Los Angeles, the northernmost city in Latin America

My sister Lauren picks me up at Los Angeles Union Station and makes fun of me when I stress about where to pay for the airport shuttle.  “People here just don’t care,” she says.  “This is the frontier.  We’re the easternmost city in Asia and the northernmost city in Latin America.  This is your soft entry to Mexico.” 

Having just come from New Zealand winter, it’s not just the warmth of the temperature that’s shocking but also the overt warmth of the people.  Complete strangers will give you advice about which juice to get while you’re in line at Jugo Azteca, or discuss which model has the nicest butt at the Mapplethorpe exhibit at LACMA.  In NZ you’re seen as slightly crazy if you talk to strangers, in LA you’re seen as crazy if you don’t.

View from the roof at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

“This is your soft entry to Mexico,” my sister tells me as she picks me up at Los Angeles Union Station.

Lauren compliments my short shorts. 

“I would never wear these in New Zealand.  I feel like LA is more suited to my dive instructor wardrobe.” 

“Oh yeah, here you could go out wearing just a thong and a plastic bag on your head and people are like, ‘she seems chill.”  Later we head out to dinner with her partner Jerome and she makes fun of her own dress.  “I’m wearing this pillow case over my running shorts, because, LA!” 

El Chavo. Photo source Facebook.

After dinner at Blossom, a Phó restaurant that has a better wine list than many wine bars, we head to Sunset Boulevard for drinks.  El Chavo is a tequila bar and Lauren orders the first round of margs.  “That actually is a thing, you call them margs.”  Says the woman who got me saying ‘adorbs’ and calling dumplings ‘dumps.’

The discussion turns to recent celebrity sightings.  Wherever you go in LA is preceded with a list of the celebrities you’ve spotted there.  Stevie Wonder at the vegan restaurant.  Keanu Reeves at the coffee cart.  Jessica Alba at the nail salon.  Cindy Crawford out with her girlfriends drinking margs.

Wherever you go in LA is preceded with a list of the celebrities that you’ve spotted there.

Next we head down the street to Tiki Ti, a bar the size of the walk-in closet that Lauren and I shared during high school.  Tiki Ti opened in the 50s but looks like it’s been collecting tiki memorabilia for thousands of years.  They have a cocktail called ‘El Toro’ that is preceded by a light-up mechanical bull.  The bartender winds the toy and the entire bar chants ‘Toro, Toro’ as it walks across the countertop.  I can’t remember if I had one or not, but judging my state the next morning, I’m leaning towards yes.

Tiki Ti. Photo source Facebook.

“Everyone knows that going to Tiki Ti is like signing your own death warrant.” 

“We had all those margaritas at El Chavo and I was fine, but then one drink at Tiki Ti and it was all over.”

“Oh yeah, everyone knows that going to Tiki Ti is like signing your own death warrant,” Lauren says.

We stay home for breakfast, safe inside from the June gloom.  This is the time of year when the coastal mist travels inland and LA is deprived of sunlight for a few hours each day.  June gloom only lasts for a few weeks but it causes a city-wide depression.  LA residents are so spoiled for weather that no one wants to get out of bed in the morning just because it’s overcast between dawn and noon.

Lauren and Jerome’s apartment. That postcard is a lie. We love LA.

We take advantage of a lazy morning at home to catch up on the important things in life.

“What sort of pasta would you be?  I’m farfalle and Jerome is mushroom ravioli,” Lauren says.

It’s a tough question.  “I think I’d be the tiny stars in Italian meatball soup.”  Lauren agrees.

“What sort of pasta would you be?  I am farfalle and Jerome is mushroom ravioli.”

“I think I’d be the tiny stars in Italian meatball soup.”

Jerome makes us breakfast – fried potatoes with berbere spice and eggs over-easy.  “Baby bear is so good on the one’s and twos.”  Lauren mimics a DJ move.  “You know, like there’s two burners on the stove.  But he’s also a sick DJ.”  She tells me about the mix he made for her that has Mariah Carey’s voice layered over the music.  “It was right after she released ‘Visions of Love,’ and she’s like 20 years old talking about how Sony approached her.”  Lauren does a Mariah Carey impression as she mixes salad greens with fresh squeezed grapefruit (because lemon is boring).  “Well I guess they just really believe in me!”  The grapefruit is so juicy and sweet that we cut a second one and eat the wedges plain.

Jerome makes us a hangover breakfast.

The best thing for a hangover in LA is the pool, so we grab a juice and head to Glassell Park.  Detox is for amateurs — at Jugo Azteca the juices cure everything from impotence to leg pain to diabetes and cancer.  I have Circulacion (pineapple, celery, parsley), Lauren has Cansansio (carrot, tomatoes, celery).  And Jerome, as usual, chooses the best drink.  Extrenimiento with pear, yogurt, celery and honey.  Lauren at Jugo Azteca.

At first glance it’s difficult to see LA as a place where people live, but Glassell Park pool feels like the small town midwest that Lauren and I grew up in.

Sister selfie and Jerome’s behind the scenes shot.

LA isn’t much to look at but I’m warned that appearances deceive here. In other cities you can discover places just by walking around but in LA some of the best restaurants are tucked inside hideous strip malls, and walkable neighbourhoods are hidden away between highway interchanges.  The pleasure here is in the destination, not the journey.  You don’t live your life on the street like you do in other major cities, you are always en route to some hidden oasis.  The trick is in knowing where to find these oasis, and how to navigate between them.

Cafecito Organico. A coffee oasis.

You don’t live your life on the street like in other major cities, in LA you’re always en route to some hidden oasis.

After swimming we’re hungry again so we find a taco oasis.  Antojitos is street food, the literal translation is ‘little cravings.’ The speciality at Antojitos Guerrero is birria, stewed goat tacos served only on the weekends.  The stewed meat is perfectly soft, with just the right amount of chilli to make it taste smoky without being spicy.  You know this goat is the real deal when you’re treated to melted bits of gelatinous fat and you have to watch out for little bones.  At one point during the meal a $20 note mysteriously drifts down to our table.  No one claims it so we give it for the waitress as a tip.  She keeps bringing more salsas and we layer the goat meat with cilantro and onion in the still warm handmade tortillas.

birria birria birria

Lauren, a landscape architect, keeps up a steady stream of plant ID as we travel around town.  Date palms imported from the Middle East.  Mexican Fan palms from the Sonoran desert.  King Palms and Cocoa Palms.  Cyprus from Italy, Jacaranda from South Africa, New Zealand flax.  “Basically nothing here is native, but the evergreens and palms together are what make LA what it is.”  You could say the same about the people.  “We’ve got all types of Asians, all types of Latinos, all types of Jews.”  The mix of people and the frontier mentality defines LA’s food scene and makes the city an exciting place to be.  This is a place where anything goes.  LA is not polished, it still has grit.

The mix of people and the frontier mentality defines LA’s food scene and makes the city an exciting place to be.

Classic palms

Lauren explains to me that everyone is some combination of horse, bird, and muffin.  “Jerome is double muffin horse.  I am double horse bird.  You are horse muffin bird,” she says.  “Why am I horse muffin bird?” I’m trying to figure out the logic behind the labels.  “Because,” she rolls her eyes, “you are an equal combination of horse muffin and bird.”  Rosie, the dog that Lauren and Jerome are pet-sitting, is triple muffin.

Lauren, Rosie, and Jerome at Dinette Cafe.

Rosie gets a lot of attention. A cowgirl in western boots and a tasselled jacket stops to cuddle her and calls her darlin’, an old mexican man cradles her head and says that she is a good dog, children stop to play with her in the street.  “People can tell that she’s actually an angel disguised as a pig dressed in a cowsuit,” Lauren says.

We take her to the patio of Brite Spot.  This is a proper diner – it has sparkling vinyl booth seats, a cabinet full of cream pies, and atomic age lighting.  I order migas, black beans, hash browns and extra cream gravy for the potatoes. It’s a lot of food. I’m tempted to feed my extra beans to Rosie but Lauren stops me. It’s never a good idea to feed beans to a dog.

Rosie begs for beans and migas at Brite Spot.

“People can tell that she [Rosie the dog] is actually an angel disguised as a pig dressed in a cowsuit.”

Things that Rosie the dog has eaten:  cod skin snacks, peas, a ream of paper, elote loco (corn cob and all), rocks, wood, a week’s worth of mail.  She licks habanero sauce from the bottom of bowls.  She devoured her owner’s collection of crystals.

We go for a walk around Echo Lake Park.  Jerome explains that most of what passes for public space in Los Angeles is actually just mixed use retail and shopping areas.  Echo Lake is the exception.  Within blocks of their apartment they have everything that you expect from a good public park – water, greenery, walking and biking trails, an over-rated waterfront cafe, people of all ages.  We sit on a lakeside bench and watch a chihuahua in a ballerina outfit prance past.  “And that is why you’ve got to keep your trigger finger ready,” Lauren takes a picture.  Not ten minutes later, a clown in full circus make-up wearing patchwork raver pants skateboards past.  “Actually it’s not even worth taking photos anymore, too much crazy to bother,” she says.  Jerome agrees, “Yeah, it’s way too hot to be skateboarding.”  As if skateboarding in the heat is the only thing out of the ordinary about that scenario.

Echo Park in the June gloom. Photo source Wikipedia.

Walking around the lakeside, we are stopped by a duo with a TV camera and a microphone.  They introduce themselves as Finnish journalists and ask us about our summer plans.  “That’s some hard hitting journalism,” I say once they leave. “What do they mean by ‘summer plans,’ we go to the beach in January here,” Lauren says.  “This is LA, every day is summer!”

“This is LA, every day is summer!”

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