By Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn
LOS ANGELES – Revolutionario’s Chef Farid Zadi dumps a large bag-full of fresh mint into pot with a rolling boil of water and sugar. He’s making mint tea, he said, but not a tea bag in sight.
“No. no,” he said adamantly, his French accent stern. “We don’t do that s— here. Only fresh.”
Chef Zadi, the French-born, Algerian king of the North African taco, is among the bourgeoning food entrepreneurs coming to South Los Angeles in the past year serving fresh casual cuisine (or “fresh fast”) to residents who are – pardon the pun – hungry for delicious, affordable quick dishes.
“It used to be that big, formal restaurants were the serious food that you wanted to pay attention to,” said local food writer Tracy Chabala. “Now street food – what Roy Choi did with Chego, and what Chef Zadi is doing at Revolutionario – is where the innovation is happening.”
Besides soul food and barbeque joints, South L.A. has long been characterized as a vast food wasteland littered with cheap, unhealthy fast food chains sending residents west for variety and healthy meal options.
Nowadays, however, westsiders are coming east of La Brea for the likes of Chef Bonnie Tann’s savory flaky pastry chicken pot pies and low-sugar European-styled sweet treats from Bonnie B. Bakery, or made-to-order deli sandwiches from Brooklyn Deli & Mini Market for as little as $5.
For about the same price, a meat taco, a black-eyed pea falafel taco and a veggie taco at Zadi’s Jefferson Blvd. eatery is a nutritionally complete meal and, as one reviewer called it, “belly-filled bliss.”
“Most people don’t really eat for health,” said Zadi’s wife and business partner, Susan Park, who’s worked in L.A.’s hospitality industry for 18 years. “They have an idea that they should be eating for health but when you’re hungry, you just want the most delicious thing right there.”
The couple shut down their white-napkin restaurant in Culver City for the smaller, paper-napkin hub, wanting to be part of the ethnic and cultural diversity of South L.A. – and to fill a niche.
It was the same for New York transplants Remmietta and Hakeem Dolphin, husband and wife proprietors of Brooklyn Deli & Mini Market who celebrated their first anniversary last month on Crenshaw Blvd.
“We’re so familiar with the bodegas in New York – there’s literally one on every single corner,” said Remmietta Dolphin. “There’s not a deli around here for miles. The closest one is Slauson and Fairfax –and some people around here don’t have a car, and the bus doesn’t really go that route.”
Both left corporate jobs once they had the capital to open their family business; four months before Metro’s Crenshaw/LAX line construction began.
“To most it would seem like a bad idea, (but) we know once a train comes through: guaranteed business,” says Remmietta, who took courses through Hawthorne’s Small Business Development Center for two years before opening.
“It’s going to be a lot of work to hold on (until it’s) finished in 2019. But I see the end product. So we’ll be here.”
Bonnie Tann says her bustling seven-month-old Bonnie B. Bakery business will soon get a boost from an $8.5 million revitalization plan to improve 1.3 miles of streetscape on Slauson Avenue between Angeles Vista and La Brea, as well as an adjacent segment of Overhill Drive between Slauson Avenue and Stocker Ave.
“When we get the place looking like Montana Avenue, rents are going to be sky high,” said Tann, a retired nurse and USC Marshall School of Business graduate who turned her lifelong penchant for baking into her ultimate dream job. “So it’s a good opportunity to get in when the area is growing.”
Restaurants are a vital part of economic growth on the south side. And while fresh casual is a current trend, it’s an ages-old concept dating back to the early 1900s when everything was grown locally.
“L.A. was the capital of small farms,” said “To Live and Dine in L.A.” author Josh Kun. “L.A. was being advertised as a place where you could live and eat on very little money.”
Today, South L.A. is a hub for food activism and food policy work. It’s part of a nationwide movement within black communities to combat hunger in poorer neighborhoods and reclaim a cultural connection to food through efforts like community gardening – “as it was before African American diets became intrinsically linked to industrial fast food,” said Kun during a signing at Eso Won Books with contributor Chef Cynthia Hawkins of Hawkins House of Burgers.
For her part, Hawkins prides herself on her family’s legacy of quality, hand-made burgers – and community outreach. Since the store’s opening on Slater Street in 1939, her grandparents and parents have served holiday meals to Watts residents. She continues that tradition.
“Financially, from a business sense, some say you shouldn’t do that,” Hawkins said. “But in my heart, it fills my heart to take care of them. That’s all I know.”
Additionally, Hawkins provides discounts to residents in nearby Nickerson Gardens. And, like the Dolphins, she’s known to serve the area’s homeless and those in need.
Tann offers concessions to View Park-Windsor Hills cardholders, to AARP members and to active military. She’s looking for ways to do more at Christmastime: a puppet show for the kids and painting parties for grown-ups “so we can have events in our own community,” she says.
In November and December, Revolutionario will offer specials to kids and military veterans, and is donating meals to homeless parents with children and homeless vets.
The incentive for such efforts is simple: take care of your customers and they’ll take care of you.
“A lot of people who aren’t from L.A. kind of have this attitude: ‘I’m going to make some quick money and leave.’ That’s really insulting,” said Park, a first generation Korean American whose parents immigrated to the city in 1975.
“L.A. is a huge diverse city, with many people who are committed to their neighborhoods for generations – and we’re not going anywhere.”