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