Boyle Heights (Week 2)

Parking lot in Boyle Heights
Colorful parking lot in Boyle Heights

Boyle Heights is a working class neighborhood just east of downtown LA. Until the 1950s it was a diverse place called home by Jews, Latinos, immigrants from Eastern European and Portugal and people from Japanese descent. But a practice called redlining (in essence, financial institutions drawing a red line around an area on a map and deciding not to provide loans, insurance etc. to the people living within that red line) eventually forced all but the poorest people out and today Boyle Heights is almost completely Latino. If it is a working class neighborhood, it is also a neighborhood of people who know how to live: while it is quite shabby in some places, you don’t ever get the sense of desolation that you encounter in some of the urban wasteland in the poorer parts of LA. Boyle Heights is alive with people who go grocery shopping, take the family out for breakfast, sip a cup of coffee in a café, wave at a neighbor walking by. And that is the way the people like it here: the city is resisting attempts by developers to gentrify the neighborhood, and right now, it looks like they are winning: good for them, because Boyle Heights doesn’t need any ‘improvement’ beyond the normal maintenance people themselves can do.

Mole Mole Mole
Mole, mole, mole

The three of us were there on a Melting Pot food tour, but some of the highlights of our visit had little to do with food. There was plenty of that too: a marketplace with a bewildering variety of foods, colors and flavors, a place where a gringo like myself would get completely lost without a little bit of help, which we had in the guise of our guide, Andrew. I tried spicy cucumber ice cream (interesting, but next time I am getting a different flavor), Christine got all kinds of mole and I found a place that sold cheese. We also visited a tortilla factory and we sampled the goat stew at Birrieria de Don Boni. Yup, I said goat stew. That’s why their call the restaurant a birrieria – a goatery, if you will. It is pretty much all they serve there, and many people bring their entire families here for a simple but tasty meal on the weekend. And that means everyone, not just mom, dad and a kid or two: a family order in this otherwise inexpensive restaurant sets you back $195 – they know you’re bringing the lot of them.

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They got your goat

As for the non-food highlights: certainly the heart of Boyle Heights, Mariachi Plaza, would be one of those. The west side of the triangle is occupied by a beautiful Queen Anne building, the former Cummings Block and Hotel (named after the man who paid for it back in 1889), now the Boyle Hotel or the Hotel Mariachi. It is a residential hotel, and several dozens of musicians live here. And then, throughout the day, it is a coming and going in the plaza of colorfully dressed Mariachis, all looking for gigs. There is something very ‘artisanal’ about these men in their charro suits, getting ready to go to work like any other working man – except their work is the business of making music. On the Plaza there are two stores, one for charro suits and all manners of accessories, and the other for instruments. On the eastern edge of the square is a beautiful mural of a musician and there is even a music school in the neighborhood, the Mariachi Conservatory, where children learn how to play this music of frustration, heartbreak and longing, the Mexican Blues. Historically musicians have mostly been male, but the school also has girls, and I recently found an all-woman band called Mariachi Flor de Toloache on NPR.

Mariachi Plaza
Robert Vargas mural

Not far from Mariachi Plaza is Primera Taza, a coffee shop in a small, narrow building, and this is where I met the Blue Girl. She was in a painting by local artist Ray Vargas who also made a very large piece that sits in the back of a makeshift patio behind the café. We bought the Blue Girl home, where she represents a gritty urban LA in our decidedly suburban home. At the café, I also picked up a postcard from a local realtor. It showed a house that was maybe 15 feet wide at most but looked cheerful and well kept. It told the story of an entrepreneur who knew her area and her potential customers, who was there to provide a service (and make a living in the process) rather than transform the neighborhood. I took the postcard with me, as a reminder that a place like Boyle Heights can do quite well for itself and thrive without masterplans, mixed-use projects and development corridors, thank you very much. I plan to come back occasionally to see how the neighborhood changes – hoping that I will be pleasantly disappointed when it comes to any large-scale gentrification developments.

Blue Girl at Primera Taza
Ray Vargas’ Blue Girl at Primera Taza

Shameless Plug #1: This was the third time we did something like this with the Melting Pot; if you are out here (or if you live here, of course) and you are looking for something fun to do, try one of their tours. Christine, Charlie and I thoroughly enjoy them.

Quesillo Oaxaca (Week 2)

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Tangled Oaxacan Cheese

Cheese: Quesillo Oaxaca

Producer: –

Where: –

One of the stops on a food tour in Boyle Heights this week was a particularly delightful surprise: in an otherwise very nondescript building, we found a covered market in the basement that turned out to be a delight for the senses. I picked the two most interesting cheeses I could find at a vendor who sold cheese and meats. The first one was the Quesillo Oaxaca, a white ball that looks like the Mexican version of a Mozzarella, which it sort of is. Apparently some Italian farmer, with the support of the Mexican government, came over in the 1950 and taught locals to produce cheese. Another story has Dominican monks teach the Oaxacans how to make Queso. And then there is the legendary Leobarda Castellanos García, a girl who, back in 1885, was charged with watching the slow heating of the cheese curd, but got distracted until the stuff was overcooked. She panicked, decided to throw hot water on the curd and voilà, thusly was born Mexican pasta filata cheese.

Of course, mozzarella cheese is made by putting the curd in hot water, too, so this accidental screw-up neatly dovetailed with centuries of cheesemaking history…. The pulling of the curd, which gets a little rubbery, and then the kneading into a ball: there are really good reasons to think that at some time, there was an Italian (Dominican or not) that introduced the Oaxacans to this cheese.

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The Queso before the entanglement

Most Mexican cheese is used in cooking, and Queso Oaxacathis is particularly well suited for quesadillas. On its own I thought it tasted very fresh (you are supposed to eat this cheese when it is only a few days old and it comes in a plastic bag complete with a generous helping of liquid), but not as creamy as good mozzarella and a little salty to my taste. I think I will need to try it again, and travel to Oaxaca to do it there. I frankly have no idea where exactly this cheese came from: it is imported, but also produced locally.

I learned a lot more about the Oaxacan cheese from a blog by food historian Rachel Laudan. She writes that there is a Mexican expression: “That’s more tangled than a Oaxacan cheese”. Just how tangled that cheese can get is obvious in the picture: all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t get that cheese back together again.

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‘Tipo Chester’ Cheese from Chihuahua

The other cheese was semi-hard, with small little irregular holes. It is produced in a Mennonite Colony near Las Virginias, 168 miles south of El Paso in the Mexican State of Chihuahua. The cheesemaker is called La Estrella, and they call the cheese ‘Tipo Chester’. It was mild with a bit of a sharp edge and a tang, quite nice. It’s also called Chihuahua cheese, but it seems that there is quite a variety of different cheeses that fall under that geographical designation, which would not make it very helpful if you were to be looking for a specific cheese. It’s also called Mennonita, because the Mennonite colonies in northern Mexico are known for their cheese-making prowess.

As far as the animals that produce the milk are concerned, Rachel Laudan says the preferred cows in Mexico are crossbreeds between Zebu and Brown Swiss. The latter’s heritage is easy to guess, the former is basically an Indian cow. The great thing about these animals is that they do well in the heat, and that of course is a good thing in much of Mexico.

In the end, neither cheese would rank high on my list of favorites, but I will maybe find some time in these 52 weeks to give Mexican cheeses another shot. In the process of reading up on Oaxaca, I learned they eat chapulines there, grasshoppers, among a host of other interesting and flavorful foods. We’ll need to find a really good Oaxacan restaurant in the Southland to prepare for a trip down there!