A Stroll Through Historic Olvera Street

 

Originally published in The Quarterly, Spring 2016 issue

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GRAPE VINES above the original Wine Street, now known as Olvera Street, a vibrant outdoor Mexican marketplace where pedestrians can shop for authentic goods, eat delicious food and discover the origins of Los Angeles.

In the heart of historic Los Angeles, across from Union Station, lies a charming burst of colors, culture and cuisine. Olvera Street is one of the oldest streets in LA, a shoppers delight and a snapshot into history.

This living museum is home to some of the oldest buildings in the city and home to literally the mother of all local ditches, Zanja Madre. The “mother ditch” was LA’s first water system that gave life to the growing pueblo (town) from 1781-1904. And it ran right through what is now “Olvera Street.”

But to truly appreciate the richness of the area, one must step back in time and understand its origins. My guide, Carl McCraven appreciates that “this place is open and preserved. And with a tour, people can appreciate it as I do.” This free tour through the historic site sets the stage. 

Peace-loving Tongva (also referred to as Gabrielino) natives inhabited Yangna settlement for centuries, perhaps even “thousands of years,” according to some estimates. In 1781, the Tongva welcomed los pobladores, new settlers recruited by Felipe de Neve, the first Spanish governor of California. Then, the area was known as Alta California, the northernmost Spanish territory.

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QUEEN OF THE ANGELS was a part of the original name given by los pobladores, the new settlers

Los pobladores, the founders of Los Angeles, were made up of 11 families (44 men, women and children) from Native American, African and European descent. They traveled more than 1,000 miles on foot from Sinaloa and Sonora Mexico, incentivized by de Neve to make settlements of their own. They called their beautiful new home “El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles” or the town of the Queen of Angels.

The current site of “El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument” commemorates the origins of Los Angeles, of which Olvera Street is a part. Migrants from around the world also begin calling the pueblo their home (Italians in 1823, the French in 1827 and the Chinese in 1850.)

The museums at the monument honor the cultures represented in these early years. Though they may be overlooked by the casual visitor, they are not to be missed. These include Avila Adobe, the oldest house in the city, built in 1818, The Pelanconi House, the oldest brick building, built by Italians in 1855 and the Sepulveda House, built in 1887.

Additional points of interest include the Italian Hall, David Siqueiros’ controversial mural, America Tropical, and the Chinese American Museum (just outside Olvera Street).

In 1877, the street known as Calle de las Vignas or Wine Street was officially changed to Olvera Street in honor of the first judge of Los Angeles County, Agustin Olvera. Unfortunately, by the early 1900s, Olvera street was becoming a slum.

But in 1926 a concerned philanthropist, Christine Sterling, recognized the historic value of the area and was determined to renovate and reinvigorate the pueblo.

Michelle Garcia-Ortiz, a representative of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument says, “Christine Sterling came up with the idea for Olvera Street after she had successfully completed a campaign to restore The Avila Adobe House. She wanted the surrounding area to be a welcoming place that payed tribute to Mexican American culture and traditions.” And with friends like Harry Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Olvera Street was transformed.

Even the Chief of Police donated the labor of prison inmates. In a journal entry in 1929, Sterling wrote, “One of the prisoners is a good carpenter, another electrician. Each night I pray they will arrest a bricklayer and a plumber.”

Sterling, “the mother of Olvera Street” brought together various craftspeople, restauranteurs and business-minded folk to open shops. And on April 20, 1930, Easter Sunday, Olvera Street opened as a Mexican marketplace.

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MIKE MARISCAL, owner of Myrosa Enterprises and president of the Olvera Street Merchants Association Foundation, is a forth generation shop owner and direct descendant of the original shop keeper.

Many of the merchants today are direct descendants of the original shop owners. Mike Mariscal, fourth-generation owner of “Myrosa Enterprises” is one of them. His shop and others on Olvera Street are proud to showcase local artists among other more traditional goods.

Roving musicians, balladeers and painters add color to the street while inspiring visitors and being inspired by the diversity within. One such artist is the late Leo Politi who created the nearby mural “Blessing of Animals.” He also wrote and illustrated more than 20 children’s books, a Caldecott winner and two honors among them, including “Pedro: The Angel of Olvera Street.” Postcards of his illustrations are sold at Myrosa and neighboring venues.

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BLESSING OF ANIMALS, a Leo Politi mural, graces a side of his beloved Olvera Street

Mariscal, also President of the Olvera Street Merchants Association Foundation, says, “I’m here not only to make a living, but to teach the public about the history, culture and traditions of Olvera Street.”

One of the privileges of the association is to host a variety of traditional events, all free. Some of the events include (as described by material from El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument and the Olvera Street Merchants Association Foundation):

Lantern Festival Chinese American Museum (March 5)

Activities include: workshops, crafts, artisans, entertainment and cultural exhibits.

Blessing of the Animals (Saturday, March 26, 12-5 PM) “This centuries-old tradition of blessing the animals, for all the benefits they provide mankind, is celebrated with a procession on Olvera Street led by the Archbishop of Los Angeles. All pets welcome.”

Olvera Street 86th Anniversary Celebration (Saturday, April 23) A smaller event with free refreshments and entertainment.

Cinco de Mayo (Saturday, April 30 and Sunday, May 1, 11 AM – 9 PM and May 5)

Fiesta de las Flores (June)

Dia de los Muertos (October/November)

Virgen de Guadalupe (December)

Las Posadas (December)

Los Tres Reyes or Epiphany of the Three Kings (January)

Fiesta de la Candelaria (February)

Mardi Gras Children’s Workshop (February)

For a full schedule of events in and around Olvera Street or for free docent tours, call (213) 628-1274. Pick up a scavenger hunt sheet for children at the visitors’ center. Adults can also learn from this colorful brochure encouraging the curious to, “look, find, listen, read and ask.” And in doing so, we are all the richer.

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THE ORIGINAL CANDLE SHOP from the opening of Olvera Street in 1930 can still be visited today.
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Authentic Asian Cuisine: A Unique Food Culture in the 626

Originally published in The Quarterly, Summer 2015 issue

By Ann Suk Wang

Venture east, not Far East, but much closer for some Asian palate pleasers. East of Los Angeles and into the San Gabriel Valley (SGV) is where a vast variety of authentic Chinese food outmatches any outside Asia. These days, even New York, San Francisco, and Chinatowns around the country cannot compare to the offerings in the “626” (a term adopted by Generation Xers and Millennials, referring to their beloved hip area code.)

Truffle Pork XiaoLong Bao from Din Tai Fung. Photo courtesy of dintaifungusa.com
Truffle Pork XiaoLongBao from Din Tai Fung. Photo credit: dintaifungusa.com

In our cultural stew that is Southern California, the SGV is a welcome haven and home to many new immigrants, primarily from Asia. And we all benefit from the cultural exchange, especially when it comes to the amazing food options around Main Street and Valley Boulevard.

According to Clarissa Wei, columnist for Have You Eaten? at kcet.org,

“We have some of the most apt and undiluted representations of Asian cuisine here.” From Yelp reviews to food bloggers and top food critics, people agree that the SGV is turning the commonly thought of “Chinese food” on its head and has been for the last 30 years. The poor man’s chow mein is old school. Now, specialties like “water boiled fish” from Sichuan are perfected nearby and take the spotlight.

Even the entertainment industry speaks to the unique food culture in the 626. The Fung Brothers ignited excitement around businesses in the SGV while giving people a taste of good eats on their catchy YouTube music video that went viral in 2012 and remains unmatched. Search “Fung Bros 626” for the original video and bounce along.

“We didn’t create the food wave, the Asian food movement; but we helped brand it,” says David Fung in a phone interview from South Carolina where the brothers are filming a show for the FYI network. They helped make it cool for the younger generation to drink boba milk tea and have pride in their neighborhood.

Shanghai Rice Cakes from Din Tai Fung. Photo credit dintaifungusa.com
Shanghai Rice Cakes from Din Tai Fung. Photo credit: dintaifungusa.com

But taking a step back, the Asian food boom in the area began in the 70s. The attraction for Asian immigrants to come to the SGV can be traced back to a single realtor, Fredrick Hsieh. “He wanted to make Monterey Park the new Taipei,” says Tony Chen, freelance food writer at Eater.com and SinoSoul.com. Wei adds in her article in firstwefeast.com, “He began to advertise homes in the San Gabriel Valley in Hong Kong and Taiwanese newspapers. In the 1980s, Monterey Park was heralded as the Chinese Beverly Hills. Today, that title belongs to Arcadia.”

The affluent, who were drawn to the SGV, brought their appetite for authentic quality food with them. Today, more wealthy mainland Chinese people are attracted to the area, bringing with them even more tasteful delights, pushing the boundary of culinary excellence even further east, past the 605 Freeway.

Sichuan food is an example of even more variety in Chinese food now available in the area. “Sichuan food has blown up in China and now here,” says Chen. For some of the best and spiciest dishes, try one of Chen’s and Wei’s favorites: Szechuan Impression in Alhambra. Chen raves, “They’re elevating the game. They believe in restauranteering.”

Some of Fung’s favorites include (and I must agree here): Savoy for their juicy Hainan Chicken and Vietnam House for your pho fix (pho – pronounced “fuh” – is a noodle soup with fresh herbs, vegetables and meat.) Both are modest restaurants that serve delicious food at a very reasonable price. Expect a wait, especially at Savoy on weekends and lunch and dinner hours.

For the best variety in one location, visit the hugely popular “626 Night Market” at Santa Anita Park, in Arcadia. There you can try many types of food like Korean BBQ, fried squid on a stick and egg custard desserts. End the night by sharing a packed bowl of Asian fruit over shaved ice and sweetened condensed milk while enjoying arts, entertainment and shopping that doesn’t break the bank.

Modeled after the famed Night Markets of Taiwan where patrons push through shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, vying for the freshest foods and the most popular goods, the Arcadia version is much tamer in comparison, but still scented with stinky tofu and lots of fun. The next of these periodic events will be July 3-5. Visit http://www.626nightmarket.com for details.

Lobster from New Port Seafood. Photo credit newportseafood.com
Lobster from New Port Seafood. Photo credit: newportseafood.com

Whatever your taste, you can certainly enjoy the combination of exotic authentic ingredients only 10-15 minutes away. Even better, you’re sure to find new favorites there.

** Some of my favorite Pan-Asian fare in the 626:

– Din Tai Fung (Arcadia) for hand-made Taiwanese xiaolongbao or juicy pork dumplings. Also try the Shanghai rice cake, cucumber salad, fried rice, and 8-treasure sticky rice for dessert.

– Golden Deli (San Gabriel, Temple City) for Vietnamese pho noodles, spring rolls and egg rolls.

– Lunasia (Alhambra, Pasadena) or King Hua (Alhambra) for dim sum, a sampling of Chinese dishes.

– Newport Seafood (San Gabriel and other locations) for their special lobster.

– Phoenix Food Boutique (South Pasadena, Arcadia) for any meal item and dessert.

– Noodle World (San Marino, Alhambra, Pasadena, Monterey Park) for pan-Asian noodles.

– Huge Tree Pastry (Monterey Park) for authentic Taiwanese breakfasts and classic dishes.

– Why Thirsty (San Gabriel) for Taiwanese pork chops and fresh tea.

– Fluff Ice (Monterey Park) for a unique take on shaved ice.

– Paris Baguette (Arcadia) and 85 Degrees (Pasadena) for French and Asian-inspired desserts and coffee.

– Half and Half Tea (Pasadena, San Gabriel, Arcadia, Monterey Park and other locations) for honey boba (tapioca pearls) and ice milk drinks. I ask for everything “½ sweet” for less sugar.