on this Halloween 2017 then to sojourn to Santa Clarita, the scariest suburb of all, in search of cheap food?

Despite its proximity to Los Angeles, Santa Clarita is seen by many as a superlative backwater. In many ways, the desert adjacent bedroom community has more in common with Ventura and the Antelope Valley than it does our bustling metropolis of failed hopes.

In actuality, Santa Clarita is a constellation of smaller communities that have banded together like some big box Pleiades to shine a little brighter at the periphery of southland civic power. Saugus, Newhall, Canyon Country and Valencia all merge in a geographic conglomerate where people go to seek affordable housing and a modicum of relief in the assurance that LA’s troubles are over the hill.

It’s a place forged on the anvil of reasonable escape. Though it may lack in live music, art or any other sense of cosmopolitan self-aggrandizement, Santa Clarita excels at the sort of uncomplicated quietude that comes with distance.

I have a difficult time imaging myself living here because I am complicated and fickle and somewhat high strung. Still, there’s a place deep within Santa Clarita that feels like it could be home.

La Cocina is a perpetually busy Mexican restaurant near the fringe of Santa Clarita’s corporate limit on the ass-end of Bouquet Canyon where suburban regulation fizzles out into the boonies with a civic planning shotgun blast that is a trailer park located across the street from a youth detention camp.

You’ve all been to La Cocina before. It’s that Mexican restaurant that Chile’s wanted to be. It’s got the brick arches and the murals and the comfortable booths and the bottomless chips and the colorful bar and the patio. It always seems to have a crowd. Sporting events are well attended here even though it’s unclear whether most of the people on hand are actually paying attention or are just there to numb themselves with strong drink and dancing ions flickering on a screen.

If you spend enough time at La Cocina in Santa Clarita you'll notice that most people are perfectly nice and normal. It's difficult to say the same about Downtown LA. Photo by Dan Johnson.

If you spend enough time at La Cocina in Santa Clarita you'll notice that most people are perfectly nice and normal. It's difficult to say the same about Downtown LA. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Like the rest of Santa Clarita, La Cocina is priced to keep you there. The egregiously generous spicy michelada (with draft Negro Modelo!) is six dollars. The a la carte chili relleno I prefer is a modest $3.95. Either would be sufficient on their own, especially given that these bar room savants are overly eager to pack lard-fried chips into your gut to prolong your alcohol ingestion period. It’s a genius business model—try not to fuck with the customer’s urge to spend money doing something that requires relatively little work on the establishment’s part.

I get my signals crossed here. In Downtown, I can usually tell by someone’s attitude, dress or inflection whether they’re functioning with a mental illness, affecting edge to subconsciously counter deep-seated Daddy Issues or are just a garden variety asshole.

In Santa Clarita, my instincts do not serve me as well.

In the dozen or so times I’ve been to La Cocina, I have encountered a host of brusk men with motocross branded flat-brimmed ball caps who give off-the-cuff right wing hot takes to their bros in too loud voices then scan the room to see who responded. I’ve seen clearly closeted men whose eyes brim with carnal desire while they chat it up with other hyper-masculinites in a through line about corporate tax rates that is clearly laden with penetrative undertones. I’ve borne witness to a predominantly latino staff whose white-washed speech has aspects of both survivalism and hidden dimensions of contrarian counterstatement hidden beneath. Then there’s the one or two people I pegged as liberal interlopers who sat perfectly still in a corner silently acknowledging the t-rex rules of Santa Clarita alpha male culture where vision is based on movement.

Mostly though, people are perfectly nice and normal. It’s hard not to be. The meal is delicious. The booze is quick and cheap. The world’s problems are somewhere else.

Like Downtown, Santa Clarita harbors all types: gun-toting paranoiacs, jesus lovers, pant-suit nation fallouts, tweekers, junkies, incredibly nice people, world class jackasses, community advocate Christ figures, burn outs, aloof geniuses and, of course, the self-righteous. For most of these people, the true crises of our time exist in an abstract, unseen way.

Fuck street art and galleries and oligarch humble-brag museums. Fuck pro sports and fuck mass transit. Fuck trendy restaurants. Fuck new bar concepts. Fuck status. Fuck Beaux Arts architecture. Fuck the constant cock-measuring contest between tallest buildings. Fuck proximity to political power jockeying. Fuck feeling like I constantly have to sate my restlessness.

Sure, these things help assuage the pain, but the real reason I’m not ready to pick up and leave to become a regular at La Cocina is my need to keep the sorrows of the world close. These other places, these supposedly safe places, are the true epicenters of sorrow because there is a tendency there to see sadness and chaos and irrationality as something apart. When it is not. It lives in each of us. It haunts the core of humanity from time immemorial.

I have no patience for people who look into a screen every day and see violence and greed and then are shocked when those crows come home to roost in their humble little ‘burb in the form of a shooting or a land grab or an unseen toxic waste dump leaching death into the soil.

I’d rather tough it out here.

In the last week I’ve seen a man go to stab someone with a screwdriver before the cops (miraculously) showed up. I’ve been woken up on two consecutive days by the same crazy lady. First as she loudly berated a “Mexican” because “all his people got the HIV and Donald Trump gonna kick them out” and second so she could shout repeatedly, “you aint eatin’ out my ass no more!”

Over that same period of time, I’ve watched a superlative dickhole milk his connections to the city to foist another shitty film shoot on my street while a much-delayed cluster fuck of a skyscraper project people bent over backwards to applaud as block-changing has suddenly commandeered the sidewalk on Broadway and 4th St. Meanwhile our own dear mayor strokes his ambitions with cryptic pronunciations about his political future.

Imagine drinking a michelada and not having to think about The Broad museum! Santa Clarita is so enticing! Photo by Dan Johnson.

Imagine drinking a michelada and not having to think about The Broad museum! Santa Clarita is so enticing! Photo by Dan Johnson.

Guess what? That’s life. There’s no going home to the Cleaver’s perfect little mansion anymore. Awful shit will continue to happen here and everywhere else while people in the know remain powerless and people with the means to affect larger change self-serve instead. Sorry. Even the regulars at La Cocina stand the risk of getting sideswiped by a Panera delivery truck or having their genitals accidentally bitten off by a morbidly obese Tea Party neophyte having an ill-timed epileptic fit at the tile-adorned urinal in the back bathroom.

You don’t get to predict it. You haven’t earned the right to forget it. It happens whether you like it or not. So try to enjoy it or at least get out of its way.

In the meantime, if you could stop making it worse by being a dumb fuck on the internet, that would be helpful too.

I award Santa Clarita standout La Cocina a “1” on the binary and pray to whatever life force it is that undergirds this world that someone in a position of power gets their head out of their ass sometime in the next year before the flood of crazy jumps the banks.