Three Days in Los Angeles
Grand Central Market to East LA
I went to LA this February for the first time along with my son Marcel. It is so vast that you can drive east from Mariachi Plaza in East LA for an hour and still be in East LA. Traveling around the whole city to eat at all of the best restaurants would be like playing an impossible level of Pac Man. One could focus on clearing a single path — the way the late Jonathan Gold ate his way down Pico Boulevard — but even that took him a year; my son and I only had three days. So, we set my checklist of food monuments aside and ate wherever it felt natural; that almost always led us to good Mexican food.
Grand Central Market
The first morning, we ate downtown at Grand Central Market since we wanted to ride the 150-year-old funicular across the street afterward. I had a great vegetarian breakfast burrito at Jose Chiquito and Marcel had glazed donuts from The Donut Man — though he should have ordered the strawberry donuts. After riding the funicular up the steep track we realized that we had left Marcel’s stuffed manatee at the Market, so we went back, found “Mano,” and did some grocery shopping for dried chiles and candy.
Next we visited Olvera Street in El Pueblo de Los Angeles — the oldest part of the city. We had delicious taquitos de pollo at Cielito Lindo, which has been there since 1934. A teenage Mexican-American girl from Long Beach who was sitting nearby told us she had the same stuffed manatee as Marcel at home; hers was named “Manny.” She, her friend and her father chatted with us for a long time before leaving to get ready for that night’s Bad Bunny concert at the Crypto Arena. They told us that the marketplace we were sitting in was there when California was part of Mexico. The father remarked, “Our family has been in LA just as long.” Nowadays, the street is full of vendors selling churros and Mexican trinkets for tourists. We obliged and bought a toy accordion.
We stayed in Santa Monica that night, but it wasn’t my favorite part of the city. The father we met at Cielito Lindo said it was “whitewashed” (his daughter disagreed) and recommended we visit Echo Park Lake and spend time in East LA. Still, we had a good time at the amusement park on Santa Monica Pier, Marcel got a workout in at Muscle Beach, and I had a great prime rib with Yorkshire pudding at the classic Santa Monica steakhouse, Golden Bull, before turning in.
Downtown to Silver Lake
The next day we spent some time at Venice Beach in the morning, took a cab downtown and then took a very long walk from there past the charming bungalows of Chinatown to Echo Park Lake, where we paddled swan boats, ate a container of mango, pineapple, and kiwi from one of two fruit stands and played in the playground; after, we continued to Silver Lake.
Marcel got a wild pair of sunglasses at a punk rock shop on Sunset Boulevard. We kept walking, and an unhoused person followed us and had an aggressive meltdown that scared Marcel; after convincing some well-meaning shopkeepers not to call the police, we got the person some help and it became a good empathy lesson for Marcel. Later, he gave half of his quesadilla (and avocado slices for garnish) to another unhoused person who approached us at the restaurant, Playita Mariscos.
After a long day of walking, we got back to the hotel early to rest our feet and watch cartoons.
East LA: Mariachi Plaza
The next morning, we woke up late and headed to Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights, East LA. Mariachis hang out there all day playing cards, eating ice cream from a shop in the plaza, and waiting for people to contract them for gigs. It’s not where they perform. We had ice cream with the man holding a cone below; I had vanilla and Marcel had rocky road (those were the only flavors). The man told us that he and his group make $480 an hour.
For an early lunch, I wanted the tacos de tripas I’d heard about at Santa Cecilia in the plaza or birria from one of a few restaurants that serve it nearby, but Marcel demanded pancakes, so we went down the street to Casa Fina, which had his pancakes and one of my favorite anytime meals: machaca (shredded, dried beef) and eggs.
East LA: Pico Rivera Sports Arena
From there, we ordered a cab to take us further east, to Pico Rivera Sports Arena where we saw a lowrider car show and hopping competition presided over by MC Magic and the iconic California rapper, Mack 10. Chicano families and car clubs from all over the Southeast came to show off. Also, we found good birria there under an unmarked tent.
In the evening, we took a cab ride through Hollywood, past all of the mansions in the Hollywood Hills, to Griffith Observatory at the top of the city. The sweeping view of Los Angeles, the mountains, and the ocean were beautiful at dusk — and seeing them was a nice way to end the trip — but the best views of the city were those we’d had earlier, closeup.