Los Angeles Times staff writer Carolina Miranda invites Nathan Thornburgh over to taste the good life east of the Interstate 110.
Los Angeles is a place that is too big, too deep, spread too thin under the marine layer and above the concrete culverts to give you, the visitor, any idea of what the hell is really going on. I didn’t know that the first half-dozen or times I came, and I didn’t understand the place at all. And if I’ve learned anything in the decades since, it’s that you need your people. The ones who have found their place in the basin and can bring you along and communicate their vision of what Los Angeles means to them. So now I’ve got JR in Manhattan Beach, Mike in West Hollywood, Yukio in South Central, and, increasingly Carolina Miranda—my former colleague at Time Magazine—for everything east of the 110.
In the next few weeks, you’ll meet some of these people—my people—in Los Angeles, and I couldn’t be happier starting here in East LA with Carolina. She is a deeply influential writer, culture hawk, and collective bargainer at the resurgent Los Angeles Times. We’re drinking orange juice from her front yard, spiked with prosecco, and talking about porn theaters, old-school donut shops, and what Latinos in the southland have to teach us all.
Nathan Thornburgh: You and I worked at Time Magazine together in New York, but you’re from out here. You’re from Southern California.
Carolina Miranda: Yes, I grew up here.
Thornburgh: You came back for the drink that we’re drinking this morning—fresh-squeezed orange juice from your own tree, spiked with prosecco.
Miranda: I came back because I like sunshine and burritos and New York is terrible on either front. The burrito game is a sad game in New York City. No, I’ve been wanting to come back for a long time, partly because I don’t like winter, and then partly because I just see a lot of bad writing about LA. I remember being in New York. I would read all these stories about LA and always thinking, “I think I could do this better. Why do I read all this crap?” That was part of what motivated me to come back to the sunshine, the orange juice, the burritos.
Thornburgh: There’s a side of reading you on social media especially that I enjoy, which doesn’t come that often, but when it comes, it’s full-throated, and that’s the take down of the incredibly tone-deaf, vacuous New York Times Southern California piece.
Miranda: Yeah, usually in the Styles section. It’s like the law.
Thornburgh: They fly somebody out to fuck it up and then go back home.
Miranda: Basically, let’s drop this guy in Beverly Hills and arm him with every LA trope, nobody walks, there’s no culture here or the culture only just landed here. Um, everyone drinks pressed juice and eats kale. I mean, right now, we are drinking pressed juice, but please note that it has alcohol in it.
Miranda: It’s just every stereotype about Los Angeles. There was a story recently like, “Nobody eats bread in LA.” I’m like of course every Latino in Los Angeles was flinging bolillos at the New York Times online or the equivalent, saying, “What the hell do you mean by everybody?” Because everybody always means like the Bermuda Triangle around Beverly Hills and none of the other communities that actually comprise the majority of Los Angeles.
Thornburgh: Right, and where panaderias are one of the three staple businesses of most of LA.
Miranda: Exactly, it’s the taco truck, the panaderias, and the gas station and car wash/weed dispensary.
Thornburgh: LA is evolving.
LA does working-class food really well and local food and neighborhood food—food that nourishes and that isn’t about Instagram.
Thornburgh: Part of your exploration of LA and being back here has been through food. Tell me about your missions through the city.
Miranda: I have many missions. The great thing about Los Angeles is something that I think Jonathan Gold articulated so beautifully in his writing was that some of the most amazing things you find in that anonymous strip mall, in the truck, in the little hot dog stand that LA does. LA does working-class food really well and local food and neighborhood food—food that nourishes and that isn’t about Instagram. I’ve been on these like bizarre little missions. One of my missions now—and this is an architectural/food mission—is to eat at every donut stand that has a giant donut as part of the architecture. Randy’s by the airport on Manchester, which is famous.
Thornburgh: You can’t get from the airport heading north without just driving by that giant fucking donut. How many feet high? I don’t know.
Miranda: Yeah, it’s big. They recently painted it yellow in honor of the Rams in the Superbowl. There was this mild horror that went through LA briefly, like, “Is somebody’s fucking with the Randy’s donut? How dare anybody like touch the Randy’s donut.” It’s like, “Somebody call the LA Conservancy.”
Thornburgh: What is that even supposed to be? Is that like a lemon curd donut or something?
Miranda: Exactly, it made no sense. Randy’s Donuts, Dale’s Donuts. There’s The Donut Hole in La Puente. There are other big donuts. Because I work near the airport, I started at Randy’s. Now I’m starting to work my way east.
Thornburgh: What are you going to find about the place? What are they going to have in common? Are they all of a certain era?
Miranda: They are from this era when LA was just full of programmatic architecture. If you think of the Brown Derby being some of its most famous. There’s the bar in North Hollywood that is in a barrel. In the back, they have what used to be, I think a hot dog stand that’s a little dog. All of this architecture that kind of signaled what it was about. That was such a huge thing in Los Angeles. If you watch old films of Los Angeles, I mean it was bonkers. There were buildings that looked like the Sphinx; everything in all kinds of shapes. It harkens to this era of complete ebullience and freedom: “I’m going to build the thing in the shape of a derby or a donut because I can. I’m not going to have some New York types going, ‘Oh my god, you can’t do that.’” LA really was this place, especially in the early 20th century where anything went, anything went architecturally, anything went in terms of film. I mean, that was when the film industry was really taking off here. I think that architecture, for me, symbolizes that era like that, just we’re going to come here and break some trademark rules and make movies.
Thornburgh: Damn your zoning laws to hell. You’re right. The role of LA and our national culture of telling New York to lighten the fuck up is huge and hugely important, which is probably all the condescension that drips off the Styles section in New York Times is probably in conversation…
Miranda: With that legacy. Exactly.
Thornburgh: I’ve got this coffee table book about all the disappearing storefronts and signages in New York that is crazy, because you go through there. The rate of extinction has increased manyfold since I even got the book. I can barely find any of the ones that are there, in there. LA is a place where you can find, right across from my wife’s house in Culver City, the Tattle Tale Room, which is still a stinky, fantastic dive bar with original signage, wildly inventive, like Hot Dog on a Stick meets Bukowski glory-hole.
Miranda: I can smell it from here.
Thornburgh: It’s so original. It hasn’t been redeveloped or condemned or any of the things that maybe, might’ve, should’ve happened. It’s still there. It’s amazing. It’s right next to a pet store and a gun shop. LA is just still living, you know?
Miranda: Somebody once told me that LA always has at least one of something that has gone extinct elsewhere. For example, I did a story a few years back on how LA’s last two porn theaters… Many cities don’t have porn theaters anymore at all. In fact, I think the last one in New York was just sold and doesn’t screen movies anymore, if I’m correct. It’s this thing where in the age of the internet, you don’t need to go to a porn theater. You can download it. Yet, in LA there are these two theaters where you can go and watch porn. They really speak to the city where there is the space for these things to continue to survive.
LA is a place where you can still find the Tattle Tale Room: a stinky, fantastic dive bar with original signage, like Hot Dog on a Stick meets Bukowski glory-hole.
Miranda: The other thing I’m on a mission for is my husband and I, every anniversary we go and eat at an old-timey steakhouse. The Dal Rae in Pico Rivera, it’s like a piece of the ’40s or ’50s with this bizarre ’80s bar. They attached this ’80s bar to it. It doesn’t make sense architecturally, but whatevs. It is one of those places where you go get your great steak and your iceberg wedge and the waiters all look like they’ve been there since the place opened. It’s just like this other sliver of Los Angeles you think of. If the programmatic architecture speaks to this ebullience of this earlier era, these steakhouses are these modernist, post-war booming LA, everyone’s moving here, aerospace is here. It’s like a lot of them speak to that era.
They are evolving too. The one we went to last time, Steven’s, is wedged next to the 5 freeway, where Commerce meets east LA meets Downey, that area. It has this whole Italian decor motif going on inside, with visions of Tuscany. The food is not that good. The night that we were there to celebrate our anniversary was also Cumbia night. Then next door there was some Latin band playing. It’s this steakhouse that still exists largely in the form it always has and is, I imagine, serving the menu it always has, yet it has been completely taken over by Latino immigrants in the sense of they have made it their own. It’s really great to see. It’s great to be at this old Italian, old school steakhouse and then go dance Cumbia next to the bar.
Thornburgh: That sort of old bottle, new wine thing strikes me as deeply LA too. One of the things that always blew me away because my wife’s family is Mexican from East LA, and her father’s family is Japanese-American from Gardena, South Central area. Everybody lived in the same shitty houses, the little ranch house with a small yard and the chain link fence. But when you went inside each of these houses, it was transporting. You were in a completely different culture, definitely plastic on the sofa in East LA. In Gardena, the little side-yard was a Japanese rock garden. The gods hanging out in the garden and on the walls are different, but the architecture is the same. The style of living, in the basin that everybody shares, seems exactly the same, but is wildly different on the inside.
Miranda: Everyone takes it and makes it their own flavor. One of my favorite places to go—and again, the food’s not that good, but I just like to go because it’s so symbolic—is this place in Alhambra called Noodle World. I think it’s a local chain, of Asian noodle houses that’s like pan-Asian. You can get a Pad Thai. You can get Chinese noodles. None of them are that great. The one in Alhambra occupies a former Bob’s Big Boy that still has the Big Boy in the dining room. It’s this husk of Americana that was dying, and then immigrants came in and rejuvenated it and made it their own. You go in there and it’s Latinos and Asians eating pan-Asian noodles inside Bob’s Big Boy with Bob still watching. It’s just this completely amazing, amazing testament to how immigrants can invigorate old symbols.