You can tell a lot about a neighborhood by the type of restaurants that inhabit it, especially in the emerging community of Boyle Heights, just east of downtown Los Angeles, immediately over any of the bridges by the arts district, to be exact.
The Metro Gold Line runs right through one of its main corridors, and it has changed a lot of the up-and-coming neighborhood's food-and-drink landscape, bringing such amenities as a bustling farmers market, a couple of vegan-friendly restaurants and even a wine bar with a cover charge.
Nonetheless, these developments haven't changed the largely Mexican American soul and urban vibe of this part of town. Boyle Heights is known as one of the strongest communities in the Los Angeles area, where residents' voices are heard on such issues as redevelopment and gentrification. Here's a mix of the culturally rich food that fuels this historic neighborhood through breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Flor Del Rio Restaurant
There is something to be said about a breakfast and lunch spot that serves only one thing: birria de chivo (well, two things if you count the bottles of cold Mexican beer sold as well). There is no physical menu here. Just walk in, have a seat and ask for a bowl of their Zacatecas-style tender spicy goat soup, redolent of cloves and other warm Mexican spices. The truly remarkable trait of this particular birria that separates it from the dozen or so other birrierias in town is its zero-gaminess factor. The flavor is simply meaty and clean, enough to fool even the most stubborn of your gamy goat- and lamb-meat-hating friends and family members into thinking that it is 100% beef. Pro tip: Ask for ribs to be included in your bowl. It is one of the most tender cuts on a goat. An honorable mention goes out to the all-you-can-eat chewy handmade white corn tortillas, perfect to sop up the last little bit of umami-filled broth. Note: cash only.
3201 E. 4th St., Los Angeles, (323) 268-0319
A tejuino is Mexico's answer to kombucha tea, and it is only a matter of time before it catches up to the latter's recent commercial success. It is essentially a fermented limeade emulsified with nixtamalized corn masa and a healthy scoop of chunky rock salt that rests at the bottom of your styrofoam cup; it keeps things interesting as you slowly sip the thick liquid. In Guadalajara, Mexico, where it originated, they are known to ferment it for a couple of weeks. At Tejuinos Rivera, where they specialize in it, they don't ferment quite that long but still enough for a potent zing that drives fermentation enthusiasts nuts. Say yes when the staff asks you if you want it topped with a scoop of freshly made tart Mexican lime sorbet; it is the traditional way to imbibe this uniquely refreshing beverage. Its storefront at El Mercadito de East Los Angeles is one of the busiest stalls there, so look for the longest line and that's the spot. If not into fermented drinks, explore its other house-made Mexican nieves, both milk-based and sorbets.
3425 E. 1st St., Los Angeles, (323) 526-4693
Un Solo Sol Kitchen
A fair amount of Mexican and Latin American dishes are vegetarian by default, and if not completely vegetarian already, many dishes can be prepared that way very easily. Un Solo Sol Kitchen realized this and decided to build an entire eatery around it, though it does serve meat too if you ask nicely. Here, tacos will be generously filled with a homey guisado of meaty nopales, mushrooms and spinach. This taco filling is authentically Mexican, extremely satisfying, and happens to be vegetarian too. A little more in-your-face vegan options at this restaurant that are popular among the young alternative-minded activist locals include tofu saltado, cheese and peppery loroco flower pupusas, stuffed baked plantains and vegan pozole. It is not uncommon to see dishes like veggie versions of Iranian ghormeh sabzi and Indian spiced cholay sometimes too. Un Solo Sol is just interested in exposing the community to international foods at prices that locals can relate to, which means very affordable. No matter what you end up getting, don't skip the impressive selection of house-made, not-too-sweet aguas frescas. The cucumber mint and Thai iced tea with coconut milk are favorites. If you go during the fall and winter, there is vegan champurrado made with almond milk too.
1818 E. 1st St., Los Angeles, (323) 269-8680, www.unsolosol.com
Good thin-crust pizza with reliable delivery service is an endangered species in Los Angeles, especially in this part of town, which is dominated by mediocre franchise pizza chains. Fortunately for Boyle Heights, Purgatory Pizza opened its doors in 2007 to help upend the downward pizza spiral. It's pizza with attitude, mostly because every single person working behind the counter — taking your order and hand-tossing your pies — will be in some kind of local punk rock, metal or indie band. It seems to be an unofficial requirement to work here; just don't stare too hard at the employee's sleeved tattoos while ordering. The secret of Purgatory's success lies in its garlicky herb-spiked crust, which makes for a garlic-stick-meets-pizza quality. It uses cult-favorite Field Roast vegan fake meats and Daiya cheese for its popular vegan pies and sandwiches, so they are really popular among the vegan crowd. Bonus points for being directly across the street from the Gold Line stop.
1326 E. 1st St., Los Angeles, (323) 262-5310, www.eatpurgatorypizza.com
La Favorita Bakery
Few things are better than freshly baked Mexican pan dulce, the traditional sweet breads and pastries that are commonplace for breakfast, snacking and dessert in Mexican cuisine. La Favorita specializes in these treats and bakes them hot and fresh throughout the day. There is a pan dulce for everyone, with over a dozen styles to choose from and explore here. For the health nut, there are fluffy whole wheat cemitas topped with just a little bit of caramelized brown sugar. For those who like a little more decadent offering, there are vanilla custard-filled empanadas dusted with crunchy sugar. The No. 1 sellers here are the vanilla and chocolate conchitas, the miniature versions of the full-sized conchas. Conchas are by far Mexico's favorite and most popular pan dulce, a buttery sponge bread topped with a crispy vanilla or chocolate streusel, vaguely shaped like the silhouette of a seashell. La Favorita's conchitas are particularly buttery. Remember, to get the full effect of any pan dulce, it is essential that you dunk them in coffee, Mexican hot chocolate or some kind of milk. Otherwise, they can be a little dry on their own, since they will never be baked as rich as European pastries.
2305 E. 4th St., Los Angeles, (323) 265-4445, www.lafavoritabakery.net
No Boyle Heights food list would be complete without mentioning the Mariscos Jalisco truck. It is the quintessential street food of the neighborhood: a folded-over fried taco that is filled with a secret mishmash of veggies and just a bit of chopped shrimp (think of a crispy potato taco but with shrimp) and then smothered in a zesty tomato salsa aromatic with oregano, and then a sliver of ripe avocado too. It is a simple joy, but a joy that warrants many high-profile Los Angeles chefs and people from out of town to make the trek to Boyle Heights just to devour an entire plate of these tacos. The truck also does seafood cocktails overflowing with plump, freshly shucked oysters and tender sliced octopus in a chilled tomato-seafood broth. But don't take the chefs' word for just how good the stuff is, take the locals' word, who frequent the place every minute, even at the 9 a.m. opening.