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