The last undiscovered ethnic culinary enclave in L.A. might be a dozen-plus Belizean restaurants in the South Los Angeles area, a "Little Belize" offering the multi-culti flavors of the tiny country formerly known as British Honduras.
Drive south from the 10 Freeway down Western Avenue to the limits of South L.A. and into Gardena you'll encounter a cache of Caribbean culture, where food is ordered in Belizean Kriol, an English-based Creole language that teases but evades comprehension. The Belizean restaurants are inconspicuous among Mexican, soul food and other Central American diners in a neighborhood full of no-tell motels and possibly the largest collection of Latino storefront Pentecostal churches imaginable.
On their tables you'll encounter the food of two distinct Belizean cultures: Maya and Kriol. Most of L.A.'s Belizean restaurants draw from both the Yucatan's Maya heritage and the British and West African mix known as Kriol. You can start with a Maya appetizer such as panades, tuna stuffed in a folded, paprika-stained, fried tortilla. A Kriol main like boil-up is a Saturday indulgence of pig tail, fish, hard-boiled eggs, yams, plantains, boil cakes made from flour, sweet potato, yucca and taro (called cocoa in Belize) covered in a stew of tomatoes, onions and peppers.
The only Central American country that was ruled by the British, Belize's dishes are a mix of multiethnic influences, more so than the cuisines of neighboring countries that fuse along an indigenous-to-Iberian continuum, though there are rice and beans — every day.
The three restaurants that stand out here are Ella's Belizean Restaurant, Joan and Sisters and Mar's Caribbean Gardens. Ella's is a Belizean snack-shack, Joan and Sisters boasts Kriol home cooking and extended hours (most Belizean restaurants seem to close by 7 p.m., or when the food runs out), and Mar's is a fancy island lounge serving solid Kriol cooking to go with cold Belikin beers.
Hidden in a South L.A. strip-mall dominated by a barbershop and a tattoo parlor that's always in party mode, Ella's Belizean Restaurant leaves no Belizean longing for home. Five is a crowd in this smallish space where "to go" boxes of stews and rice and beans are squeezed through an opening too small for two stacked orders to fit through. Panades, garnaches (bean and cheese tostadas) and salbutes (fried tortillas topped with chicken) are packed to go for a mostly Belizean clientele.
Ella's is named after the daughter of owner Carla Dawson. Dawson and her sister Stacy opened the restaurant "a year ago and some change," says Stacy. Cooking is in their DNA — "everyone in our family cooks." Get the piquant lobster cooked in a red recado (annatto seed paste), vegetables and spices on a bed of rice and beans cooked in coconut milk.
At the other end of the spectrum, Mar's Caribbean Gardens is the most ambitious Belizean restaurant in the L.A. area in size and ambience. It even has a full liquor license. Try the smoky, spicy chirmole: pork-stuffed chicken and hard-boiled eggs in a black recado (dark annatto seed paste) soup. Owner Marie Jimenez and manager Fred Dixon have created "a place where Belizeans can bring business clients and feel proud," says Jimenez.
Belizeans deem all soups and beverages to be healthful, aphrodisiacal or energizing: On Tuesdays and Thursdays at Joan and Sisters, it's creamy split pea soup with lardy, porky pig tail. Jump start the weekend with conch soup, served on Fridays.
Joan and Sisters, owned by Elenor and Samuel Bevans, opened 30 years ago to spread the joy of Elenor and her late sister Joan's "scratch-made" Kriol cuisine, featuring specialty savories such as mouth-watering meat pies adopted from British cuisine and Maya-influenced conch fritters.
And the conch fritters are likely the best on the Western Avenue Belizean crawl. They're expertly fried, packed with supple shellfish that's kissed by lime and hot peppers. A vinegary salsa of onions and habanero brings good heat, but "try this," says employee Rochelle Adolphus as she drops off the Belizean national sting of habanero pain known as Marie Sharpe's hot sauce. Fire in the hole.
Saturdays are when Kriols get down to their roots — and tubers. Boil-up is a Belizean Brukdown (multicultural Kriol music and dance), a starchy jam session with pig tail, fish and hard-boiled eggs blended by vinegary tomato sauce. This would get our vote for the national dish of Belize, a plate that melds incongruous ingredients into unifying flavor. This is how Kriols "remember their ancestors," Adolphus says.
Ella's Belizean Restaurant
3957 S. Western Ave, Los Angeles, (323) 737-5050. Open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Cash only. Appetizers, $2 to $3; entrees, $7 to $12. Takeout (two tables available for seating). Street parking.
Joan and Sisters
3709 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 735-8952. Open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Credit cards accepted. Appetizers, $1 to $3.50; entrees, $10.50 to $13. Street parking.
Mar's Caribbean Gardens