From a popular picnic hot spot for upper-crusters, to a gang-infiltrated slum, to a revitalized music festival venue, MacArthur Park, straddling Wilshire Boulevard in Westlake, has experienced many transformations throughout the years.
The park’s image has suffered from a bad reputation over the decades but has since sobered up. Take a walk by the lake or recreational fields and you’ll be caught in a crossroad of cultures and multilingual people.
Early mornings, you’ll see Korean grandmas and grandpas brisk-walking or stretching while their younger generations cut through the park to the Red Line Metro station. Midday and evenings, you’ll see a young mother and child feeding ducks and swans, while after-hour workers sprawl out on the grass with bottles of beer and tacos.
Weekends are the most crowded. Food cart vendors blow horns in every corner, Latino protestant evangelists shout “Jesús es tu salvación” into megaphones, screaming kids send flocks of pigeons fluttering and couples walk hand-in-hand in the middle of all the animated chaos.
MacArthur Park might seem like mayhem, but it’s an organized and dynamic one. Visit several more times, and you’ll know exactly what to expect: a rich interaction of people from all backgrounds, cultures and socioeconomic statuses, which is reflected in the diverse mix of ethnic restaurants and food carts surrounding the park.
The most famous restaurant would be Langer’s Deli, the Jewish restaurant so beloved that Langer’s Square is dedicated to it. Like a typical Jewish deli, Langer’s offers a huge menu, but locals know exactly what to order: the No. 19, a multi-layered sandwich of tender, hand-carved pastrami, sharp Swiss cheese, crunchy coleslaw and piquant Russian dressing.
Another popular eatery is Mama’s Hot Tamales Cafe, a quaint hole-in-the-wall restaurant characterized by its bright-colored decor. Located right across the street from the lake, the cafe played a vital role in revitalizing the MacArthur Park neighborhood by hiring and training local residents on culinary business.
Reflecting the influences of its multi-ethnic workers, its menu is a diverse mix of Mexican, Guatemalan, Salvadoran, Colombian, Peruvian and Honduran dishes. Of course, its specialty is tamales, which vary from savory options like chicken mole and beef adobo to sweet desserts like pineapple and guava. Additionally, Mama’s Hot Tamales offers vegan-friendly remakes of most dishes by using Daiya cheese.
Antojitos Bibi on Seventh Street, on the other hand, is better-known for a specific regional cuisine. Other than the familiar antojitos (Mexican tapas), try the exquisite sopa de caracol, a rich, coconut-based broth with chunks of fresh conch meat (Atonjitos Bibi is one of the few Honduran places that doesn’t use canned conch) served with a heap of rice. Or picnic out with baleadas, a popular Honduran street fare. Though it looks like a quesadilla, the flour tortilla folded over refried beans and cheese is thicker and chewier.
For simple, low-key Guatemalan take-out, trot down to Eighth and Alvarado Streets in the evenings. You’ll see after-hour crowds surrounding food carts selling simple Guatemalan fare for a fixed price of $3.50. Most of these vendors don’t speak English, but with some hand gestures and smiles, you can score tasty, authentic meals like fried chicken drumstick with pacaya relleno (palm flower fritters) and Guatemalan chow mein. Also ask for the sopa de pata, a savory beef hoof soup packed with cabbage, chayote and other vegetables.
Half a block down to Ninth Street, you can try out Korean-style blowfish (called “bok-eo”) at Dae Bok Restaurant. Blowfish (also known as fugu) are infamous for the deadly and paralytic poison in their organs, but this homey, family-style restaurant cooks the lethal vertabrae either spicy grilled or in a hearty stew (ji-ri), reimagining its reputation as comfort food.
But there’s more — what about hot-griddled Salvadoran pupusas at Los Molcajetes on Eighth Street? Or fat, overflowing Mexican tortas at Super Tortas on the other end of MacArthur Park?
You don’t even have to leave the park to encounter delicious finds. Food carts will wheel you raspados (Mexican snow cones), fresh-cut fruit in plastic packages or elote (Mexican-style corn on the cob that has been slathered with mayo and margarine and smothered in grated cotija cheese with a sprinkle of chili powder).
MacArthur Park is a surviving battlefield. It has been scarred by racial riots and drug wars, but it is still standing and still collecting stories of the hundreds of people who walk by it daily — tales of human interaction that are revealed through its rich compass of good eats.
Sophia Lee is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism and East Asian languages and cultures. Her column “Cross Bites” runs Mondays.