When we started this blog, we set out to explore neighborhoods that were seeped in Los Angeles’ history, that had shaped the city, been part of the story. We wanted to fall headfirst into communities that moved beyond just beaches and movie backlots.

Boyle Heights is certainly one of those neighborhoods. This East LA community is named after Andrew Boyle, an Irishman who fought in the Mexican-American War and later paid $4,000 for the land that is now Boyle Heights. Over the years, the neighborhood has been home to many different ethnic groups – Jews, Japanese, Chinese, African Americans – although today, over 95% of the community is Latino.

Many regard Boyle Heights as “the LA that could have been” – once a multicultural community with a patchwork of diverse groups, now part of the Los Angeles landscape where neighborhoods are often defined by their homogeneous populations.

But the neighborhood is shifting again – it’s becoming a safer place, a more easily accessible place (with the opening and expansion of Metro’s Gold Line), and a more gentrified place. We arrived in Mariachi Plaza with the desire to discover what that meant for Boyle Heights…and were greeted by residents eager to share their ideas of community and growth, and point us in the direction of the next delicious taco/empanada/tamale spot. Bienvenidos, indeed.

Stop 1: Raspados Don Manuel

Stepping through the door of Raspados Don Manuel is like entering another country. We were greeted in Spanish, and had to dust off our rusty language skills to order at the counter. Similar Mexican ice cream shops dot Boyle Heights, offering up a variety of mouthwatering frozen treats, but since it was still the breakfast hour, we ordered a bionico. This Mexican fruit salad consists of a layer of cream/condensed milk, sliced and cubed apples, banana, strawberries and watermelon, a sprinkling of shredded coconut and granola, and then another layer of cream. Yum!

(2824 E 4th Street, Los Angeles)

Stop 2: Hollenbeck Park

Hollenbeck Park has been part of the Boyle Heights neighborhood since it opened in 1892, part of the country’s park development program in the late 19th century. When we arrived, children from a nearby school were taking recess in the play area, dogs were playing fetch, and couples were walking hand-in-hand around the man-made lake while ducks napped in the grass. Although you can hear traffic from the nearby 5 freeway in parts of the park, it’s beautifully landscaped and offers pretty much anything you’d need for a lovely afternoon – barbecue pits, a skateboarding park, grassy knolls, and even outdoor exercise equipment!

(415 S St. Louis Street, Los Angeles)

Stop 3: Soul Skating LA

Since we’d never really heard of a “community skate shop” before, we decided we had to check out Soul Skating LA. As their website states, “Soul Skating LA celebrates the heart and soul of the inner-city…it’s all about living and loving LA’s barrios and ghettos.”

Skating is definitely a culture in Boyle Heights, and we learned that Soul Skating LA’s owner, Armando Gonzalez, is on a mission to make it a positive movement. The shop hosts an academy for young skaters, teaching them to skateboard and paint (on boards), and features local artists’ work (like Raul Gonzalez  and Willie Herrón) throughout the shop. The friendly guy behind the counter even offered to show us their gallery space next door, Eastside Studios, where they often host shows and events. Art, music, history, and culture – who knew a skateboarding shop could be so interesting and inviting?

(770 S Boyle Avenue, Los Angeles)

Stop 4: Guisados Tacos

For those unfamiliar with Boyle Heights, tacos may be the first thing that springs to mind. While there’s a whole lot more to the neighborhood, the rumors are true: the tacos are AMAZING.

We might have gone a little crazy at Guisados Tacos, ordering 9 tacos, but they just smelled so darn good. To be fair, 2/3 of the tacos were part of the “sampler” – smaller tacos from the first 6 listed on the menu (Steak Picado, Bistek en Salsa Roja, Tinga, Mole Poblano, Cochinita Pibil and Chicharron). We couldn’t resist the agua frescas either, enjoying a Melon and Armando Palmero (their version of the “Arnold Palmer” – mixture of Jamaica and Limon). Our favorite tacos were the Tinga, Mole Poblano, Fish and Chorizo, all on thick corn tortillas made next door. We can see why Jonathan Gold voted this restaurant one of his 101 Best of 2013. Well-deserved, Guisados.

(2100 E Cesar E Chavez Avenue, Los Angeles)

Stop 5: Carnitas Uruapan

Sure, we’d just stuffed our faces with tacos…but when we wandered out of Guisados, the sweet smell of baked goods lured us into the market and bakery right next door. A friendly gentleman picking out pan dulce recommended the fruit-filled empanadas, which were yummy. We bought a bag full of baked goodies for $0.75 (full disclosure: and then went back for pork tamales, fresh salsa and guacamole, and cactus salad for later. Total: $9) We promise we’ll exercise later.

(2102 E Cesar E Chavez Avenue, Los Angeles)

Stop 6: Breed Street Shul

Surprised to see a Jewish synagogue in a predominantly Latino neighborhood? Congregation Talmud Torah, also known as the “Breed Street Shul,” was the largest Orthodox synagogue in the western U.S. during the early part of the 20th century, when Boyle Heights was home to one of the biggest Jewish populations on the West Coast. Jews dispersed after World War II, moving to neighborhoods like Beverlywood and Encino, and services stopped altogether in the 1990s.

Today, a large project is underway to restore the temple and use it as a community space for both Latino and Jewish communities, with events like “Fiesta Shalom.” Although not currently open (the construction crew said that was a “looooong way off”), it’s an interesting and historically rich site to visit. The Breed Street Food Fair, a collection of street stands and food trucks, takes place on weekend evenings right on the corner near the shul.

(247 N Breed Street, Los Angeles)

Stop 7: Mariachi Plaza

Mariachi Plaza is probably one of the best meeting points in Boyle Heights (there’s a Gold Line Station), and a wonderful place to get a dose of early Mexican history in California. The plaza and park, at the corner of Boyle Avenue and E 1st Street, is named for the mariachi musicians who have been gathering here since the 1930s. They play in the charro suits: short jackets and high black pants, ready to be hired by passerby planning a party or event.

We stopped at the well-known J & F Ice Cream Shop in the plaza, where we ordered a coconut and pineapple raspado (a mix between a slushie and shaved ice) and a mocha ice cream cone. The shop is steps from the Metro station, and there’s plenty of benches and chairs just outside, where you can still hear the Spanish radio playing loudly and enjoy your treats.

Stop 8: East 1st Street

East 1st Street, right across from Mariachi Plaza, has a lot going on. You’ll see backpacked students walking in groups, couples eating on sidewalks outside restaurants, and construction underway on at least one side of the road. We discovered the original site of Homeboy Industries (the nonprofit and its founder, Father Greg Boyle, are most definitely a large part of LA’s story), which is now home to a partnership with Learning Works, where both organizations provide home-schooling and wrap-around services to at-risk youth. If you’re going to only make one stop in Boyle Heights, Mariachi Plaza and East 1st Street should be it.

Some of our favorites include:

Un Solo Sol Kitchen – traditional AND inventive, vegan AND Latin-American – this community-based restaurant offers fresh food with a twist (think wild mushroom enchiladas and potato taquitos). They also offer a different $6 dinner special every night, feature local artists’ work, and host flamenco nights.
(1818 E 1st Street)

Espacio 1839 – we’ve seen thousands of touristy “LA” t-shirts, but Espacio 1839 caught our eye because of a very cool and unique Los Angeles shirt in the window. If you buy something here, we can guarantee nobody else is going to have it. They sell records, jewelry, children’s books – and yes, awesome Boyle Heights and LA t-shirts.
(1839 E 1st Street)

Eastside Luv – Didn’t think you could find a trendy wine bar in East LA? Think again. This “Pocho bar” celebrates its spot in the community, evident from the bold mural outside, the chandeliers made from chains (inspired by lowrider chain steering wheels) and cabinets adorned with chicken wire. Homemade sangria, cabaret nights, and live music make this place the perfect last stop on your Best LA Day.
(1835 E 1st Street)

La Casa Del Musico – Looking for an accordion? An old Julio Iglesias record? Eagles sheet music? A pink toy guitar? La Casa Del Musico has it all. The staff are friendly, and the browsing is really fun.
(1900 E 1st Street)

Stop 9: Primera Taza Coffee House

The sun had disappeared behind the clouds, and we could definitely feel autumn in the air on this chilly Los Angeles day. We decided to find a warm drink and a little pick-me-up at Primera Taza Coffee House. It’s a quaint little cafe, and the chatty barista recommended their “most popular” Taza de Mocha Latte (made with Mexican chocolate). We also ordered a soy pumpkin latte, and ogled the pastries from Homeboy Cafe just up in the street in Chinatown. The barista talked to us about the theater and music scenes in Boyle Heights, while we admired the colorful artwork on the walls. Yet another warm and welcoming spot with an almost-enviable community vibe.

(1850 E 1st Street, Los Angeles)

The Details:

We took the Metro Gold Line to the Soto Station and then walked to our first stop. We hopped on the 605 bus (toward USC Medical Center) at 4th/Mott and got off at 4th/Soto for Hollenbeck Park. We walked to our next few stops. From the Breed Street Shul, we walked to the Soto Station and got back on the Gold Line to the Mariachi Plaza Station. We walked the remainder of the day.

A map of our day looks something like this:

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