LOCAL

Soul food restaurant takes root in heart of Latino Boyle Heights

The little bistro sits across from King Taco, like David a few yards from Goliath.

But Gogo Sweetwine hardly bothers glancing out the window. She's too busy preparing for a table of five: biscuits, grits and gravy, sausage and oatmeal.

"Ready to plate!" she announces with a twirl in the kitchen. "Coming through, coming through."

Last year, Sweetwine took a gamble and opened Gogo's Bistro, the only soul food restaurant in Boyle Heights — Los Angeles' iconic Mexican American neighborhood.

Her business stands out on a block lined with Latino storefronts: a pharmacy, travel agency, cellphone shop and bakery. It's in the bustling heart of the Eastside, on North Soto Street and East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue.

Those who live nearby, especially older Latinos, are not sure what to make of the place. Is it Italian? Chinese? Indian?

"It's some kind of gringo food," Casimiro De La Cruz, 73, said while on a recent stroll with his wife, Edelmira. "One of these days we may give it a try."

The Sweetwines — a mother, father, two daughters and son — pooled their life savings and retirement funds to open the restaurant. It was a longtime dream of Gogo, a nickname earned because she's always on the go.

They wanted a location where American food with a Southern twist was guaranteed to shine. Their South Los Angeles neighborhood was saturated, so they headed northeast to Boyle Heights.

"Here we're different, we're new," Gogo, 56, said. Her cornbread, country fried steak and pesto garlic wedges are "another voice, another form of love."

Her husband, Roderick Sweetwine Sr., is the head baker. He keeps the refrigerator stocked with five kinds of cheesecake, including sweet potato and rum raisin. Sisters Barbara and Selena cook and take care of the customers. Roderick Sweetwine Jr. handles the register and front of the house.

The Sweetwines' 30-year-old son is the business brains behind Gogo's. He chose the location and picked yellow and red for the interior because "it's been proven those colors make you hungry."

So far, he said, the bistro is "on the projected track for a new restaurant."

There are days when only two or three customers show up, and locals who predict that the restaurant won't survive. But Gogo's has struck a chord with many in the neighborhood in the year and a half since it opened.

Workers from surrounding businesses call in lunch orders, and Yelp reviews give the food high marks. Customers come from Alhambra and Huntington Park — even as far as Diamond Bar.

On a recent Saturday, an Ella Fitzgerald song came from the bistro's speakers, drowning out traffic and rancheras outside.

A young married couple who walked from downtown had a lunch of meatloaf and country fried steak as Gabriela Giron, 56, and her family waited for their order.

Giron has lived in Boyle Heights more than 30 years. She was a faithful customer of New Formosa Cafe, the Chinese restaurant that occupied the building before Gogo's took over.

When the bistro opened, Giron had no clue what to think. She had never heard of Southern food, but was grateful for something new — something not Mexican. She was curious about the cheesecake.

"Everything around here is burritos and tacos or fast food all the time," she said. "It feels great to have change for once."

The mother of seven is now a regular, thanks to her children, who cover the tab.

Gogo knows the neighborhood well, having grown up a few blocks away. She understands that prices may be too high for some working-class families in the area. The pork fried rice is $9.75, garlic pork roast is $11.95 and mozzarella sticks are $6.25.

Still, she does what she can to welcome her new neighbors.

She plays movies once a week on a big-screen TV overlooking the restaurant and keeps a stash of comic books for customers. She hands out free cookies to children and hosts a monthly food giveaway for struggling families.

"Mama Gogo's is for everyone," she said. "I want folks to come here and feel comfort and warmth, like they're in my home."

Before setting up shop in Boyle Heights, Gogo — whose real name is Dessie — worked at a shelter in Pasadena, feeding the homeless.

For as long as she can remember, people have flocked to her food, dishes she learned to cook from her mother, grandmother and godmother. She used to spend hours as a child watching the women, natives of Louisiana, work their magic in the kitchen.

Years ago, she turned her love for cooking into a catering business. Now, a restaurant.

"All I've ever wanted in my life was to cook, to nourish people's spirits and stomachs," Gogo said. "That's exactly what I'm doing here and what I'm going to keep doing as long as people let me."

esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Loading
78°