Delicious Surprises Face Visitors at the Los Angeles Arts District
R: You might say Downtown Los Angeles is wearing a very chic new dress and a shiny new pair of shoes! Historically, the changes in the downtown region, which are happening rapidly, are dramatic and delightful.
Z: Yes, double that! Where large industrial buildings were abandoned and dilapidated, they're now getting a long-awaited facelift. We spent an adventurous Sunday exploring the Arts District in Downtown Los Angeles, known as DTLA, to see what vegan offerings we could find and to rediscover an area of the city that was neglected for decades and is now in impressive redevelopment.
R: The Arts District, a narrow corridor from the 101 Freeway on the north to 7th Street on the south, is bordered by Alameda Street on the west and the Los Angeles River on the east.
Z: Because we use public transportation as much as possible, we began our trek at the North Hollywood Metro Station to take the train to Union Station. From there we transferred to the Gold Line and went one stop to 1st Street and Alameda. Our first destination, slightly to the west of the Arts District in Little Tokyo, was Fugetsu Do Sweet Shop, a Japanese confectionary at 315 S. 1st Street. We walked east on 1st, past the Japanese American National Museum and the old Buddhist temple, to reach our destination, a sweet shop operating since 1903 and in this location since 1930.
R: We had a taste for mochi, and they sure had plenty in every color, shape, and flavor imaginable. We were able to choose from a wide variety of these little 1 1/2-inch cubes because they're not made with dairy products or eggs. At about $1.50 each they're reasonable enough for a fun indulgence. Mine was green mochi filled with red bean paste and garnished with kinyaku, a soy powder. Zel's was actually a sweet strawberry-flavored kanten, a seaweed-based gelatin originally developed in Japan.
Z: We shared bites and loved the sweet start to our adventure. Mochi is such fun to experience because of its unique chewy texture. Although its ingredients are quite basic, the process is what creates the distinctive "mochi" quality. The ingredients feature only sticky rice flour, water, and sugar, while the extensive pounding process develops its definitive sticky, chewy nature.
R: From Fugetsu Do, we went back to Alameda and turned left on 3rd Street to take a quick look at Apolis, 806 E. 3rd Street, a very cool, high-quality men's clothing shop that contracts only with fair-trade-conscious, small family businesses around the world.
Z: Next door is Poketo, 820 E. 3rd Street, a must-see shop that sells unique accessories. Using a take-off on the word "pocket," the owners opened the shop selling handcrafted wallets in wild colors, wallets that could fit easily into a pocket. Now the shop sells everything from cards, clothes, and kitchen accessories, to chic body care items, books, baskets, and coffee pots.
R: Alchemy Works next door is another fun shop to explore and discover gift items like candles, sandals, dishes, cups, key holders, and even wine accessories. At the rear of the shop is Warby Parker, an optical dispensary where one can have prescriptions filled and enjoy wearing some very cool sunglasses.
Z: Further down 3rd Street is Black Top Coffee shop with a funky mix of chairs, benches, and tables in the front patio. There's a tiny snack shop preparing light snacks to enjoy with coffee, but, unfortunately, none were vegan.
R: Feeling the need for a little snack, we turned around and headed for the corner of 3rd and Traction and ducked into Zip Sushi Izakaya, 744 E. 3rd Street, for some Vegetarian Ceviche and Vegetable Pot Stickers. The Ceviche was attractively served in a shiny lacquered bowl. Inside was a heaping salad of flavorfully marinated, thin-sliced cucumbers, red onions, mango, slivered jalapeno, and red chiles. The garnish of finely shredded daikon added the perfect finishing touch. Very tasty and admittedly a tad more than medium-spiced, but we loved it.
Z: The pot stickers were beautifully served on a white dish lined with a paper doily and accompanied with a tasty dipping sauce. Our little snack also included a bowl of steamed edamame in the shell, giving us a hearty little nibble.
R:Available on the menu are several vegan offerings from California roll to vegetable curry that would be fun to enjoy on the patio at the rear of the shop. The patio walls are a brilliant mix of mural art and art deco, like the walls inside the restaurant. The expression "You can't judge a book by its cover" truly applies to this little café that has a very informal-looking exterior and surprised us with attractive food presentations we weren't expecting. Standing on the corner outside the shop, we could turn in every direction and see impressive mural artwork.
Z: On Traction we noticed a line of people gathered in front of a brick building that housed Wurstkuche, a German sausage shop. Of their many creative sausage offerings, three are labeled vegetarian and are actually vegan, but the buns are not. We had already snacked, so perhaps next time. We turned our attention to the shop across the street at The Pie Hole, 714 Traction, next door to the historic Cornerstone Theater founded in 1986. At the Pie Hole we could have had a savory Veggie Curry Pie or a Veggie Breakfast Hand Pie. Judging from the bustling activity inside and out and the line of people waiting to order at the counter, their desserts must be very delicious.
R: We thought we might come back to this spot later in the day but were eager to continue our walk-about and explore more of the Arts District. Impressive giant murals decorated the walls of many buildings along the way and added unique flavor to the local color. We turned from 4th Street onto Mateo Street and found The Springs, 608 Matteo, a super savvy raw restaurant and gift shop operating in a huge building that was once a paper factory. Today, the restaurant was celebrating its six-month anniversary.
Z: This place is gorgeous, spacious, and ultra-cheery with a very high ceiling and plenty of skylights that bless the feel-good space with abundant light. Despite its block walls and cement flooring, the space has an elegant feel because of its well-chosen furnishings--wood tables, bar top and shelving behind the juice and beverage bar all light blond and lots of plants in cement block planters throughout the room. We loved the bright yellow chairs that accent the room with cheery color.
R: Because the building is so large, there's even room for a yoga studio at the rear and a spacious area for live entertainment several nights a week. We sat on wooden stools at the bar while Rez, the hip juice-meister, prepared a Rucksack and a Skinny Dip, two delicious juice blends that gave us a refreshing 16-ounce lift.
Z: While sipping, we started chatting with sax player Danny J., one of the jazz musicians who'll be performing at The Springs. If you love Brazilian jazz, come on Tuesday nights or Thursday nights for eclectic jazz. Saturdays and Sundays there's more eclectic jazz to enjoy along with tasty smoothies, salads, juices, and desserts--all raw organic and impressively crafted.
R: We noticed the Farm Sanctuary sign next door. No, no critters roaming the large, industrial space--just offices provided for the organization. As we neared Matteo and 7th Streets, we saw a bustling crowd under an airplane hangar-like structure across the street. We wandered over to discover Artists & Fleas, an arts and crafts flea market that takes place every third weekend of the month in this location.
Z: Meandering, we turned right onto Industrial Street and came across a giant-size wine and beer pub called the Pour House, 1820 Industrial Street. For Sunday brunch, served on the charming outdoor patio vegans could devour Wannabe Tacos, grilled potatoes, bruscetta, and grilled asparagus. Though the vegan offerings are limited, the experience and the charming ambience are appealing.
R: Next to the patio is a small community garden with robust-looking vegetable plants growing in the sunshine. On the corner the very elegant, upscale Church and State Restaurant is housed in a beautiful historic brick building once the home of The National Biscuit Company. The company's name is stamped on the building in attractive giant lettering. Sadly, the menu is not vegan-friendly.
Z: Directly across the street is Little Bear, 1855 Industrial, a neat-looking beer pub specializing in Belgian beer. There's plenty of brew, but, alas, no vegan items on the menu here either. We then crossed Matteo and turned into the parking lot of the Urban Radish, 661 Imperial Street, to check out the "urban chic" market and the delightful café inside. On weekends the café features grilled foods. Their barbecue chefs were in full swing as we walked through the outdoor patio filled with tables and diners. We could have ordered a grilled veggie sandwich, but weren't hungry yet.
R: We checked out the menu for a future visit and noticed daily vegetarian soup specials and massaged kale salad. Other salad offerings contain cheese but could be made vegan. On the sandwich menu are the Radish "V", The Veggie "V", Burrata "V", and Cheesemonger Special "V" for the veggie folks, along with plenty of vegan side salads.
Z: I was totally blown away by the stunning produce department. Though it's relatively small for a grocery store, Urban Radish displayed several unique vegetables we see only at farmer's markets, like purple kohlrabi, yellow cauliflower, and a surreal-looking Romanesco cauliflower. The produce section features locally grown produce, some items organic.
R: Exiting the market, we noticed several electric vehicle plug-in stations in the parking lot--a very neat feature with a savvy look to the future. There's also a fabulous mural along the wall behind the plug-ins. A little further down we stopped in at The Daily Dose 1820 Industrial, a patio café on the side of a large building. On Sundays it closes at 4 p.m. We were a bit too late for a nibble but noted the menu does have a few vegan friendly salads and side salads. The sandwiches are not vegan friendly.
Z: No problem, we were actually headed straight down Matteo to have a dinner pizza at the small and very cozy Pizzanista at 2019 E. 7th St. just east of Matteo. What a jumping joint this casual little spot was when we arrived at about 5:30 p.m.! Inside, the space is long and narrow with an open pass-through window and stools outside and inside. The limited tables indoors meant lots of table sharing going on, making the pizza experience even more convivial. The steady line of people waiting to order pizza was impressive--it literally never stopped.
R: This little pizza spot really does pizza right. They have only one size pizza--it's a giant 18-inch delight, but they also sell pizza by the slice. Gluten-free diners can order the special 10-inch size pizza. And you can just imagine the size of each slice cut from an 18-inch diameter! The macaroni and cheese pizza is a Sunday special, and there were plenty of takers. We were literally surrounded by people devouring their one or two slices of the Sunday special and enjoyed watching them busily retrieving the falling pieces of macaroni dropping from the pizza.
Z: While the mac 'n' cheese eaters were loving their Sunday treat, we, too, were experiencing plenty of nirvana with our Vegan Veggie. Not realizing what an 18-inch pizza looks like, we were stunned when the monster arrived at our table. It was gorgeous and blessed with bright colors from the cherry tomatoes, whole basil leaves, purple onions, green bell peppers, mushrooms, and olives.
R: We gladly shared our pizza with two other people sitting at our table. Because the little place has such limited table space, the owner has a special arrangement with Tony's Saloon next door. Customers can bring their pizza into the saloon to sit at a table if they can find an empty one.
Z: Reuben couldn't help noticing the soda bottle the man across from us was sipping. The name was "Leninade" with the mantra "get hammered and sickled on Leninade." It made us chuckle.
R: Leaving the Pizzanista, we noticed the corner restaurant on the opposite side of the street. La Reyna Deli Restaurant offers a veggie burrito and a veggie quesadilla. It was such a joy to see how far and wide the vegan message has spread. Even little out of the way joints like this now offer at least one or two veggie choices.
Z: We headed back up Matteo and stopped in at Zinc Café, 580 Matteo, to see what was on the menu for vegans. Although it's a completely vegetarian restaurant, we were shocked there were no vegan offerings on the menu. Bummer!
R: Disappointed, we continued north on Matteo, which conveniently turns into Santa Fe Avenue at 4th Street. Our destination was One Santa Fe Center, a brand new outdoor shopping mall with a host of stores available for lease. On the corner is the sparkling new and totally vegan Café Gratitude, 300 Santa Fe Avenue at 7th Street. The spacious, shiny new digs are bright and cheerful and outfitted in ultra chic furnishings.
Z: Because we had just stuffed ourselves at the Pizzanista, we weren't planning to eat here but wanted to see the new space for a future visit. The menu is a delight for both raw foodists, as well as those who enjoy hot dishes. Too bad we weren't hungry--there are so many tasty choices--we even took a peek at the desserts in the deli case and noted a few favorites for our next visit.
R: We finished our very fulfilling and enlightening all-day downtown trek at Angel City Brewery, 216 S. Alameda Street at Traction, where we relaxed over a pint of brew and gave our achy feet a little rest. There was a flurry of activity in the parking lot and inside one wing of the building as vendors were packing up from the day's flea market, testimonial to the constant ongoing happenings in the Arts District.
Z: About 8 o'clock we headed to the Metro for our journey back to the North Hollywood Station and then on to our home. We had walked quite a distance that day but felt truly enriched by innovative, brave, and enterprising individuals transforming old, run-down factory buildings into new and creative shops and unique restaurants.
R: We hope we've whet your appetites to board the Metro and enjoy a visit to the colorful, mural infused, fascinating, and ever-stimulating downtown Arts District.
A Brief History of the Arts District
We wondered how this area became the special place it is today and offer a very abbreviated history of the Arts District.
Along the northern region were once thriving vineyards and wine cellars during the 1880s. The vineyards gradually faded away and the area slowly evolved into successful citrus groves in the early 1900s. The nearby railroad served as the vehicle to transport wine, then citrus fruits across the country.
Little by little, large industrial buildings and warehouses replaced the citrus groves and relied on the rail line to ship manufactured goods and products throughout the US. By World War II, trucks became the preferred method of transportation and the rail line slowly lost its usefulness.
As factories outgrew their spaces or lost business, the buildings stood empty for decades. Slowly, artists found them ideal and affordable for living and working in the giant warehouses, yet these buildings were not considered legal residences until 1981 when the Artist in Residence ordinance was passed.
The area became a hub of art galleries, eateries, and music and entertainment centers and was the go-to area for performers and artists looking for cheap rent. As the area's success grew, the lofts became too expensive for many of the artists, and eventually the buildings underwent redevelopment into upscale living quarters. The Arts District is becoming a hub of construction in all directions, turning dusty old, empty buildings into new businesses, especially tiny cafes and charming restaurants. Innovative development is repurposing historic buildings into pubs, trendy shops, and gourmet markets. The downtown Arts District is now THE PLACE TO BE.
Reviewed May 2015