The Los Angeles River is a bit like the US–Mexican border without the wall and the Minutemen. Beyond the concrete gulch lies the oldest and largest Mexican community outside of Mexico. It’s been the breeding ground for musicians such as Los Lobos, athletes such as boxer Oscar de la Hoya, and actors such as Anthony Quinn.
Life in the barrio is tough but lively. Stroller-pushing moms stop for pan dulce (sweet bread), gossip at local panaderías (bakeries), pick up dinner at the carnicería (butcher shop), and fresh tortillas straight from the factory. On summer nights, makeshift grills pop up at street corners, taquerías (taco shops) get packed with families, and laborers chill with a cold cerveza (beer) after another hard day’s work. Street art blooms from all corners.
But there’s more than Mexican-American roots beneath the concrete. Developer Andrew Boyle purchased the river bluffs in 1858. Within 40 years the suburb had water and sewage services and became known as the Ellis Island of Los Angeles, when newly arrived immigrants from Europe flocked here after reading of clear blue skies and river views while suffering in Chicago and New York tenements. By 1939 Boyle Heights was predominantly Jewish, but along with the original Canter’s Deli, there were also several Japanese stores and Buddhist temples in the mix.
Even a quick drive or stroll east of downtown, augmented by a bite in one of several excellent restaurants, will deepen your understanding of Los Angeles. Access has been made much easier since the completion of the Metro Rail Gold Line extension, and there is an ongoing blossoming of cool out here without the reek of gentrification.
Step off at Mariachi Plaza, where traditional Mexican musicians in fanciful suits and wide-brimmed hats troll for work in the old-school zócalo (public square) on one side, while out the front of the futuristic Metro station on the other side, B-boys and skate punks gather and grind. Within a block or two of the plaza you'll find Espacio 1839, a concrete-floor boutique and cooperative of four artists/entrepreneurs. It's part book store (curated by the resident bookworm); part record store (curated by the world-music buyer for Amoeba in Hollywood); the headquarters for Radio Sombra, an online radio feed; and the t-shirts and art are mostly designed by the graphic artist who did the mural. They have terrific children's books, and host live events and art openings. Just down the block LA First St Taqueria is an aromatic greasebomb of goodness. Foodies swear by Guisados, another taqueria a short jaunt away on Cesar Chavez; they get a little more creative with their flavors, make their tortillas in house and serve gourmet coffee too. Eastside Luv is a wine bar across from the plaza with frequent live bands and DJs.
East of here, a nondescript building houses the Hollenbeck Youth Center, where Oscar ‘Golden Boy’ de la Hoya punched himself into shape for his 1992 Olympic gold medal. Further on, and set in an otherwise bland urban corridor, is a gem of a kitchen, Mi India Bonita. Order their Serafin Special: an arracherra steak, sliced thin and served in a chile sauce with whole pinto beans, rice and a wedge of avocado. If you're still hungry, get a barbacoa taco. If it's seafood you want, find the greatest shrimp taco of your life at Mariscos 4 Vientos. Order from the truck (if you're in a hurry) or grab a table inside their packed dining room. Either way, expect corn tortillas folded and stuffed with shrimp, then fried and smothered in pico de gallo. They also do a searing aguachile (shrimp cured in lime juice and chile). It's no frills, all soul here.
We never need an excuse to come to East Los, as it's affectionately known, aside from shrimp tacos, that is. But if you do, the Southland’s best Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration is held here. It lasts for three days, peaking on the day itself, November 1.