The Los Angeles riots: Inspiration behind a culinary upheaval

LAPD officers draw their guns during the 1992 riots to clear a crowd on Vermont Avenue near 1st Street, a neighborhood with a variety of ethnic cuisines. (Los Angeles Times / March 29, 2012)

By Jonathan Gold

It is the first morning of May 1992, and the air outside my Koreatown apartment is acrid with lingering smoke. I gingerly wander through the neighborhood, hoping to find a place to buy a quart of milk.

Around the corner on Vermont Avenue is a now-famous ruin, a block-long strip mall whose smoking, melted contours have been broadcast around the world in the last 24 hours. Dozens of stores on the street have been stripped and looted.

The day before, I had lingered on my stoop watching people stagger down the block with pillaged sporting goods, small appliances, VHS tapes, cheap furniture, toys and plastic-wrapped suits from the dry cleaners. I wandered over to Vermont in time to see two young men put down their booty just long enough to help an elderly woman wrestle a tufted chair across the street; to see a woman I recognized from the block offer children snacks from her armful of bagged Filipino treats; to see passing motorists smile and wave as they inched down the busy street. The one policeman on the scene drank coffee and tried not to look anyone in the eye.

There was a single Salvadoran restaurant open in the burned-out mall, a well-lighted redoubt of caldo de pollo surrounded by ruined stores, but I didn’t find a place to buy milk until the supermarkets opened the next day.

The neighborhood — the diversity of the neighborhood — may have been what drove me to write about food in the first place. Immediately before the riots there had been restaurants from 14 regions within a few minutes walk from my apartment. Not just the Korean, Mexican and Japanese places you might have expected, but restaurants from Sumatra, Thailand, Guatemala, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Holland, Colombia, Nicaragua, Japan and Peru among others — all coexisting, all more or less delicious.

It’s one thing to decide whether you feel like burgers or pizza for dinner; another to choose between bangusempek-empek, or brains masala. It was hard to tell whether the most exotic of the restaurants was the place that advertised “Fil-Italian cuisine — stranger than fiction!” or the hot-dog stand specializing in a kind of red-hot previously unobtainable outside of Rochester, N.Y.

Before the riots, Los Angeles had been notorious in some circles as a kind of multicultural nightmare, a fever-swamp of global capitalism on a path to becoming the city portrayed in “Blade Runner.” An entire school of urbanism, sometimes called the “L.A. School,” had emerged to study our sunny dystopia.

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