10 Best Restaurants in Watts and Compton

Fried chicken and waffles at Watt's Coffee House
Fried chicken and waffles at Watt's Coffee House
Jean Trinh

Watts and Compton might be best known as the cultural birthplace of gangster rap, but they also reign supreme in another way: delicious, home-style food. A lot of love goes into this cooking. While Roy Choi's LocoL may have blown up the Watts scene, there are institutions with long histories in the neighborhood, places that offer everything from addictive fried chicken wings to tender steamed tacos. Further down in Compton, diners are blessed with top-notch barbecue and fried turkey served nearly 20 different ways.

Hawkins House of Burgers' junior bacon cheeseburger
Hawkins House of Burgers' junior bacon cheeseburger
Jean Trinh

Hawkins House of Burgers

If you want a good old-fashioned burger done right, Hawkins House of Burgers is where it's at. This L.A. institution has been in Watts since owner Cynthia Hawkins first opened the restaurant in 1983. The space looks like a two-story house from the outside and was built by Hawkins' grandfather. It's since passed through the generations, taking many forms, from a mod ice cream shop to a grocery store. Hawkins takes pride in her burgers, crafted from Angus beef, served on brioche buns baked daily and topped with crispy applewood bacon. While Andrew Zimmerman of Bizarre Foods may have put Hawkins' "whipper burger" — a concoction of beef patties, pastrami and hot links — on the map, Hawkins says her favorite is still the bacon cheeseburger. "I put love in my burgers," she says. Beyond the beef patties, you can also get breakfast items, grits, chicken wings and hot-link sandwiches. While it's a little cramped inside the fast-food joint, outside you'll find some tables covered with red-and-white gingham under an E-Z Up. Hawkins says she opened her burger joint because she felt that there was "no good quality food in the neighborhood" at the time and she wanted to give back to the community. She's done more for the neighborhood in other ways, too. She takes kids from Watts to Disneyland and her alma mater, USC, pointing out that some of them have never even set foot outside of Watts. Locals also get a 25 percent discount on food. It's all about the community here. 11603 Slater St., Watts; (323) 563-1129, hawkinsburgers.com.

Fried chicken and waffles at Watt's Coffee House
Fried chicken and waffles at Watt's Coffee House
Jean Trinh

Watt's Coffee House

Watt's Coffee House isn't your run-of-the-mill neighborhood diner. It has a lot of history and some seriously delicious soul food. It's a newer reiteration of the shuttered Watt's Happening Coffee House, which was built in the 1960s. This updated version is run by owner-chef Desiree Edwards, who opened its doors in 1997. It's practically hidden from the street, tucked away in a community center next to a charter school. Walk through the building and you'll find a restaurant with lots of character; the space is decorated with vintage soul and R&B concert posters, old-school record sleeves and signed black-and-white headshots of celebrities like Mariah Carey and 50 Cent. It's a cozy breakfast and lunch spot that has some of the best fried chicken wings in town; they're crispy on the outside, with warm, succulent meat on the inside. If you want to round out your meal, the wings can be accompanied by buttery waffles shaped as rounded rectangles, and maple syrup — which you should definitely drizzle over everything. The menu also includes a shrimp po'boy, fried bologna sandwich and Cajun-style ham steak. 1827 E. 103rd St., Watts; (323) 249-4343. 

LocoL's Cheeseburg
LocoL's Cheeseburg
Jean Trinh

LocoL

Roy Choi — L.A.'s O.G. purveyor of Korean-Mexican cuisine — attempted a food revolution in January when he and San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson launched LocoL in Watts, the first outpost of what they intend to be a healthy fast-food chain. All the food is made from scratch using fresh ingredients. You won't find a soda here, either — they have house-made aguas frescas instead. The menu channels Choi's creative flair: flavorful burgers, noodle dishes, the taco-meets-quesadilla "foldies" and veggie sides. Highlights are the LocoL Cheeseburg — made with scallion relish — and the Noodleman, a noodle dish with ginger, chili and lime. If you can get up early enough for breakfast, they've got some killer egg-in-a-hole combos. An added bonus is that the bright and airy space always has fun music, with lots of old-school hip-hop classics to keep your head bobbing. 1954 E. 103rd St., Watts; welocol.com. 

Hamwich Shack's jive turkey burger
Hamwich Shack's jive turkey burger
Jean Trinh

Hamwich Shack

Don't let the fact that the Hamwich Shack is a tiny stand fool you. Instead of greasy dishes you might find at a regular burger drive-thru, this restaurant leans toward gourmet and healthy food, with ingredients such as free-range turkey, vegan bread and heirloom tomatoes. George Harris, who grew up in Watts and later moved to the San Fernando Valley, decided to go back to his hometown to provide locals with more healthy options. "I noticed all the fast food — like hamburgers — were all the same [here] since I grew up," Harris says. He bought property from his uncle to transform it into the Hamwich Shack, which opened three months ago. On its menu, you'll find a behemoth turkey burger topped with turkey bacon and turkey chili. You can also find chicken sliders paired with portobello mushrooms and drizzled with truffle oil; grilled wild salmon salad; a variety of sandwiches; and turkey and sausage hot dogs. Harris has replaced soda with made-to-order juice drinks such as ginger-kale-lemon. And his high-quality meats are all-natural, with no hormones, GMOs or steroids. Harris — a self-proclaimed "street chef" who learned to cook from his grandmother and mother — says he's "recalibrating the taste buds of the community." Soon, he plans to start an herb and vegetable garden on the lot and use those ingredients in his cooking. On a good day, you might even get a chance to try his freshly baked purple sweet potato pies. 1330 E. Imperial Hwy., Watts; thehamwichshack.com. 

Tacos la Pontranka's trio of tacos
Tacos la Pontranka's trio of tacos
Jean Trinh

Tacos la Potranka

When Isabel Manzo first started slinging her steamed tacos (aka tacos al vapor) in L.A. 17 years ago, she says she didn't see anyone else cooking tacos that way. Her Tacos la Potranka started as a little cart, then grew into two taco trucks — one of which is still running in Watts — and, eventually, a brick-and-mortar that opened in Compton a year ago. The only protein Manzo carries is beef. While you can get your regular asada, she also uses a variety of delicate, different parts — including lip, cheek and brain — in her tacos. Instead of the shredded beef tongue (aka lengua) that you might find from other taco purveyors, Manzo cuts the melt-in-your-mouth meat into thick slices, a method that she says "preserves the flavor." The tortillas and meats are all steamed, and no oil is used, making this a healthier taco option. Make sure to top your tacos with the restaurant's flavorful, house-made habañero and green salsas. Over at Manzo's Compton location, you can also get burritos and tortas, as well as menudo and pozole on the weekends. Manzo says she learned how to cook from her parents in Guadalajara — and that any other steamed tacos in the city are mere "imitators." Taco truck at 2500 E. 115th Place, Watts; restaurant at 1501 N. Long Beach Blvd., Compton; (323) 351-6981. 



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