At Loreto's in Compton, the art of fried turkey extends well beyond Thanksgiving. While most Americans will carve up their centerpiece this holiday -- then subject themselves to a week of leftovers before tiring of the bird -- a small take-out shack in South Central has made a name by specializing in all things turkey, served year round.
The menu at Loreto's, written on a dry-erase board near the door, reads like something Bubba Gump would dream up if his fixation with shrimp suddenly transformed into turkey. There are turkey sandwiches, turkey salads, turkey soup, turkey "soul" tacos sluiced with turkey gravy -- and pretty much anything else you can imagine assembled from bits of succulent turkey meat.
At the center of Loreto's is its eponymous owner and chef, Joe Loreto, who runs the shop exclusively with help from his family. Almost ten years ago, Loreto opened for business -- prompted by the popularity of his turkey dinners and his desire to open a healthful homestyle restaurant in the neighborhood. The final inspiration came to him in a dream, according to Loreto, in which he recalled the word's of a local pastor calling his parishioners to "realize their full potential."
The Loreto family gathered enough money to purchase a modest strip-mall space in one of the poorer sections of Compton, adjacent to a liquor store and an impromptu car wash. "Everyone said that we shouldn't open during a recession, or that we should focus on pork or something more popular," says Loreto, "but I always knew that it was going to be about turkey."
Two tiny tables compose an impossibly small dining room, with assorted brik-a-brak taking up the rest of the space: a rather large aquarium stocked with fish, an antique ice-cream churn, and a dusty wooden cathode-ray TV. Some days, Loreto will juggle the entire operaton himself, bouncing between answering phone calls and carving turkey legs, all while wearing one of those floppy white chef's toques. Two school kids come in and order a few turkey tacos -- a buck each -- then roll over to grab a soda next door while they wait. An older woman pops her head inside the screen door, and asks Joe to heat up a few turkey enchiladas while she goes to cash a check.
On an average day, Loreto will fry around three or four whole turkeys in the kitchen's large hot oil tub, rubbing them first in a mix of "cajun spices." For anyone who has attempted to fry a turkey at home, rest assured, Loreto's method is much less conducive to house fires. After the bird is plucked out, golden brown and crispy outside but exceptionally moist inside, it's carved up for various items, all of which are cooked to order.
The bones and trimming are saved for turkey stock, which will later comprise Loreto's famous homemade gravy. The recipes are a combination of the cooking Loreto grew up with and those of his wife, which means an eclectic fusion of "soul food" and Latino cooking that reflects both Loreto's personal history, as well as the shifting demographics of modern-day Compton. Think sweet potato pie, turkey burritos with green chile, braised greens with turkey necks, and some Betty Crocker-esque turkey enchiladas topped with black olives and a blanket of melted cheddar.
A highlight is certainly the turkey pastrami sandwich, made from chopped turkey that is smoked and seasoned with hearty amounts of pepper, then swabbed with yellow mustard and a couple dill pickle slices. There is a bit of light and dark meat and some crispy bits of skin here and there, all of it unbelievably succulent and tender. Loreto even bakes his own whole-wheat rolls especially for the sandwiches.
"I figured if I was going through so much trouble with the turkey, there was no point in cutting corners on anything else," Loreto says. You can also, of course, have a traditional turkey dinner, with carved slices, rice pilaf and whatever vegetable is in season at the moment.
As the orders for fried turkeys roll in the week before Thanksgiving (whole birds run about $60 for a 15-pounder), Loreto explains that each year in business has brought more goodwill and popularity with community. He even mentions plans to launch a mobile trailer for catering in the near future. Meanwhile, he's happy to extoll the virtues of a turkey diet to anyone who will listen. "It may make you sleepy the day you eat it, but it will give you plenty of strength the day after." If all the turkeys sitting in foil baking pans across the country could be transformed into Loreto's impeccable product, Thanksgiving might be scheduled more than just once a year.
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To order a whole turkey for Thanksgiving, make sure to contact Loreto's by Nov. 15 to ensure availability.
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