6 delicious settings from Ryan Gattis’ South L.A. crime epic, “The System”

The exterior of Balam Mexican restaurant
Balam Mexican restaurant, depicted in Ryan Gattis’ new location-heavy crime novel “The System,” in Lynwood.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Eating List

Ryan Gattis on Restaurants in "The System"

The author of a new South L.A. crime novel lists his favorite settings in the book — all of them restaurants.

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After a violent attack at age 17, I lost my ability to smell or taste. The surgeon who fixed me made no promises about either sense ever returning. When they eventually did, it felt like a gift. I had never before been an adventurous eater, but after that I’ve eaten almost anything, anywhere (horse sushi in Tokyo, pig intestine in Zaragoza, Spain — not that I’d recommend either). Food inspires me, educates me and bonds me with others. Whenever I sit down to meet people for research and background, it is always over a meal. Without comida and community, I may never have come to know and love this county as deeply as I do. Below are spots both thriving and defunct that play an important role in my new novel, “The System,” and in my life. And while you can’t dine in at the moment, some takeout would pair excellently with the novel.

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Open-air seating at Balam Mexican restaurant
Open-air seating at Balam, a Mexican restaurant whose predecessor is depicted in “The System.”
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Balam Mexican Kitchen (11700 Long Beach Blvd., Lynwood)
Balam wasn’t around in 1993, when “The System” is set, but Tacos Mexico was. A neighborhood fixture not far from the novel’s opening crime, it’s where a crucial witness is later tracked down. The building is now home to Balam, one of the most innovative taquerias in California, famous for its Tropical T: a coconut-crusted, fried shrimp taco topped with mango pico and roasted pumpkin seeds, wrapped in a chilled “tortilla” of hibiscus-infused jicama. Trust me, the combination is even better than it sounds.

Ryan Gattis at the entrance to Mariscos El Paisa restaurant.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Mariscos El Paisa (10320 Long Beach Blvd., Lynwood)

On a chilly December ’93 day in a place painted like perpetual summer — seagulls soar above an island on a sky-blue wall — two characters sit down for a summit at this Sinaloa-style seafood spot. One pulls a rookie move and gets tacos, but the other orders soup like a champion: albondigas de camarón (shrimp meatballs).

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Tam’s Burgers (11816 Long Beach Blvd., Lynwood)

I’d only ever had chili cheese fries from Tam’s once before I decided to set a scene there. The experience of sitting in the dining area while watching cars slingshot off the boulevard into the U-shaped drive-through was more than enough. In “The System,” a sheriff attempts to decide between Tam’s polish sausage breakfast plate and a glorious pastrami breakfast burrito (which isn’t exactly on the menu but might be available if you ask politely), only to be interrupted by having to make an arrest.

Exterior of the Potholder Cafe in Long Beach.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

The Potholder Cafe (3700 E. Broadway, Long Beach)

An excellent any-time breakfast spot, this local favorite hosts a clandestine date that will land two characters in a heap of trouble. Though the meeting confirms the motive behind two young men being framed for a crime, it also contains a brief conversation on Italian-Mexican fusion dishes. I’m often tempted by the French dip but never order it; instead I tend to build my own omelette around the “chili verde” turkey.

The 22nd Street Landing in San Pedro,
The 22nd Street Landing in San Pedro, onetime haunt of Charles Bukowski and a setting in “The System.”
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

22nd Street Landing (141 W. 22nd St., Suite A, second floor, San Pedro)

A restaurant and bar that overlooks the Cabrillo Marina, 22nd Street Landing opened for business in 1990, and it’s practically brand new when a prosecutor meets one of the key witnesses in her case there. Though it’s primarily known for its seafood, Charles Bukowski is said to have occasionally stopped by for a glass of white wine during his final years in Pedro.

Ante’s Restaurant (formerly 729 S. Palos Verdes St., San Pedro)

The setting for an unsuccessful blind date in “The System,” Ante’s went out of business years ago, but the façade — with its cobbled rock, brass-detailed front doors and stained-glass windows hiding behind decorative wrought-iron bars — is still one of my favorites in Los Angeles. My wife took me there on one of our early dates for my first taste of Croatian food (pasta with sides of sauerkraut and cevapčići). The last remnant of Ante’s legacy is a blue sign near the 7th Street intersection, designating this chunk of the street “Ante Perkov Way: Immigrant of Croatia and philanthropist of the San Pedro Community.”

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