An adventuresome itinerary in Little Tokyo, Boyle Heights and Pasadena.
Lost Angeles is a column about getting lost — and found — on solo expeditions in the city.
I’m writing this at Cafe Demitasse in Little Tokyo, sipping the best hot chocolate known to man — a thick, slurpable, lavender-infused concoction topped with a big, fat marshmallow that’s caramelized with a blowtorch. It’s called “sipping chocolate,” technically, and it’s so thick. It’s one of the first things I ever consumed in Los Angeles. And it’s still one of my favorites.
I used to come to Demitasse a lot when I lived in Boyle Heights, just a few miles away. I had recently moved to L.A. and didn’t have a car. On weekends, I’d take the Gold Line and explore the Eastside.
Regardless of who you are and how long you’ve been here, whether you love this city or can’t wait to leave, there is one thing we can all agree on: L.A. is chimeric. There are countless cities within this city. Countless versions of who we, ourselves, could be. And to me, the Gold Line is a way to experience them all.
The metro line starts in East L.A. and runs through Boyle Heights, Little Tokyo, Chinatown, Highland Park and Pasadena. It’s within walking distance of so many destinations: Mariachi Plaza, MOCA, the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles State Historic Park, the Heritage Square Museum, the Autry Museum and Pasadena’s Old Town. Depending on how much you want to linger, just two stops can lead to a satisfying day-long itinerary.
I’d walk to Mariachi Plaza and drop by Restaurant Santa Cecilia for some tacos al pastor. Then I’d hop on the Gold Line — the station entrance is mere feet away — and head down to Little Tokyo. In an effort to rouse myself from a pork-induced coma, I’d usually stop in for a rosemary iced latte at Demitasse. Or if it were a bit later in the afternoon, or earlier in the morning, I’d indulge with the aforementioned lavender hot chocolate.
Demitasse has three locations in Los Angeles — one in Santa Monica and another near LACMA — but the one in Little Tokyo is by far my favorite. It sits at the corner of San Pedro Street and East 2nd Street, with a just-roomy-enough outdoor patio. It’s perfect for people-watching. Sitting in the sun on a warm January afternoon is what this coffee shop is made for. Tourists, suits, the occasional Harajuku Girl.
Scenes from on and off the Gold Line, including the outdoor patio at Little Tokyo’s Demitasse and Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights. Photos by Gowri Chandra.
I hadn’t been in a long while, so I decided to take the Gold Line back. Not having taken the metro in years, I realized that it took some planning. I had to figure out where to park my car. Would I Uber to the metro stop? What about a jacket if I got cold? Would my backpack get too heavy? Did I have on comfy shoes? These are the questions I used to entertain daily when I took the metro to work. Now, they seemed overwhelming and cumbersome. But I’d committed myself to this column. I had to do it.
Although L.A.’s disdain for public transportation is a tired trope, it’s actually become truer in recent years. As Curbedreports, Angeleno’s train usage actually dipped in 2018 — for the first time since 2015 — despite a well-publicized Expo Line extension.
Still, Metro hopes the Gold Line will push beyond that. It’s currently being extended from its easternmost point in Azusa to Pomona — due in 2025.
As much as I love driving in Los Angeles and can’t imagine living without my car (I know this will seem offensive and myopic to some people — I’m working on it), I also can’t imagine living in a Los Angeles without a metro. Experiencing the city by rail makes it feel like more of a city. And having grown up in the suburbs, the metro still holds a romantic pull that I just can’t shake.
First Stop: Restaurant Santa Cecilia
Around noon, I arrive at Restaurant Santa Cecilia. It sits squarely in the middle of Mariachi Plaza — thus named for the mariachi players who congregate on weekends, in between performances — across the street from the now-famous La Monarca Bakery. Founded by Ricardo Cervantes and Alfredo Livas in Huntington Park in 2006, the local chain has over a dozen locations.
Restaurant Santa Cecilia, in contrast, has been here for nearly a quarter-century and is quite content with its self-contained existence. Chef/owner Armando Salazar has been at the helm for all that time, following a successful career in Italian restaurants. Over the past 24 years, he’s seen the neighborhood change significantly around him. But his recipe for al pastor — marinated for three days in a vinegar bath with New Mexico chiles, garlic, cumin, cloves and salt — has stayed quite the same. It’s my favorite in all of Los Angeles.
There’s no trompo here — no roasting spit of which to speak of. But the marbled chunks of meat, served on thick, scalloped-edged, handmade tortillas, are satisfactorily complex. My go-to order is two tacos al pastor ($2.50 each), which are quite large. This time I threw in a $3 sope (or a disc of masa served with meat and veggie toppings), which was also handmade and pan-fried to perfection. Santa Cecilia is cash-only and only has a few stools for customers at its scant counter space. However, the best seat in the house is out front in the plaza. On weekends, there’ll probably be mariachi players at the two or three tables outside; seating is communal.
I know if I overuse the word “favorite” it will cease to have weight. But that is indeed how I feel about Libros Schmibros. The independent library founded in 2010 is also among my favorite things in this city. It’s free to sign up; you don’t even need ID. You just write your name and email on a piece of paper and you can take home your first book (to keep!). You can also borrow a total of three books at any given time. They have all the canonical gems: Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle;” Aristotle; contemporary fiction and non-fiction too.
Libros Schmibros is a place that feels too good to be true. But it is. The non-profit library subsists largely on grants, enabling visitors a very low barrier to membership. I contemplate checking out “The Jungle” which has been on my list for years — and having just eaten pork, which I have many feelings out, now would be a good time — but given that I have Willa Cather’s “My Antonia” in my backpack, I refrain.
Third Stop: Cafe Demitasse
Getting to Demitasse from Mariachi Plaza couldn’t be easier. You take the train two stops down to the Little Tokyo station. From there, the coffee shop is a pleasant and negligible .3-mile walk. I just ended up buying individual tickets — adult fare is $1.75 a pop — but a $7-day pass would probably make more sense.
Having already sung my praises about Demitasse, I’m moving on to my last stop.
I know, I know. This one seems out of the way. Go all the way to Pasadena? For a movie theater? Well, not just any movie theater. A dollar theater. Not enough is said about dollar theaters. Why does no one talk about them? They are magic. Anachronistic, and proudly so, Academy Cinemas’ prices are just $3.50 for a ticket and even less for matinees. When I was on my $14-an-hour assistant salary, this slotted nicely into my weekly budget, and often, it was my solo outing for the week. I did make the mistake once of watching “Frozen” on a Sunday afternoon — so many high-pitched squeals; so many sticky seats — but other than that, I’ve had only positive experiences. They are understandably strict about not letting you bring in your own food — although I have snuck in nutritional yeast and Tobasco for my popcorn.
I must confess, this time I didn’t make it to see a movie. I was tired and planned my time poorly and needed to be in Sherman Oaks in the evening. And I had deadlines to meet. But you bet your ass I will be seeing “Cats” for $3.50 as soon as I can.