Olvera Street, Chinatown and Little Tokyo

Little Tokyo, Chinatown and Olvera Street

These adjacent colorful downtown communities offer a window on the true multicultural character and history of L.A. In all three you’ll find museums, galleries, restaurants, bars, sidewalk bistros and event venues where there is almost always something happening. They are within walking distance of one another and DASH bus service is available during the day.

Olvera Street (or El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument) is celebrated as the birthplace of L.A.. Directly across from Union Station, it is a block-long quaint Mexican-style market place flanked by historic structures, including Avila Adobe, built in 1818, fully restored and open for tours, and Italian Hall, a late 19th Century structure that features an 18’ by 80’ mural painted by the great Mexican artist David Siqueiros in 1932. ‘American Tropical’ features a Mexican worker crucified on an inverted cross representing the forces of capitalism and it was whitewashed into oblivion by the conservative powers-that-were almost as soon as it was unveiled. Recently uncovered by the Getty, it is visible from the street. An enormous bandstand dominates the plaza that is the focal point for fiestas and frequent music and dance performances. On Cinco de Mayo (May 5th), Olvera Street and its plaza are the epicenter of one of Los Angeles’ most colorful annual events. Midway down the paseo is La Golondrina, at 80- something it is the oldest restaurant in El Pueblo, famed for its margaritas (the Mango Margarita is treasured by locals), premium tequilas and traditional Mexican cuisine (lagolondrina.com/213 687 0800). Across the pedestrian passage is El Paseo Inn, which features equally excellent Mexican dishes and patio dining (elpaseoinn.com/213 626 1361). For more modest budgets, La Luz del Dia, situated on the plaza, offers cafeteria-style dining, hand-made tortillas and a patio with a view of the bandstand (213 628 7495). Ole!

Although most of Chinatown is directly to the northeast of Olvera Street, the two communities overlap historically. The original Chinatown, which began with a few settlers around 1852 and grew to 3,000 residents by 1890, was located southeast of Olvera Street until it was demolished to make way for a new railway station. The forced relocation was bitterly resented by the Chinese community and a brass border set in stone in the plaza adjacent to Union Station marks the border of the original community and memorializes its inhabitants. After a period of decline and much celebrated corruption, local Chinese Americans in the 1930’s embarked on a building campaign to create a new Chinatown – a process that continues to this day. Featuring shopping plazas, restaurants, bars, nightclubs and a new generation of art galleries, it is a lively destination, day or night, with an exotic architectural and culinary charm that was considerably enriched in the 1970s and 80s with the influx of Vietnamese immigrants. The most celebrated Chinatown eatery is the Empress Pavilion, a self-proclaimed “dowager of dim-sum” that is a favorite of locals, famed for a Hong-Kong-style menu characterized by an astonishing variety of dims-sum dishes wheeled around the huge dining hall on carts. Particularly recommended for Saturday brunch (in Bamboo Plaza, 988 Hill St., empresspavilion.com/213 617 9898). More affordable but just as celebrated for its cuisine, particularly its myriad seafood dishes, is ABC Seafood. The décor may be modest, but this is a favorite, particularly among diners who prize authenticity (708 Street, 213 680 2887). For pure fun, there is nowhere in L.A. quite like the Grand Star Jazz club. Remember the bar in the original Star Wars movie? This could have been the model. Excellent live jazz with frequent performances by visiting elite performers and a standing invitation for anyone to step up to the mike for some karaoke with a live band. An upstairs club features hip-hop and deejay events (943 N. Broadway, [Sun Mun Way] www.grandstarjazzclub.co,/213 626 2285). Just around the corner, tucked into a neon pagoda is the ultracool, oldschool Hop Louie Bar. It cultivates a deceptive seediness that might discourage casual visitors – but those who stick around discover it is the preferred hangout of musicians, artists and other interesting denizens of the downtown demimonde, many of whom go there just for the jukebox that features an eclectic mix of vinyl stretching across half a century and a couple of continents. In early February, the Chinese New Year is celebrated in Chinatown with a traditional Dragon Parade that is one of the larges and most spectacular in the U.S. (lagoldendragonparade.com). Watch out for the firecrackers.

Little Tokyo (or Sho-tokyo) is about ten blocks south of Chinatown. It is one of three official Japantowns left in the United States. The area was a magnet for immigrating Japanese from the late 19th century until the Exclusion Act of 1924 slammed the door. In the 30’s the population grew to 30, 000 but the community was emptied during World War II when the residents were sent to internment camps. The stretch of sidewalk along the north side of First Street between Central and Judge John Aiso Street is embedded with images and legends in brass that recall where the busses came to take away the residents and identify the businesses lost to intolerance. Today the area is one of the most popular cultural destinations in the L.A. area, featuring world class museums, fine dining, lively bars, one of the best jazz clubs in California and an authentic medieval Japanese watch tower. The Japanese-American National Museum exhibits the work of the finest Japanese artists and features a permanent display of the rigors experiences by Japanese Americans wow re interred in the high desert internment camp of Manzanar – including a complete barracks building that housed several families (janm.org). The Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (jaccc.org) is a showcase for traditional arts (such as Bunraku, the astounding Japanese puppet theater) as well as classic Japanese cinema and exhibitions (one recent exhibit featured Bugu: The Spirit of the Samurai Warrior). The Far East Café (unmistakably denoted by it somewhat incongruous ‘Chop Suey’ neon sign) is a restored 30’s style classic L.A eatery that has been lovingly restored to its 30’s glory and features an eclectic, moderately priced menu and a narrow, brick enclosed outdoor bar that is a particularly engaging spot on warm summer nights (347 E. 1st St., 213 617 9990). For a true fusion of Japanese, Korean and American cuisine, there is probably no place better in California than e3rd Steakhouse and Lounge that features adaptations of traditional sushi and tofu dishes with Korean and nouveau cuisine twists (try the ribs marinated in pear sauce). Reasonably priced and decorated in industrial loft chic, it is among the best L.A. dining experiences (743 E. Third St., 213 680 3003/eastthird.com). Of course sushi is the culinary grail and one of the best sushi joints this side of Tokyo is R23. Tucked off an alley in an old industrial building converted to lofts and hidden galleries, it’s not cheap but it is VERY good and it features some of the best art in town. Call for reservations for dinner. If you are on a modest budget, splurge for lunch (923 E. 2nd Street, Ste 109, 213 687 7178/r23.com). Jazz aficionados swear by the 2nd street Jazz Club (366 E. 2nd St., 213 680 0047. In August Little Tokyo hosts two events: the annual Tofu Festival where you will learn there is virtually no food this craft bean curd can’t mimic (tofufest.org) and Nisei Week, a culture and food fest unparalleled on this side of the Pacific (niseiweek.org). Kempei!

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