Donning a giant black and gold-trimmed sombrero with guitarrón in hand, the Latino man peers out from a giant cherry red mural. His name is Raphael Rubio, a late local mariachi player, and he stares out from a painting on the storefront of Eastside Luv Bar. He’s one of portraitist Robert Vargas’s subjects—greeting drivers and pedestrians on Boyle Height’s busy 1st Street.
It’s one of the many avant-garde murals in Los Angeles by world-renowned Vargas, a fifth-generation Boyle Heights native. He’s so recognized for capturing the faces of the city that this past January, the Los Angeles City Council honored his achievements by naming an intersection Robert Vargas Square Artist – Angeleno—located at the intersection of Boyle Heights’s Pennsylvania and Boyle Avenues.
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“I grew up on City View Avenue in an old Victorian home overlooking Downtown L.A., surrounded by amazing culture, art, and food,” says Vargas. “It was a melting pot, and you can still drive by Buddhist temples because there used to be a thriving Japanese community. Head another block to Cesar Chavez, and there are two big Jewish shuls. It’s even where the original Canters was—one of Los Angeles’s most iconic Jewish restaurants.”
This vibrant enclave in Los Angeles has a history of diversity. In the early 20th century it was populated by large communities of Jews, Russians, Mexicans, Japanese, and more. Formerly known as Paredón Blanco—the white bluffs—it was one of the few neighborhoods welcoming people of color. It’s sandwiched between Downtown L.A. and East L.A. and has been primarily a Latino neighborhood since the 1960s. Gentrification is a concern, but Vargas still loves to support the thriving mom-and-pop restaurants—many open for decades.
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The city of Los Angeles declared September 8 “Robert Vargas Day,” and that fact humbles Vargas. “It’s one thing to receive an honor like that, and it’s truly an opportunity and platform for uplighting the local creative community. On that day, I plan to produce a block party on the intersection that features local vendors and food and creative workshops featuring industry giants that are entirely accessible to the local kids.”
He’s not the only one dedicated to the Boyle Heights community. Jorge Sandoval, chef and owner of Brooklyn Avenue Pizza, explains that part of the reason his restaurant survived the pandemic is that “our locals are communal and truly care for one another—we help each other out.”
If you’re looking to dive even deeper into Boyle Heights, here are just a few of Vargas’ go-to spots.
“I haven’t had one bad thing on that menu,” says Vargas. “My favorites are the enchiladas, and on Saturdays and Sundays, they have homemade birria. It feels just like home.”
Teresitas Restaurant features specialties from Teúl, located in the Mexican state of Zacatecas. The cute pink and turquoise walled restaurant features eclectic tchotchkes from Mexican pottery to a single Himalayan salt lamp. You can’t go wrong with the Chiles Rellenos and machaca—a shredded beef jerky. Stop by on Wednesdays for the savory pork ribs in a spicy chile negro sauce with rice and beans.
Vargas explained that Otomisan has to be included on any list of Boyle Heights eats.
It’s the last original Japanese restaurant in the city—designated a Historic-Cultural Monument in January 2022. Since 1956, it’s served classic Japanese comfort foods like Japanese curry with pork over rice, sushi rolls, oyakodon—a creamy chicken and egg over rice, and soba. Make sure to order the tempura, which you can find on nearly every table; it’s perfectly fried to a delicate crisp.
Vargas loves the breakfast at La Parrilla—the hearty chilaquiles plate, which comes with a big slice of carne asada topping the tortilla chips. Other solid picks are the cafe de hoya, queso fundido—spicy chorizo in melting cheese–and fresh guacamole. The ingredients are high quality, with handmade tortillas and fresh-made chips. Be ready to savor your food; the service is usually slow. At the bar, order the alcoholic sangria, which comes in a traditional terracotta cup. The decor bursts with colors and festive pinatas overhead, so soak in the fun ambiance. During the pandemic, they’ve also added outdoor dining.
This tiny spot on 1st Street—one of Vargas’s favorite streets—is where you can find Yeya’s Restaurant. It’s a small, no-frills homestyle spot with just four booths which is loved by locals. There’s an open kitchen where you can see the chef handmaking masa tortillas. You can judge a great Mexican place by its beans, and the frijoles are flawless, creamy, mildly sweet, and nutty. Also, make sure to order the chicken tomatillo enchiladas, menudo rojo, and caldo de res—Mexican beef and vegetable soup.
Brooklyn Avenue Pizza
“I’m excited about what they’re doing on that street,” says Vargas about Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, the site of Brooklyn Avenue Pizza. Boyle Heights native and chef Jorge Sandoval specializes in mole pizza—a sweet and savory mole atop queso Oaxaca, curtido, crema, mozzarella on a wood-fired pizza to create a Chicano masterpiece. The city’s flavors also inspire the handmade cocktails—try the Mama Mangoñada with Mezcal, lime juice, chamoy, and a tajin-rim. After enjoying a meal, head upstairs to The Paramount—one of Los Angeles’ longest-running music and events venues that has always supported diverse performers.