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Food

The Los Angeles riots: Inspiration behind a culinary upheaval

It is the first morning of May 1992, and the air outside my Koreatown apartment is acrid with lingering smoke. I gingerly wander through the neighborhood, hoping to find a place to buy a quart of milk.

Around the corner on Vermont Avenue is a now-famous ruin, a block-long strip mall whose smoking, melted contours have been broadcast around the world in the last 24 hours. Dozens of stores on the street have been stripped and looted.

The day before, I had lingered on my stoop watching people stagger down the block with pillaged sporting goods, small appliances, VHS tapes, cheap furniture, toys and plastic-wrapped suits from the dry cleaners. I wandered over to Vermont in time to see two young men put down their booty just long enough to help an elderly woman wrestle a tufted chair across the street; to see a woman I recognized from the block offer children snacks from her armful of bagged Filipino treats; to see passing motorists smile and wave as they inched down the busy street. The one policeman on the scene drank coffee and tried not to look anyone in the eye.

There was a single Salvadoran restaurant open in the burned-out mall, a well-lighted redoubt of caldo de pollo surrounded by ruined stores, but I didn’t find a place to buy milk until the supermarkets opened the next day.

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The neighborhood — the diversity of the neighborhood — may have been what drove me to write about food in the first place. Immediately before the riots there had been restaurants from 14 regions within a few minutes walk from my apartment. Not just the Korean, Mexican and Japanese places you might have expected, but restaurants from Sumatra, Thailand, Guatemala, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Holland, Colombia, Nicaragua, Japan and Peru among others — all coexisting, all more or less delicious.

It’s one thing to decide whether you feel like burgers or pizza for dinner; another to choose between bangus, empek-empek, or brains masala. It was hard to tell whether the most exotic of the restaurants was the place that advertised “Fil-Italian cuisine — stranger than fiction!” or the hot-dog stand specializing in a kind of red-hot previously unobtainable outside of Rochester, N.Y.

Before the riots, Los Angeles had been notorious in some circles as a kind of multicultural nightmare, a fever-swamp of global capitalism on a path to becoming the city portrayed in “Blade Runner.” An entire school of urbanism, sometimes called the “L.A. School,” had emerged to study our sunny dystopia.

But change in Los Angeles is often easier to track by looking at its restaurants rather than its boardrooms, and from the business end of a pair of chopsticks, extreme diversity didn’t look so bad. Sometimes equality, democracy and tolerance are virtues you fight for on distant battlefields, and sometimes they are as close as the frozen-food aisle at Vons. The neighborhood wasn’t tidy, but until those few hours in late April, it worked.

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And then it didn’t.

A number of restaurants in Koreatown moved; others never reopened. Tour buses full of free-spending Asian tourists vanished, and without them, an entire class of expensive Asian restaurants withered and died.

It wasn’t just my neighborhood that melted down in the heat of the fires. It became impossible to lure Westside friends to Pico-Union for nacatamales or goat birria. The concentration of Creole restaurants and groceries east of Leimert Park dwindled to almost nothing.

It was the idea of the grand mosaic, of L.A.'s multicultural exceptionalism that melted down as well. For months, it became uncomfortable to stroll into a cafe off of Central Avenue for a plate of pigtails and greens, or even for a chili dog at Florence and Normandie, without having to confront the unspoken questions of why you were there, what you were looking for, and when you were planning to leave. Apparently “eat lunch” was not the appropriate answer.

The malaise spread. Old-line steakhouses in the Ambassador District closed, and the downtown dining scene withered. Much of the promise of the post-Olympics 1980s, when Los Angeles was revealed to the world as a first-class dining town, sputtered and died. Restaurant-hopping Angelenos, who practically invented the idea of dining as sport, retreated to familiar neighborhood dining rooms or to their own backyards. Los Angeles is a city famously divided into a thousand discrete enclaves, and the walls between them had become appreciably higher.

But some Angelenos didn’t retreat — they regrouped.

In retrospect, the strength of Los Angeles as a restaurant city may owe less to the average Angeleno’s cosmopolitanism than it does to the desire of homesick expatriates to reproduce exactly the tastes, the smells of their hometown. Here you can find the cooking not only of China, or even of metro Shanghai, but of Wuxi. The best-regarded Thai restaurant specializes in fishy, pungent dishes from coastal Southern Thailand. South-side street vendors peddle fermented cactus drinks unknown outside a 10-mile radius of the proprietor’s coastal Mexican hometown. A thousand tiny worlds.

After the riots, L.A.'s insularity somehow fostered restaurants with a strength of purpose, even stronger and more specific than they had previously been. Mainstream restaurants began to find their inspiration within L.A.'s communities rather than outside them. You began to see chefs congregating at places like Guelaguetza and Sapp on their days off, and the standard Los Angeles style of service grew to become more like the shared-plates meals at local Japanese izakaya, or Thai coffee shops, or Korean pubs, or Mexican botana bars — almost as a sign of L.A. cultural literacy, but perhaps something more.

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The difference between high cuisine and street cuisine, between “ethnic” cooking and American food, began to fade. Some of the best new “mainstream” restaurants of the last couple of years — Lukshon, Spice Table, LaOn, Post & Beam — were opened by classically trained chefs looking outward from their traditions rather than inward.

I wandered down my old block last week, shaking hands with neighbors I hadn’t seen in years, dodging the tricycles owned by the children of the people whose tricycles I had dodged 20 years ago. The neo-Georgian four-plexes were freshly painted, and the cooking smells drifting across the lawns seemed to be basically the same ethereal blend of kimchi, chile and grilling meat — not unlike a Kogi truck drawn out to the length of a city block. It wasn’t home any longer, but it felt as if it could be.

jonathan.gold@latimes.com

One in a series of stories about the 1992 riots and how they reshaped Southern California.


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