“The buildings that line these roads are so familiar that when an aging complex gets a new coat of paint I feel momentarily dizzy — as if the world has been shaken for an instant. So how was this street, with structures dating back to the late 19th century, unknown to me after so many years of living here?”
A flâneur takes to the streets, uncovering surprises — both modest and startling — on walks through a city that’s reinventing itself around every corner.
In a city the size of Los Angeles, food trends wash up with a kind of regularity that sees the poke spot of yesterday replaced by the hot chicken place of today as rumors begin to mill about a birria place coming soon. Some of these eateries will rise above the rest and remain fixtures in the local culinary landscape, but there are points in the development of foodie trends where you can see the boat on which they float begin to list, and suddenly you know that there are simply too many hot chicken options for each to survive.
As universally loved as hot chicken has become, it might have been better off had it not seen quite so many purveyors jump in with their own secret recipes. What is it then, that allows a few cuisines to consistently come forward with new takes and never succumb to the dangers of an overcrowded market? I offer you a case study: pizza.
On Portia Street, just off Sunset Boulevard, in a space that used to house the sandwich shop Trencher, Quarter Sheets Pizza Club recently launched its brick-and-mortar existence. It’s a little tentative here at the start, as omicron keeps diners on the sidewalk, eating on waist-high tables, not lingering any longer than an Italian would when downing a cup of espresso.
The menu is a little unconventional for a casual pizza spot, offering wine by the glass to accompany your slice, as well as cakes ranging from princess to chocolate cream. But let’s focus on the main event, a slice they call “Red Top” embodying simplicity itself, made with mozzarella, red sauce, Grana Padano and basil.
One might argue this squared-off slice luring you with its heft is a Detroit-style pizza. I would suggest Quarter Sheets has come up with a crust that is less pizza than focaccia, as my teeth shatter the brittle crust at the edges to find a deeply satisfying chew closer to the center of the slice. Of course, this would be an exercise in bread appreciation were it not for these core pizza ingredients combining into something I had an almost primal appreciation for.
Was it wrong of me to order another slice five minutes after finishing the first? I don’t think so. Standing on the corner, looking out at the traffic on Sunset, I wondered if I needed to look into an apartment up the street.
I joined the easterly flow on Sunset and left Echo Park, heading toward the Music Center’s plaza, where I drank in the details of iconic buildings nearby: the louvered glass panels on the north side of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the perennial modernity of the Walt Disney Concert Hall and, of course, City Hall’s pyramid-capped tower, its reassuring familiarity like an old friend whose face still reveals the child you once knew. From here you can better appreciate the crazy-quilt makeup of downtown Los Angeles. Not wanting to retrace my steps along Sunset, I headed west on 1st Street before cutting north, up Beaudry Avenue to Temple Street, then crossed over the 101 at Edgeware Road. Just two blocks away from the 101, on an upward climb, I came across a sign announcing my arrival at Carroll Avenue and the highest concentration of Victorian-era residences in Los Angeles.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve driven along Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park or merged from the Four Level onto the 101 going north and west toward Hollywood. The buildings that line these roads are so familiar that when an aging complex gets a new coat of paint I feel momentarily dizzy — as if the world has been shaken for an instant. So how was this street, with structures dating back to the late 19th century, unknown to me after so many years of living here?
Carroll Avenue is not lengthy, comprising just a couple of long blocks, but it offers us a remarkable trip through the remains of Victorian Los Angeles. The homes are in various states of repair; some expertly restored, possibly more stable now than on the day their first residents moved in. Others, sometimes right next door, are covered in scaffolding or stand propping up a destroyed porch roof with wooden beams which almost sigh aloud with the effort.
Two camera-toting women speaking German pass by me and, for a moment, we dance around each other as we snap pictures of houses on the street. I hear music emanating from behind a larger house and can see some single-story apartments in the back. I stop to listen and to try and figure out if it’s a full band playing. The accompanying drums don’t have the physical impact I would expect, but after hanging on to the singer’s final lines, I hear a smattering of applause from some appreciative listeners and smile.
Edgeware Road forms a half-circle around Angelino Heights so that Carroll Avenue dead-ends into it from both sides of the street. When you reach Edgeware again, turn left and walk down the hill to where it joins Bellevue Avenue. Turn right and follow it until you meet the corner of Echo Park. Here lies another L.A. landmark that I’ve neglected for far too long.
Following the controversial removal of a homeless encampment located in its northwest corner, Echo Park is now encircled by a chain-link fence, and you can only gain entry through openings at each end. The former encampment remains completely gated off and Echo Park is now closed off to Angelenos between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 5 a.m. As I walked into the park, I was greeted by a flood of families and couples enjoying the sunny afternoon, picnicking on the grassy slope by the east shore and circling the walkway around the lake. The lake was drained recently, so its new plantings are still in the process of taking hold, with the edges of the lake considerably less crammed with the reeds and lily pads that used to hold court there. But they will come back and provide a draw to what is my favorite recent development: the swan boats are now adorned with thin strands of golden lights that drape around their graceful necks and wings. If you see them out at night, they will strike you as a little bit magical — beacons floating out on the dark lake, its fountain sending constant geysers into the sky.
I exited the park on its north side, continuing up Lemoyne Street to Sunset, before turning right and stopping in at Echo Park’s neighborhood bookstore, Stories. Every visit I’ve made to Stories in the last few months has revealed a music-related book that I’ve not seen elsewhere and hastened to purchase. The latest is a barely fictional novel by the artist Nick Blinko about his early days leading the cult punk band, Rudimentary Peni, complete with his exquisite drawings of horror dreamscapes. With the book satisfyingly tucked into my arm, I continued up Echo Park Avenue, admiring the wooden enclosure erected in front of the new wine bar, Tilda, and the Roman-style restaurant Bacetti. Had Tilda been open I might have drawn my wanderings to a close, but alas, both were shuttered. Just slightly further ahead, near long-time neighborhood staple Cookbook, is a new store called des pair books — a fair play on words for our present reality. It’s the kind of spot where you take a chance on a book — only for it to become a favorite — because the small store is well-curated. When they’re open, raise a glass at Tilda for the locally-owned bookstores that make Echo Park a better place.
After backtracking slightly to Scott Avenue and a San Francisco-steep hill to climb, I end my walk with, yes, another slice of pizza. This time it’s from Slasher, which looks out onto the corner of Scott and Glendale Boulevard from a window that’s barely big enough to peer through into the kitchen. Their name and logo would seem to be at least a nod — if not genuflection — to L.A.’s great punk-era magazine, Slash. Their offerings feature a more traditional slant, but their cacio e pepe pizza, studded with cooked mushrooms, pecorino and a liberal serving of black pepper, carves out a corner of its own in L.A.’s ever-growing pizza world. In this stretch of Echo Park, it will taste like home.