Determined Food-trepreneurs Target Restaurant-Starved Frogtown

The entrance of Spoke Bicycle Cafe, Frogtown's first bona fide cafe, faces the L.A. River Bike Path.EXPAND
The entrance of Spoke Bicycle Cafe, Frogtown's first bona fide cafe, faces the L.A. River Bike Path.
Isaac Simpson

A year ago, the only food options in Frogtown were a taco stand in a guy's front yard and a super-size ice cream truck. 

Even after many local publications, including this one, named Frogtown L.A.'s hottest new neighborhood, it still lacks a full-service restaurant. Its only quasi restaurant is Elysian, which is also quasi in Frogtown. It's located on Frogtown's northern border in the area around Ripple and Fletcher — outside the freeway-encased, river-bordered patch of cute residences that is the neighborhood's core.

But Frogtown is finally getting some dining options, from several restaurateurs who've made Frogtown their mission.

Richard Latronica and Laurie Winston opened Spoke Bicycle Cafe, a cycling-centered compound, in March. Its wide, open-air space abuts the L.A. River Bike Path. The space includes a bar overlooking the path and a lush stretch of river. Spoke currently serves coffee, snacks and refreshments (no alcohol) and is augmented by food-truck fare (including Steel City's french fry–filled Pittsburgh sandwiches). Since opening, Latronica and Winston have struggled to secure permits to serve their own food and house-brewed beer.

Latronica and Winston are both avid cyclists, and they see Spoke as a part of the citywide movement toward increased use of bicycles. 

"Here's this bike path where people don't have to fight with traffic," Latronica says. "It's along this nice little corridor of nature. If we put something over here, maybe that will encourage people to not drive. It's a destination for people who like to go somewhere when they ride."

Given the L.A. City Council's ambitious "Mobility Plan 2035," designed to massively increase bike use across L.A., you might think that Spoke would be able to fast-track its permitting process. That hasn't been the case.

While Latronica and Winston wade through the bureaucracy, Spoke still has plenty to offer. It's the only retail location in the city to serve Greg Thomas' pan-roasted Trystero Coffee. The master garage "nano-roaster" was retail-shy, until he walked into Spoke.

Isaac Simpson

"He's a bike guy too, and he came in here and was instantly like, 'Yes! this is where I want my coffee!'" Latronica recalls.

Latronica also sells local ice cream treats Si Paletas and Coolhaus, locally brewed kombucha and T-shirts made in Frogtown. There's also an antique shop, a record shop, board games including Cards Against Humanity and Settlers of Catan, and a bike repair/retail shop, which will soon rent bikes.

On a Saturday afternoon, people roll in from the well-trafficked bike path in a steady trickle. There are serious cyclists in Spandex, kids on training wheels and tourists on cruisers. About a hundred yards down the path is a little grass park on Knox Avenue, where Frogtown's first sandwich shop is set to open in September.

Wax Paper Co. is a tiny operation from former Jon & Vinny's chef de cuisine Peter Lemos and his wife/partner, Lauren. It's built inside a picturesque little shipping container just steps from the river. The couple are shooting for a vibe similar to Gjusta in Venice.

"I want people to walk in and see all this food and feel welcome," Peter Lemos says. 

Wax Paper Co. will serve Ritual Coffee, with cold-brew coffee and tea on tap. The sandwiches will be served on bread from Etxea, the lauded Basque bakery in Torrance. Lemos says the food will be affordable.  

"I really don't want to alienate the neighborhood," he says. "I want to make sure the cost is something people can afford. We'd like to do a neighborhood discount for the local residents."

The operation might be small, but the sandwiches are big. Each is named after a prominent NPR host. The Kai Ryssdal, for example, is a fantastically briny tuna sandwich on a sesame roll with potato confit and black olive aioli. 

The Kai Ryssdal at Wax Paper Co., where all the sandwiches are named after NPR hostsEXPAND
The Kai Ryssdal at Wax Paper Co., where all the sandwiches are named after NPR hosts
Isaac Simpson

There also will be a Larry Mantle (bologna, capicola) and a meatless Ira Glass.

Wax Paper Co. is having an easier go of the permitting process than Spoke. Lemos says this is in part because it qualified for Restaurant Express, an expedited permitting program for small, independent businesses.

Another 100 yards down the bike path from Wax Paper Co. is FoLAR's Frog Spot, a semi-cafe/watering station marked by a line of yellow and red balloons. It's open only on weekends and offers a limited menu of coffee, snacks and ice cream. The Frog Spot was the first of the baby steps toward a food district along the river in Frogtown. Now the next stage is about to begin.

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