Sunday, May 3, 2009

More places to visit in and around Los Angeles

Los Angeles and its surrounding areas are filled many amazing places to visit. There are many things to do. Here is a list of some of the best places to visit.

Pink’s Hot Dogs

Pink’s is a Hollywood institution. On La Brea Boulevard near Melrose Avenue, it is the best place to get a hot dog, and not just any old hot dog. Pink’s hot dogs are not overcooked, they are fresh and topped with unique and creative ingredients. A great dog is the Guadalajara dog with relish, sour cream, onions and tomatoes. Forget about the ketchup and mustard. These hot dogs are not the run of the mill dogs. And if you are not in the mood for a hot dog, Pink’s also offers burgers, burritos and a selection of other tasty treats.

For more information about Pink’s Hot Dogs, visit

Canter’s Deli

A corned beef sandwich on rye bread and a pickle. Yum. Just one of the many menu options available at Canter’s. And do not forget to stop by the bakery on your way out of Canter’s Deli on Fairfax Boulevard in Los Angeles. The Jewish deli, bakery and restaurant is open 24 hours a day. Stop by any time you want some fresh rugala or macaroons. With reasonable prices and a menu that offers something for everybody, Canter’s is on the short list of places you must visit in Los Angeles.

For more information about Canter’s, visit

Du-par’s Restaurant and Bakery

The oldest restaurant in Farmer’s Market at Fairfax and Third is also the best place to buy pie. Du-par’s first opened in the late 1930s and was renovated a few years ago. It reopened in 2006 and it has the best pie around. A whole pie costs about $10 and there is everything from peach pie to strawberry lemon pie, which is now being offered for the month of May. It is not the typical chain diner. There is a real feeling of the 1930s in the restaurant. The staff are friendly and the prices are right. And Du-pars is also open 24 hours.

For more information about Du-par’s, visit

Billy’s Deli

Billy’s is another deli, but it is a great deli in its own right. Billy’s offers a selection of sandwiches and other meals, but the atmosphere is one of its best qualities. The walls are filled with historic photographs of California and two large aerial shots of what the surrounding area looked like before it was developed. It is the type of place that has regulars and the staff know their names. And instead of getting a basket of bread or some chips and salsa, a bowl of thick pickle slices is set on the table. If you love pickles, Billy’s is the place to go. They are fresh and crisp and not too sour.

For more information, visit

Amoeba Music

Located on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, Amoeba Music is the place to go to find the latest music, movies and memorabilia. Not only that, Amoeba also has an extensive collection of used VHS tapes, DVDs, CDs and cassette tapes. Walking into Amoeba is like walking into a warehouse for anything movie, TV or music related. There is not just one floor, but there are two floors of fun things to peruse through. Movie lovers and music fans should definitely check this out.

For more information about Amoeba music, visit

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Los Angeles, home of the best bagels and chili

Los Angeles has a lot to offer to its visitors and its residents. In particular it has a lot to offer in the way of food, not just any food, but really good food. From gourmet to fast food, the options are limitless.

But two places to get really good food in Los Angeles are the Original Tommy’s Hamburgers and Brooklyn Bagel.

Both are extremely different in their offerings, but both are essential to visit if you enjoy chili, burgers or bagels.

Tommy’s, founded by Tom Koulax in 1946, is a staple in Los Angeles.

“There’s nowhere else to get chili around here,” Wilton Mijngos, local said.

Mijngos said he has been a customer of Tommy’s original location on the corner of Beverly Boulevard and Rampart Boulevard for 20 years.

The original shack has a counter that runs along the side so that customers can eat their food. Eating standing up is the only option at Tommy's and it really adds to the whole experience.

“I’ve been coming here since I was young,” Mijngos said. “It comes natural to me.”

The original location in Los Angeles was originally just a shack on the corner of the street, but today it is a shack with a parking lot and one other serving station. Both offer walkup service to customers.

Part of the unique ambiance of the restaurant is the complete absence of tables, chairs, and an indoor eating area.

Customers form a line at the shack or at the other ordering station to order their chili dogs, chili burgers and other chili items, and they find a place at one of the counters that run along the shack and the building across the parking lot.

A chili boat with cheese, onions, pickles and a slice of tomato. Tommy's also offers chili dogs, chili cheese fries, chili tamales and breakfast.

Napkin holders are on the walls and there is plenty of elbow room needed for eating the deliciously messy Tommy’s fare.

Koulax’s mission for Tommy’s was not just about great food, but great service too.

“Back in the day he was all about serving the customer,” Robert Auerbach said. “It was a working man’s philosophy.”

Auerbach, the regional supervisor and Koulax’s stepson, said he grew up working at Tommy’s in North Hills and that Koulax gave him a chance to prove himself.

“I considered him dad,” Auerbach said.

“Dad used to bring home burgers every night,” Auerbach said. “We loved Tommy’s.”

Auerbach not only loves the food, but he said he loves working for Tommy’s as well. He has been with the company for 25 years.

Auerbach said that for years the only advertising that Tommy’s did was in a “little square” in the sports section in the “Los Angeles Times,” and that many of the customers learned of Tommy’s by word of mouth.

Even though times have changed, little has changed at Tommy’s.

“It’s very East Coast,” Auerbach said. “It’s real high quality.”

Auerbach said that recently after more than 40 years, the restaurant is back with Coca Cola and that it has added fountain drinks at the original location that previously only sold soda in cans.

The original location is open 24 hours. It does not matter what time you crave a chili burger, just head on over to Tommy's.

“We just rolled out Coca Cola back in the shack,” Auerbach said. “The customers voted to put Coca Cola back. We put a great value on our customers.

Tommy’s is a great place to not only get great chili, but great customer service.

Brooklyn Bagel is also the place to go to get great food and excellent customer service.

“I am an on-the-premises owner,” Richard Friedman, owner and son of the founder said. “I care about my customers.”

The bagel store that was started in 1953 by Friedman’s father Seymour Friedman is the best bagel store in Los Angeles.

Bagels are made on site at Brooklyn Bagel in Los Angeles. They are always fresh and delicious.

I am not the only one who thinks so. According to Friedman, Brooklyn Bagel was voted number one by “L.A. Magazine” in 2008, 1998, 1995, 1989 and 1983.

“We think it’s better that we use a malt recipe,” Friedman said.

Not only do they use a malt recipe, but when they make a flavored bagel such as onion, it is not just a plain bagel with a topping.

“We try to make it onion inside and out,” Freidman said.

He said that they actually put onion in the dough.

Friedman said that there are 25 varieties of bagel and that the most popular bagel is the water plain bagel.

There are also other flavors like cheese, sesame and cinnamon raisin.

There is nothing quite like a fresh cheese bagel from Brooklyn Bagel if you are a cheese lover.

For the best tasting and the freshest bagels in town, make sure to stop by Brooklyn Bagel in Los Angeles located at 2217 Beverly Blvd.

For more information about Tommy's Original Hamburgers, visit

Gas: About $5
Parking: Free
Food at Tommys: About $5
Bagels: About $3
Total amount spent: About $13

A new Chinatown with old roots

Painted dragons, trinket shops and herbal stores, all on one street in Los Angeles. Broadway is not just a main street in Los Angeles, but it is the main commercial artery running through the new Chinatown.

Though it may not seem so new, what we now know as Chinatown is actually the new Chinatown. It was previously located where Union Station is today.

From the Great Wall bookstore to the Golden Eagle store, Chinatown has many things to offer its visitors and regulars.

“It’s different than other places,” said Michael Huyn, the nephew of the owner of The Golden Eagle.

The Golden Eagle is a store that sells sandals, waving porcelain cats and bamboo umbrellas among many other trinkets and knickknacks that are common in Chinatown.

Paper lanterns, live turtles, little Buddahs and windchimes fill the Golden Eagle on Broadway Street in Chinatown.

Huyn said that his uncle’s store has been in operation for more than ten years.

He said that he grew up in Chinatown and that he comes back often.

“It’s kind of like our icon,” Huyn said.

Randy Bin, a friend of Huyn, said that he enjoys spending time in Chinatown and that one of the places he spends the most time at is the basketball court that is free to anyone who wants to play.

“It’s pretty cool,” Bin said.

Susie Ling, associate professor of Asian American studies and history at Pasadena City College is a member of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California.

“We love Chinese American history and we are dedicated to bring awareness of it to the community,” Ling said.

“Chinatown is the historical foundation,” Ling said. “It exists because of both positive and negative forces.”

Ling said that because of discrimination in the 19th Century, Chinese in the United States could not live in regular communities and so they created their own community.

“Chinatown allowed early Chinese Americans and even someone like me to enjoy and celebrate the Chinese Culture,” Ling said. “It served as a home to celebrate the culture as well as a safe haven in early years.”

Ling said she came to the United States when she was 17.

“It’s a work place,” Ling said. “A very complex, very historically rooted place.”

“There’s history that’s right underneath you and often ignored,” Ling said.

New Chinatown was built in 1938 when the old Chinatown was demolished to make way for Union Station in Los Angeles. Old Chinatown was established in the late 1800s.

By 1900, according to the Chinatown Historical Society of Southern California, there were believed to be more than 3,000 Chinese residing in Los Angeles.

Though the Chinese in the U.S. faced discrimination and hardship, they came together at what is now a thriving historical landmark in Los Angeles.

Metro Gold Line has a Chinatown stop on Spring Street. The stop is just a short walk from shops and other attractions.

Ling said that some of the most fun things that happen in Chinatown are the annual parade and the New Years Firecracker 5K/10K Run/Walk.

This year the run helped to raise money for Castelar Elementary School, one of the oldest schools in Los Angeles.

Dragons painted in the crosswalk at the intersection of Broadway Street and Bernard Street lead the way to the various bakeries, herbal shops and other stores.

For the most recent New Year’s celebration, Chinatown celebrated the Year of the Ox with a parade and festivities that lasted for a week. The 2009 parade was the 110th Annual Golden Dragon Parade.

Chinatown is much more than a tourist attraction. It is a place that brings a city together and many of different generations to appreciate its rich history and to look to its continuing bright future.

Gas: About $3
Parking: Free (Not all of the parking is free)
Total amount spent: About $3

Bob's is still hopping in the 21st Century

One Big Boy, one cherry coke and a side order of crispy onion rings please. That has been the meal, or some variation of that combination has been a meal of choice for many who have passed through the glass doors of the oldest remaining Bob’s Big Boy, located near the Warner Bros. Studios in the Toluca Lake section of Burbank along the 134 Freeway on Riverside Drive.

Hamburgers come with Bob's Big Boy special relish that really sets them apart from other burgers.

And though the food is delicious and that of classic America, many also come to the retro piece of American history for the weekly car show on Friday night.

“It’s just a nice place where people come together with a mutual appreciation of classic cars,” Chris Sabatino, a local chiropractor said.

Sabatino said he has been coming to Bob’s Big Boy for the past 20 years and that he attends the car show regularly, rain or shine. He showed up with his fully restored 1960 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. Sabatino has a passion for classic cars, but Cadillacs specifically.

“I’m a cruiser guy,” Sabatino said.

“It was a time when people aspired to be better that they were. People respected America and they respected the name Cadillac. It signified the best,” Sabatino said. “The whole world marveled at our cars.”

Sabatino said he enjoys coming to the weekly car nights. His Cadillac Coupe de Ville is just one of many cars that he has restored.

Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank was built in 1949 by locals Scott MacDonald and Ward Albert. Wayne McAllister, a noted architect, designed the building.

According to manager Frank Rodriguez, Bob’s was one of the most famous and popular such restaurants in the late 1940s, and through to the 1960s.

Bob Wian founded the Bob’s Big Boy chain in Glendale in the late 1936. Prior to being sold to the Marriot in 1966, there were more than 500 locations nationwide.

“Everybody loves Bob’s Big Boy,” Rodriguez said.

“People used to line up for the carhop service and there would be a line out to the front,” Rodriguez said.

Though the days of roller skating waitresses bringing burgers and shakes to car windows are gone, Bob’s still offers the carhop service with a couple of modifications. The servers no longer wear roller skates and the carhop service is only available Saturdays and Sundays from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Though places like Bob’s are becoming harder and harder to find, the famous hamburger joint is always hopping Friday nights.

“People come even if they have to drive 30 or 40 miles or so,” Rodriguez said.

He estimated that from Friday morning, to 6 a.m. Saturday morning, between 5,500 and 6,000 customers eat at Bob’s and that about 1,000 come just for the car show in the evening.

“You just come to show off the work you put in to your car,” Karl Damisch, owner of a 1968 Chevrolet Chevelle and a car show regular said.

“All my friends had hotrods and it kind of grew on me,” he said.

Jesse Rios is also a car show regular and he brought out his 1969 Pontiac Firebird.

Rios' Firebird was one of many automobiles at the weekly car show at Bob's Big Boy. There were convertibles, trucks and even a few motorcycles.

“I like old things, classic things, because there are not many of them,” Rios said.

Rios said he started coming to the car show four years ago and that he enjoys his time there talking to other car owners, networking and seeing what others have done with their cars.

Bob’s Big Boy is an American icon that should not be lost in the shuffle. Bob’s is doing its part in preserving a huge part of American history, but it is also doing much more than that.

The Big Boy himself stands tall outside the entrance of the oldest remaining Big Boy location.

Every month, the Burbank Bob’s donates one percent of its dining room sales to various charities. It has adopted four charities.

In January, May and September, it makes a donation to the Burbank Police Department Downed Officers’ Foundation. The Donations continue to rotate among the John Burroughs High School Scholarship Fund, The Burbank High School Scholarship Fund and the Northridge Hospital’s Children’s Assault Treatment Services.

Bob’s is not only concerned about the community, but also the environment. Rodriguez said that the restaurant is going to go partially solar in about three months. He said that solar panels will be added above the carport outside the restaurant.

Bob's Big Boy, an American icon is sure to please hamburger lovers and car fans alike.

With its streamline architecture, retro signs and retro lighting, Bob’s Big Boy is an instant reminder of days past, but Bob's is sure to be a hit for many years to come.

For more information about Bob's Big Boy, visit or

Gas: About $2
Parking: Free
Food: About $10
Car show: Free
Total amount spent: About $12

Sunday, April 19, 2009

'Soda kingdom' helps the little guy

When John Nese talks about freedom of choice, he is not talking about politics, he is talking about soda.

“Our choices as free people are being taken away and we don’t even know they’re being taken away,” Nese said.

Nese, the owner of Galco’s Soda Pop Stop in Highland Park had an idea that some thought might never work, but 11 years and 500 varieties of sodas later he has become a success.

One of the several aisles in the store, this aisle includes everything from vanilla soda to birch beer, a soda made from birch trees.

Galco’s, which started in 1897 in Los Angeles as an Italian market, has for 11 years been the place to go for great sandwiches and of course unique drinks and candies. Nese said that business as an Italian market was going downhill because the area’s population of Italians was disappearing so he looked into something else to do to stay open.

He turned his Italian market into the Soda Pop Stop. The original focus of the new Galco’s was bringing the old soda brands back, but now the assortment has grown to more than 500 different sodas, new, old and all unique.

Nese’s father, who, at the age of 8, used to sell newspapers outside the original market in Los Angeles, became partners with one of the original owners in the 1940s. He moved the store to its current location in Highland Park in 1955 and he ran the market until he was 95. Nese’s mother worked at the store until she was 90.

“We open avenues for little companies to be creative and get their products out,” Nese said. “There’s a lot of gratification in what we do.”

Nese said that the big companies such as Coke and Pepsi buy shelf space in the big chain stores and therefore dictate what products are sold. By doing so, they eliminate the smaller competition and the little bottlers have nowhere to go to sell their products.

“They’re chopping out creativity and ingenuity,” Nese said.

Nese pulls out a bottle of one of the unique sodas, the rose soda, available at his store. Nese said the Rose soda is something not typically found in the United States.

“I thought it was an interesting concept and idea,” Robert Spector said.

Spector is the author of “The Mom and Pop Store,” scheduled to be released later this year and he is best known for writing “The Nordstrom Way.”

His new book is about small businesses and he is including Galco’s. Spector said he did interviews with about 40 small businesses for his new book.

“It’s kind of like a jewel in the neighborhood,” Charles Villalobos, a longtime customer said. “It’s like an institution.”

Villalobos said he has been frequenting the store since he was 8. He remembers when the store was an Italian market and he did not think that the new store would work.

The grocery sign still stands tall next to the store. Galco's still offers a selection of delicious sandwiches and salads.

“I used to think ‘yeah right, whose going to buy your sodas,’ now I want to go there even more,” Villalobos said.

“He turned that place into the soda kingdom,” Villalobos said.

Spector said he found out about Galco’s after reading an article about the store in the “New York Times” food section.

“For stores like his to survive, they have to be able to change and adapt,” Spector said.

“People like John Nese are the heroes of the community,” Spector said. “ They give us a connection to the community.”

“He said he was going to go down doing what he loved,” Spector said. “I found that charming and heroic.”

“Would you rather hear about Main Street or Wall Street?” Spector asked.

When Nese graduated from college his father asked him what he was going to do and he replied that he wanted to work at the market.

“He looked at me and said ‘go for the money,’” Nese said. “I said ‘no pop, I want to work here.’”

“Everybody says ‘you’re a workaholic,’ but how can I be a workaholic when I’m enjoying it?” Nese said. “I’m playing all the time.”

“Sometimes I get tired, but I remember that at the end of the day I’m pretty much free to call my own shots,” Nese said.

“Very early on it was the nostalgia,” Nese said. “Now kids are bringing their parents.”

The assortment of candies is displayed in produce displays along the wall. There are many old favorites such as bubble gum cigarettes and wax bottles.

Nese said that he will guide his customers in the store, but he never tries to influence their decisions.

“There’s not just one way to look at anything,” Nese said. “There’s more than one best.”

“I’ll point the way, but I won’t make the decision for you,” Nese said.

“The whole idea is that the choice is yours,” Nese said. “That’s why we sell by the bottle.”

One of the companies that Nese buys soda from could not get his product on the shelf anymore because of the big companies like Coke and Pepsi.

Nese said his store is different because he tells the companies he works with not to be afraid of the competition.

“That has been key,” Nese said. “I let them know they don’t have to fear the guy next to them.”

He said that because all of the products are so unique a customer may be looking at one drink and then see something else totally new and buy that too. It is a win win situation for both products.

“You’re not going to find egg creams in the grocery store,” Nese said.

An egg cream soda is not the only unique soda shoppers will find at Galco’s Soda Pop Stop.

Other flavors include birch beer, made from birch trees, rose soda, cucumber soda, celery soda, banana soda and blackberry soda with pieces of blackberry at the bottom of the bottle.

And do not forget about all of the other things available at Galco’s. Nese’s store also offers more than 470 different beers and a variety of old fashioned and hard to find candies including Mallo Cups, Candy Buttons and Charleston Chews.

The next time you have a craving for soda or candy, go to Galco’s and you will find exactly what you are looking for and maybe something you would have never thought of.

Gas: About $2
Parking: Free
Sodas, candy and sandwich: About $20
Total amount spent: About $22

Monday, March 23, 2009

Improving Los Angeles one tamale at a time

Mama walked into her grandson’s kindergarten class. She told the class what she did and how she helped people. One little girl in the class told Mama that she wanted to be just like her one day.

“When I walk down the street people say ‘Mama, Mama,’” said Sandra Romero, owner and operator of Mama’s Hot Tamales in Los Angeles.

“I love L.A.,” Romero said. “I enjoy helping people and seeing them grow and achieve. I forget about me.”

Romero’s restaurant, which is located near MacArthur Park, started off as a project with the city of Los Angeles. The non-profit was set up with the Institute for Urban Research and Development to help organize the street vendors that are common throughout the city.

The area just past the entrance is often filled with tables that local artisans can use to display their artwork, crafts and jewelry.

Romero and her business partner applied and got a contract to start the project and she said they had no idea that it would turn into a restaurant.

“We started designing carts,” Romero said. “We designed them to be attractive.”

The first carts designed to sell food were put out in 1999. At first they did not have permits to sell hot foods, but when they did, they began selling tamales.

Romero said there were a total of eight carts. Each cart had a different style of tamale. One cart contained “Mexico” tamales and another contained “Peru” tamales and the rest were named for the country of origin.

Tamales have not only helped street vendors, but they have become a way to help revitalize the MacArthur Park area.

Throughout the process of selling tamales, Romero was not in it for the profits. The goal of the program was to take the vendors off the streets and teach them how to prepare the food to code and how to obtain all of the necessary permits that they needed to be street vendors in Los Angeles.

“One hundred percent of the proceeds was theirs,” Romero said. “We provided the kitchen and a place to store the carts.”

“It’s the miracle kitchen,” Romero added.

In about 2002 Romero wanted to help the vendors make more money and she got the permits needed to open the restaurant.

Mama's Hot Tamales is full of vibrant colors and designs, from the walls to the chairs and tables. No area in the restaurant has been left bland or boring.

“My business partner called me one night and said, ‘we’re going to call it Mama’s Hot Tamales,’ and he said ‘you’re going to be Mama,’” Romero said. “He anointed me Mama.”

“She has worked so hard to make this program work,” Ilecara Velez, a volunteer at the restaurant said.

Velez has been volunteering at the restaurant for about a month. Her mother has been working in the kitchen for close to three months.

“It helps people start their own business and get on the right track,” Velez said. “I like to help because we’re doing it for the right cause.”

Nickole Debronsky and her business partner are vendors who have received help from Romero.

“I want to sell at the farmer’s markets,” Debronsky said. “We came and she sat down with us and told us what we needed and we really liked what she was doing.”

Debronsky has just started volunteering at the restaurant as a way to give back.

“She helps a lot of people,” Debronsky added. “I figured why not give back to her.”

Not only is Romero concerned about helping vendors, she is concerned with how the community is doing as a whole. Romero, whose restaurant is located in the Westlake District across the street from MacArthur Park, is also involved in a campaign called Rediscover MacArthur Park and the MacArthur Park Neighborhood Alliance, and has worked hard to impact change in the once crime-filled area.

“The community are my kids,” Romero said.

Mama’s Hot Tamales Café is more than just a restaurant. It is a place to go to enjoy food and to be a part of something bigger.

“Mama’s Hot Tamales Café is designed to provide a valuable experience to our program participants in cooking and serving fresh food to the public. As a patron of the restaurant you are an important part of the educational process,” the restaurant menu said.

Fresh tamales are not the only items that impress. Fresh strawberry juice, fresh tortilla soup topped with plenty of cheese, tomatoes and cilantro are also delicious.

Gas: About $3
Parking (all day lot): $6
Lunch: About $8
Total amount spent: About $17

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Pedaling around MacArthur Park

One of Los Angeles’ cultural monuments, MacArthur Park, is now a family friendly and fun place to visit.

Located in the Westlake District, at the southwest corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Alvarado Street, surrounded by busy streets, a variety of small shops, restaurants and high-rise buildings, the park, which boasts a large lake, has become somewhat of a sanctuary for city dwellers.

“It’s like a little piece of nature in the big city,” said Julia Martinez, a Los Angeles City recreation and parks employee.

Martinez, who has worked for the city for 14 years, has worked at the park for a few months. She works at the pedal boat rental window at the lake.

The pedal boats, which are available to rent for a half hour or hour on weekends, offer visitors a respite.

There are several boats available. One boat is specifically designed for handicapped riders. That boat can be moved using hand pedals instead of foot pedals. All of the boats come with awnings.

“It’s something to get away from the norm,” Martinez said. “It’s a little diamond in the rough.”

The park, formerly known as Westlake Park when it was built in the late 1800s, was once used in silent films. In the 1940s, it was renamed after General Douglas MacArthur. Starting in the late 1970s, there was an increase of illegal activities such as drug dealing, public intoxication, prostitution, the sale of fake identification cards and gang activity in the park and surrounding area.

These circumstances caused some of the long time business establishments in the area to close, relocate or change hours.

The famed Westlake Theatre was closed and is now used as a swap meet. Edward’s Steakhouse, which was in Westlake District area as well, relocated to the city of Rosemead. The second-generation run Langer’s Deli, which opened in 1947 across from the southeast corner of MacArthur Park, canceled its evening hours.

After many years of decline and neglect of the Westlake area and specifically MacArthur Park, local businesses and community members joined together to create the Rediscover MacArthur Park campaign shortly after 2000, to revitalize the park and make it a safer and more welcoming place.

Sandra Romero, who with her business partner, owns and operates Mama’s Hot Tamales Cafe across the street from the south side of the park, has played a vital role in the Rediscover MacArthur Park campaign.

Romero, who cared deeply about the community and the people, started to get involved to turn the park into what it once was, a place to enjoy an afternoon sitting on the grass or riding in a boat around the lake.

Many seagulls, ducks and other birds come to the lake to swim and look for food. One popular area for the birds is an island on the south side of the lake.

“We started revitalizing the park,” Romero, a member of the MacArthur Park Neighborhood Alliance said.

“The tamales became a really good way of getting people to the park,” Romero said. “They’d come and say ‘it’s not so bad here.’”

“We started weeding out the negative and planting the positive,” Romero said.

Among those who started coming to the park were many new immigrants.

“It plays a great role to first generation immigrants,” Jose Maciel, Senior Director of MacArthur Park said.

Maciel said the Park has become a hub for many immigrants in the area, and that it is a place where they can come together and feel comfortable.

“Just like any other part of the city, it has its flaws, but it is unique and it has a great mixture of ethnicities,” Maciel said.

“There is not enough open space and green area in the community,” Maciel said.

Maciel, who took his children to the lake at the park for a pedal boat ride, enjoyed the experience.

“I took my kids on it and my kids had a blast,” Maciel said. “It’s something for the young generation. It’s a connection to when the park was originally built.”

Maciel said that there were boats on the lake in the early 1900s and there are plans to restore the original boathouse, which is sinking about one inch per year.

Hopes are that the pedal boats will continue to stay available.

Ducks and other birds sometime swim near the boats when the boats stop moving.

With the poor economy and a lack of funds, the pedal boats are only available on weekends and there is a fear that they will not be available for long.

“They barely have the money to operate here,” Martinez said.

Despite the tough times, Martinez said she has met customers from as far as Riverside who came to the park to ride a pedal boat.

“I think it’s fabulous,” Martinez said.

Though the pedal boats are a great feature of the park, Maciel said there is much more that the park has to offer to visitors.

“We have outdoor concerts every summer,” Maciel said. “People can come out and enjoy free music. Bring a chair or blanket and sit under the stars.”

The free concerts are held from July until September.

He added that a new jungle gym as well as Astroturf is being added to the north side of the park.

“They no longer have to worry about dirt and rocks,” Maciel said.

Whether you come to MacArthur Park just to sit and have a picnic or to ride the pedal boats, you will not be disappointed.

One of the many spectacular views from a pedal boat on the lake. The Westlake Theatre sign is still intact on top of the building. A fountain often runs in the lake.

And if you work up an appetite after pedaling around the lake, head over to Mama’s for a hot tamale or Langer’s Deli for a hot pastrami sandwich.

MacArthur Park and the surrounding area have received a face lift and have the backing of a very supportive community that is determined to see both thrive.

For more information about:
MacArthur Park, visit
Mama’s Hot Tamales, visit
Langer’s Deli, visit
Accessing the park with the Metro Red Line, visit

Gas: About $3
Parking (all day lot): $6
Pedal boat rental: $7
(The charges are $7 for 30 min. and $10 for an hour, and an identification card is also required)
Total amount spent: $16

Friday, March 6, 2009

Viewing the galaxy from Los Angeles

Piano music played in the background and the lights slowly dimmed. Soon we were sitting beneath the night sky as planetarium lecturer Julia Silverman narrated the performance. The night sky filled with stars forming constellations in the shape of animals, mythical gods and two dippers. Then we were on a voyage in time traveling back to Alexandria and then to the time of Galileo. From our galaxy to galaxies far away, we traveled through it all. And we never left our seats in the Samuel Oschin Planetarium in the Griffith Observatory.

Colonel Griffith J. Griffith donated the land in 1896 to create Griffith Park, the Greek Theatre and the Griffith Observatory, and he later offered money to the city of Los Angeles to build the Observatory. But he probably never envisioned the Observatory of today.

Sitting on one of the highest points above Los Angeles with views of the city to the south and the Hollywood sign to the northwest, the Observatory is one of the best places to be in Los Angeles.

A view of Downtown Los Angeles from the east side of the parking lot at the Observatory.

“Everyone who lives in Southern California should make their way to the Observatory,” Tom LaBonge, the Los Angeles city councilman, whose district includes Griffith Park said.

LaBonge, who has been hiking in Griffith Park for 30 years, said he hopes that everyone who visits has a good experience.

“I hope they get fascinated with astronomy, with the universe, with Griffith Park and the city below,” LaBonge said.

The Observatory, which was built in 1935 was falling into disrepair when it was closed in January 2002 to undergo major renovations. In nearly 70 years the Observatory had seen 70 million visitors.

The Griffith Observatory has been featured in a number of television and movie productions. One of the more recent productions is the film "Yes Man."

On the front lawn the Astronomers Monument features Hipparchus, Nicholas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton and William Herschel.

In “The Once and Future Griffith Observatory” movie presented in the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater, Nimoy narrates the history, renovation and future plans of the Observatory.

The theater, which is part of the new underground area, was named for Nimoy, who played Mr. Spock in the Star Trek series, and his wife, Susan Bay-Nimoy, who made contributions to the Observatory’s renovation and expansion.

“Everything here is made to stimulate the imagination,” Nimoy said in the film.

Several meteorite exhibits are on display in the new underground section of the Observatory.

From public telescopes to exhibits that show recent data of the sun sent from spacecraft to the Foucault Pendulum, the Observatory has something for everyone and at every interest level.

My favorite exhibit is the Foucault Pendulum, which has been in the W.M. Keck Foundation Central Rotunda since 1935.

The Pendulum consists of a 240 pound brass ball attached to a 40 foot long cable that swings in one constant direction.

It seems as though the pendulum is moving in a circle, but in reality, the earth is moving in a circle while the pendulum swings in one consistent direction. As the earth turns, the pendulum knocks over a small black peg approximately every seven minutes. It is an amazing demonstration of how the earth turns.

Located near the entrance of the Observatory, the Foucault Pendulum is one of the original exhibits.

One exhibit that attracted a large group of visitors in the Wilder Hall of the Eye, which is just off of the rotunda, was the Tesla Coil.

The coil, which was invented by Nikola Tesla, was designed to transmit electricity through the air, according to the Observatory guide who led the demonstration of how the coil works.

When he turned the coil on, it buzzed and something resembling lightening moved through the air around the coil. A cage that collects the electricity and grounds it, surrounds the coil.

After viewing the Tesla Coil, I walked through the rest of the Hall, which includes other exhibits such as an infrared exhibit that shows body heat on a screen as visitors walk past a heat sensitive camera, and a model of the observatory, which includes a miniature of the building and grounds, and the new underground addition.

Though the building and grounds look much the same as they did in 1935 when the Observatory opened, there have been many exhibits added and additions made to the building.

The new Stellar Emporium Gift Shop run by Event Network, which is across from the new Café at the End of the Universe run by Wolfgang Puck, is the place to go to buy books about astronomy and other space related trinkets and souvenirs.

Trino Marquez, the store director, said he loves the Observatory.

“Working here doesn’t feel like working because of the whole atmosphere, the beauty of the building and the view of the city,” Marquez said.

Marquez said that his favorite thing about working at the Observatory is the people who visit. He said that the Observatory is a very friendly environment that encourages visitors to feel comfortable.

“We’re very people friendly,” Marquez said. “The nice thing about us is that you can walk up to anybody.”

Marquez added that the most exciting attractions are the telescopes that are free to visitors.

“They can see space,” Marquez said. “It’s pretty amazing.”

“People should come visit the highest point of the city,” Marquez said.

One of the most amazing things about the Observatory is the cost of admission, which is nothing.

All of the exhibits are free as well, except for some of the shows. The parking can be a bit tricky, but it too is free. And not only does the Observatory itself have a lot to offer, but there are special events held on the grounds.

Public star parties, which are free events, are held monthly from 2 p.m. to 9:45 p.m. The Los Angeles Astronomical Society and the Los Angeles Sidewalk Astronomers come out and give visitors an opportunity to ask questions and view visible planets, the sun, the moon and other objects through telescopes set up on the front lawn. The next event will be held April 4.

The Observatory is open from noon-10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends.

For more information about Griffith Observatory, visit

El Gran Burrito

After spending the day at the Observatory a good meal was in order and what better place to go than El Gran Burrito in Los Angeles.

Located next to the subway station at Vermont and Santa Monica, the 24-hour Mexican food restaurant is easily accessible by public transportation and car.

El Gran Burrito is open 24 hours a day and features a wide variety of affordable Mexican food.

But most importantly, the food is great and the prices are reasonable.

“I come as often as I can,” said Paige Luke of North Hollywood. “It’s really good Mexican food and it’s open 24 hours.”

Luke said her favorite item on the menu is the carne asada tacos.

El Gran Burrito features two inside dining areas, three outdoor dining areas and two cooking areas outside.

In the dining areas inside, there are jukeboxes available for customers to use that offer a selection of Latin music.

Owner Carlos Cruz said that he tries to keep the prices affordable for his customers.

“We try not to make too much money,” Cruz said. “I do whatever I can, as much as I can.”

Cruz said his customers and employees are much more important to him than the food that he sells at his restaurant.

He said he is concerned about his customers and his employees, especially because of the bad economy.

He said one of his main concerns and focuses is the single mothers he employs. He makes sure that he is able to keep them on staff at his restaurant.

Because of his attention to customers and employees, the environment is welcoming and very comfortable.

Whether you decided to eat a burrito inside or enjoy some fresh pineapple juice and tacos outside, you will not be disappointed.

A plate of enchiladas with chips and a salad costs just $6. El Gran Burrito is located at 4716 Santa Monica Blvd.

Expenses for the day

Gas: About $4
Parking: Free
Admission to the Observatory: Free
Total amount spent: About $10

Friday, February 27, 2009

A cool 'pad' for vintage clothing

The Lemon Frog Shop in Los Angeles really caught my attention because I love frogs and I love anything vintage.

I first heard about the vintage store a few years ago and I did not have a chance to visit it until about a year ago. I was intrigued by its location, but mostly by its name and the fact that it sold strictly vintage clothing, shoes and accessories.

The clothes, accessories and shoes at the Lemon Frog Shop are all high quality and in excellent condition.

The vintage jewelry is probably my favorite thing there, but the clothing and the shoes are fun too. And the purses, well they do not make purses like they used to.

Micki Curtis, who has owned the shop since 2007 said she has always worked with vintage.

“My parents always shopped at garage sales,” Curtis said.

Curtis credits her childhood with helping her to appreciate things that are older, unique and of good quality.

“Just because it’s old I don’t want it in my store necessarily,” Curtis said.

Curtis handpicks everything in her store. From boots to belt buckles, glamorous dresses to fun funky purses and costume jewelry.

Curtis said boots are very popular. She has a wide selection of boots in almost every color.

The name of the store, which Curtis said she got from an old Sears catalog, is exactly what she was looking for.

“I wanted a psychedelic, fun and colorful name,” Curtis said.

Marie Shelley, who works at the Lemon Frog Shop, said the shop was her favorite store when she was just a customer.

“Micki has an amazing eye,” Shelley said. “She has really good taste.”

“We have the cutest vintage pieces specializing in ’70s with some ’60s and ’80s,” Shelley said.

Curtis is not just concerned about the type of products she sells, but also about the sizes and prices.

“My goal is to have all sizes, something for everybody and $10 and up prices,” Curtis said.

Curtis stays true to her commitment to sell items that are affordable on any budget. In the front of her store she has a sale section and a vanity on one wall that has a display of jewelry for $10.

Vintage jewelry at the Lemon Frog Shop varies in style, color and time period. There is always something new.

“It’s stuff that I always want to wear and stuff no one else has,” Tanja Laden, a customer said. “That’s the only vintage shop I shop in.”

Laden said Curtis has a “curatorial eye” when it comes to picking out the clothing that she sells in the store.

“She recognizes the clothing as art,” Laden said.

Katie Page, a customer from Hollywood said she has only been to the Lemon Frog Shop two or three times, but she likes it.

“Most L.A. places are over picked,” Page said.

Page said that vintage stores “sometimes feel too Goodwill,” and that is not the feeling she gets at the Lemon Frog Shop.

“It’s actual vintage,” Page said.

I could not agree more. Every time I have visited the store with worn wood floors and colorful displays, there is always new merchandise to look through.

One of my favorite things about the store is the wall decorations, which include a frog clock and a wooden frog with green eyes. But my favorite displays in the store are the purse displays.

Not being label-conscious, I tend to stay away from the big name brand bags and I often have a hard time finding purses that are well made and affordable. I have bought two purses from the Lemon Frog Shop and I have received two as gifts and they are by far the best purses that I own.

Curtis is also very friendly and helpful. When customers enter her store she makes sure that they know where the sale section is, and she is ready and willing to answer any questions that arise.

The Lemon Frog Shop is the best vintage store I have ever seen and it is not overly trendy and the items are not outrageously priced.

“You should come by the store and check it out,” Shelley said.

The Lemon Frog Shop is located at 1202-B N. Alvarado St. in Los Angeles. For more information, please visit

Gas: About $6
Parking: Free
Vintage purse and necklace:$41.14
Total amount spent: About $47.14

Friday, February 20, 2009

Good vibes at The Downbeat

A place in Echo Park where a customer can order a Brie and avocado sandwich and a salad with freshly made balsamic vinaigrette may sound expensive and impossible to find. But for less than $10 it is possible to find at The Downbeat Cafe, a hip and retro café/coffee house that boasts more than any mainstream excuse for a coffee house ever could.

“It’s good food and it’s a cut above the general coffee house lunch fare,” Vince Meghrouni said.

Meghrouni and his band, The Downbeats, play at The Downbeat every Wednesday night. “It’s a comfortable place,” he said.

Meghrouni said he and his fellow band members chose their group’s name while standing outside of the coffee house one night when they looked up at the awning with The Downbeat name on it. “It was direct causation,” he said.

When I walked into the retro coffee house/café I immediately felt at home. It was warm and inviting with comfortable couches, handwritten menu boards and Frank Sinatra playing in the background— a place where people come to enjoy a good cup of coffee, a good meal, and study, talk or just hang out.

The Downbeat Cafe offers more than just coffee and pastries. The menu includes a selection breakfast foods, sandwiches, salads and more.

“We’re a community,” Dan Drozdenko, the newest owner of The Downbeat said.

Drozdenko who cheerfully helped customers said that they do not cater to the big business demand of the corporate-chain-style coffee house.

“We actually attract the clientele that would rather not go to Starbucks,” Drozdenko said.

Dakota Bertrand, chef and manager of The Downbeat, said he really enjoys talking to each customer to find out exactly how they want their drinks.

“We try to make what people like,” Bertrand said. “It’s how you get to know people. It gives me an excuse to talk to them.”

Bertrand really likes his customers, but he loves how creative his job allows him to be. He said the peanut butter cookies and the avocado and Brie sandwich are two of the most popular menu items.

The Downbeat has a lot to offer from a half of a grapefruit for breakfast to a mozzarella and pesto sandwich or homemade soup for lunch to a variety of coffee, tea and other beverages. There is something for everyone and in every price range.

Not only does The Downbeat offer great food, but a unique and fun atmosphere. The café/ coffee house is filled with retro furniture and lamps and is more welcoming than the standard manufactured look found in most chain coffee shops and cafes.

Almost all of the walls are covered with art created by local artists such as the current artwork by noted muralist Ernesto de la Loza, who has a studio in a church next door and who frequents The Downbeat.

“It has a ‘50’s beat sensibility,” de la Loza said. “It’s local, where artists meet and we visit.”

de la Loza said he has frequented The Downbeat for about six years since its first owner opened it.

Meghrouni said little has changed at The Downbeat, now on its third owner. One of Meghrouni’s favorite things about The Downbeat is the framed issue covers of “The Downbeat” jazz magazine that hang on one of the walls of the coffee house.

“It’s like severe eye candy,” Meghrouni said. “It’s better than just some poster on that wall that says ‘jazz.’”

Meghrouni who plays the tenor and alto saxophone, the flute, the harmonica and who sings for The Downbeats, said the employees at the coffee house take a lot of pride in what they do, especially Bertrand.

“He’s taken such extreme pride in their food and the preparation,” Meghrouni said. “Pride permeates in the place.”

“The people that work there are part of the community vibe,” Meghrouni said.

Meghrouni along with Mike Sessa who plays the drums, Matt Lake who plays the guitar and Michael Alvidrez who plays the bass, performs every Wednesday night from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. The group plays primarily Jazz and some Chicago Blues.

The Downbeat is by far one of my favorite coffee houses and it is where I had one of the best sandwiches I have ever eaten. After Bertrand’s description of the sandwich I had to try the Brie and avocado melt that comes with melted Brie and sliced avocado on a fresh baguette and a side salad with fresh balsamic vinaigrette. Delicious. And at $8.99, it did not break the bank.

Visiting The Downbeat in Echo Park, which is located in an early 1900s brick building on Alvarado Street just north of Sunset Boulevard is definitely a must of things to do in the Los Angeles area.

The Downbeat is located about 10 minutes north of Downtown Los Angeles.

The Downbeat Cafe is located at 1202 N. Alvarado St. in Echo Park. For more information, please visit

Gas: About $2
Parking: Free
Public transportation: $5
(Metro Gold Line, Red Line Subway and bus)
Food at The Downbeat: $8.99
Total amount spent: About $16

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Fun, food and culture

Living in the Los Angeles area offers great advantages. There are cultural landmarks and activities available throughout the city and the surrounding areas.

One of the most culturally and historically rich places to visit in Los Angeles is Olvera Street. It is filled with vendors selling everything from candied limes to brightly colored child-sized guitars and it is just a small part of what a larger monument has to offer.

"We are not just Olvera Street," said Marianna Gatto, curator for the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Authority.

Olvera Street, one of the oldest streets in Los Angeles, is part of the 44-acre stretch surrounded by Alameda Street on the east, Cesar Chavez Street on the north, Arcadia Street on the south and Main Street on the west. El Pueblo was also the site of such places as the original China Town, Little Italy and the French Quarter.

On a cold and intermittently rainy Friday afternoon, I headed for Olvera Street anticipating the warm hand-pressed tortillas, unique vendors and experiences that I have always encountered during my trips there.

In an effort to be more green and to avoid traffic, I opted to take the Gold Line in Pasadena part of the way.

I drove from La Verne to Pasadena, which took about 45 minutes. I parked for free at the Sierra Madre Villa Station, the last station at the east end of the light rail route, and made my way to the fourth floor of the parking structure.

The Gold Line pulling in to the Sierra Madre Villa Station.

The fourth floor, which has a bridge connecting the parking garage to the light rail platform, also has a row of machines that dispense rider passes. The least expensive pass available at the machine is a one-way pass that costs $1.25. An all-day pass costs $5 and it allows riders to use any Metro transportation the rest of the day.

Both options cost less than the gas it would take to drive to Los Angeles and the cost of parking. Other passes available include senior passes and student passes, which require applications that are available at

I made my way across the bridge to the Gold Line that had just arrived at the station. The light rail was clean and there were only about a dozen passengers on board. The light rail moved quickly and after about 35 minutes we were at our final destination, Union Station.

Though Union Station may seem confusing at first with a myriad of tunnels leading to trains, it is easy to figure out. After exiting the train, walk to the stairs and walk down. Turn right and walk through to the main lobby of Union Station and exit through the main doors. The main lobby is hard to miss, with high ceilings, large elaborate chandeliers and rows of art deco style wooden padded chairs for waiting passengers.

"Most people know this place as Olvera Street," Gatto said.

"For a city as important as Los Angeles, very few people are aware of its history," Gatto said. "My hope is that people take away a sense of understanding of who we are and where we have come from."

One of Gatto's focuses as a curator is preserving the city's rich history and educating the public about the El Pueblo Monument area.

Gatto said that the 44-acre monument is the site of the location of the 44 original settlers of Los Angeles in 1781. The settlers were Spanish, African and Native American.

"L.A. is one of the most diverse cities of the world," Gatto said. "Since our beginning we have been a diverse place."

Though there are many things to see and many places to visit, I decided to spend the rest of the afternoon at Olvera Street and in the immediate area. I first walked across the plaza south of Olvera Street to look at the Pico House, finished in 1869 by the last governor of California under Mexican rule, Pio Pica. The Pico House was the first three-story building in Los Angeles and it served as the first "elegant" hotel. The tall white structure is still grand with its arched windows and attention to architectural detail.

The Pico House was built in the Italianate style. The hotel had more than 80 bedrooms.

After admiring the Pico House I headed toward Olvera Street, which was once considered a "slum" before it was renovated in 1929 due to the efforts of Christine Sterling, a local woman who realized the importance of the area. It opened in April 1930.

On my way to Olvera Street I stopped to purchase some candied coconut and started at the south end of the street.

Jesus Hernandez, whose grandfather was the "Donkey Man" at Olvera Street, spent much of his childhood at Olvera Street. Hernandez now works at the family business, Hernandez & Sons Imports, which offers a selection of items including brightly painted guitars and embroidered clothing, at the south end of the street.

Jesus Hernandez writes the name of a customer's son on a small blue guitar.

"I want to keep the family legacy alive," Hernandez said.

One of his favorite memories is sitting in front of his grandparent's stand they started 47 years ago, eating lunch with his sister and his three cousins. Hernandez spent afternoons after school helping his grandparents.

Hernandez said he enjoys working at Olvera Street and he enjoys seeing all of the tourists and regular visitors.

An event that draws many visitors every year according to Hernandez is the Blessing of the Animals, a ceremony that takes place in April. People bring their pets of all varieties to be blessed by a representative of the Catholic Church.

"Someone brought a deer once," Hernandez said. "I bring my mockingbirds."

Frank Cazares, owner of La Luz Del Dia restaurant at the south end of the street is also very familiar with Olvera Street. His father and uncle started the restaurant nearly 50 years ago.

"We are on our fourth generation of customers," Cazares said. "People came with their grandparents and now they come with their grandchildren."

Though Cazares' restaurant is among several along the street, he said his restaurant has two very good specialties to offer: hand-pressed tortillas and carnitas.

The fast food restaurant offers a more welcoming atmosphere than most fast-food establishments. There are wooden tables and chairs and colorful decorations offering diners a unique non-fast food experience. Cazares said the restaurant is a traditional Mexican restaurant and that includes the decor.

As for the food, it is delicious and affordable. A taco with guacamole costs $1.10.

"The price is low and we believe we have high quality food," Cazares said.

"Without our culture we are sort of lost and soulless," Cazares said."For Mexicans it's important for there to be a cultural center which is not just music and art, but food."

Cazares said there is no such thing as authentic Mexican food because each home and region in Mexico makes food in a unique way. He said the food in his restaurant is not "Americanized" and that it is "virtually the same as Guadalajara Mexican food."

La Luz Del Dia is just one more reason to visit Olvera Street and the El Pueblo Monument.

After spending the better part of an afternoon and evening in Los Angeles, it was time to head back to La Verne. I left one of my favorite streets in Los Angeles with a better appreciation of the city and its history.

For more information about the El Pueblo Monument, visit

Gas: About $2
Parking: Free
Gold Line: $5
Candied coconut: $1
Food at La Luz Del Dia: $2.15+ tax
Total amount spent: About $10.15