Illustration by Peter Hamlin
There is nothing quite like Pioneer Boulevard on a clear Saturday afternoon, a fragrant Indian welter of sari merchants and jewelry artists, snack shops and bhangra-blasting boutiques, Bollywood posters and signs that advertise Parsi-Gujarati spectaculars. Music pours out of Jeeps, out of restaurants, out of music shops, sometimes the righteous keening of a sitar or a quwaali singer but more often the relentless boom-ch’boom of Bombay-manufactured house music; glorious smells flood the street, the winy stink of saffron, the funk of burning incense, the aromas of cardamom, ginger, charred meat. There is a sweetness, a slowness to life on this street. The singles ads in the local classifieds are as specific about caste as the ones in the back of the Weekly are about desire.
Pioneer, as it courses through Artesia, may be the only street in America where a gentleman sporting a dagger and a scarlet turban excites no comment, where a woman might feel more at home in gilded mauve silk than in denim, where the nose-ring count exceeds even Silver Lake circa 1992. It is as easy to find fresh turmeric as fresh milk, as easy to buy a gold anklet as it is to purchase a wristwatch or a roll of Scotch tape. Samosas are as common as tacos, bhel as common as potato chips, in the overgrown mini-malls that line the boulevard.
The first person I knew who loved Pioneer was the late DJ Jac Zinder, who gathered much of the music he played at his club from the $2 bins backed up against the henna and the gripe powder at the local groceries, Bengali versions of Michael Jackson songs, Punjabi disco tracks, Bollywood film scores and heartbreakingly beautiful ghazals bootlegged onto barely functional cassettes. Half the merchants on Pioneer used to know Jac, and they were always digging up Bombay fan magazines for him from back storerooms, naughty videos from beneath oil-stained counters. And eventually, Jac became expert on the local restaurant scene: the wondrous vegetarian dishes at the unfortunately defunct Sabra, the great ragda pattis — a thin yellow-pea stew topped with crunchy fried noodles — at the Gujarati snack shop Jay Bharat; the simple, delicious eggplant curry at a restaurant simply called The India; the spicy, chutney-soaked pastry-potato hodgepodge papri chaat at Ambala Sweets.
Forty years ago, this swath of the county was home to dairy-farming Dutch and seafaring Portuguese, and the Dutch-speaking Indonesians who settled here after World War II. You can find traces of the old neighborhood scattered here and there on Pioneer if you look. At Susie’s Deli, a wonderful Indonesian restaurant a few blocks off the strip, you sometimes hear more Dutch spoken than English, although the bakmi goreng and the fried chicken with candlenuts may be a more universal language than either. At the Artesia Bakery, a local institution for almost 50 years, people of every possible ethnicity line up for the exotically simple Dutch pastries: almond turnovers, baked apples in pastry and the cream-cheese-filled puffs called floppen — not to mention some 60 different Dutch cookies ranging from wafer-thin cat’s tongues to gingery windmills, pink valentine hearts to buttery Artesia Girls. The boerekaas in the cold case, a mellow, nutty-tasting aged Gouda, may be the best cheese in the world to stir into hot macaroni.
There has been no Portuguese restaurant in the area since the Navigator closed a decade ago, but the deli Portazil still carries a few brands of hot linguica and imported sardines, Portuguese bread and little pastries filled with ground almonds. Few sandwiches in Los Angeles are as delicious as Portazil’s masterpiece of dense, musky Portuguese ham — presunto — on a roll with sharp white cheese.
Pioneer Boulevard is also home to a number of Chinese restaurants, from the classic Cantonese barbecue place Sam Woo to the Cambodian-tinged noodle shop Kim Tar to the haute Hong Kong–style fish at Great Seafood House. The northern end of the strip is dominated by Korean restaurants of no particular merit; the south by posh, if undifferentiated, Chinese palaces. (Motions to officially name the area Little India, even to identify it on a freeway exit, are regularly shouted down by the locals.)
But Indian commerce remains the soul of the street, and the handful of regional Indian restaurants tend to be pretty much authentic by definition — if you’re serving the only Gujarati-style dishes in an area populated by Gujaratis, you may as well remind your customers of home. (Of course, there are exceptions: The buffet at the Little India Grill will remind you of every college-town Indian diner in the world.)
Ashoka the Great
has the same Punjabi-inflected menu as almost every other Indian restaurant in California, tandoori chicken and garlic naan, curried cauliflower, the spinach dish saag paneer. But at Ashoka, even the lacy taco-size crackers called papadum are laced with seeds and aromatics, and the bright-red pickled carrot sticks are almost crunchy with pungent black mustard seed. This is where to come for tandoori dishes: garlicky naan bread and potato-stuffed paratha, sure, but mostly the skinless chicken legs and fish kebabs and minced-lamb sausages marinated in yogurt and spices, flash-cooked in an ultrahot clay oven and served sizzling on a bed of onions on a heated steel platter.
A block or two down, the spectacular, bhangra-blaring new restaurant Ambala Dhaba exemplifies another side of meaty northern Indian cooking: basic, direct food almost Islamic in attitude, Pakistani in intensity of flavor. It is hard to imagine a better dish than the goat curry, a brilliant red stew that practically vibrates with cumin; the Ludhiana chicken, a smoky, tandoor-roasted bird, is as encrusted with coarsely ground spice as a first-rate order of Jamaican jerk. Even the dal is wonderful, as complex, as deeply seasoned as great creole red beans. And the pistachio "milk shake" made with the housemade kulfi, Indian ice cream, is just grand.
The restaurant Rajdoot, on the northern edge of the neighborhood, is pretty much Little India’s fancy place, softly scented, gently lit, cloth napkins, bowls of breath-sweetening cardamom pods placed strategically by the door. Each dish is a couple of dollars more expensive than it would be at one of the less formal restaurants down the street. Everywhere you look lie glittering knickknacks, rich fabrics, pillows. Rajdoot is not a curry joint — the peas with fresh cheese, the vegetable stew called navratan korma, the herbacious stewed okra are creamier, more elegant, more complexly spiced than you’ll find at other local Indian places, closer to chef-driven cuisine than to folk cooking . . . and weigh no heavier on your belly than the average Melrose Italian meal.
, the classic south Indian restaurant in the area, lies a few blocks away in Cerritos, but the new Udipi Palace, which is more or less related to a chain of southern Indian vegetarian restaurants by that name in southern India itself, is also worth a visit, if only for its dramatic thali combination, a huge metal platter littered with little bowls of thin lentil broth and cauliflower curry, stewed chickpeas and delicious lemon rice. Udupi’s saffron-scented, Madras-style noodle pudding is just swell.
But you may as well do as the Indians do after dinner, and stroll up the block to Standard Sweets for a piece of the shop’s splendid silver-gilded carrot halvah, cream-soaked ras malai and milky masala tea. It’s the Little India equivalent of walking around the corner for espresso and cannoli after a scungilli dinner on Mulberry Street.
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PIONEER BOULEVARD RESTAURANTS
All in Artesia: Ambala Sweets, 18433 S. Pioneer Blvd., (562) 402-0006; Ambala Dhaba, 18413 Pioneer Blvd., (562) 402-7990; Artesia Bakery, 18627 S. Pioneer Blvd., (562) 865-1201; Ashoka the Great, 18614 S. Pioneer Blvd., (562) 809-4229; Great Seafood House, 18329 S. Pioneer Blvd., (562) 860-7794; The India Restaurant, 17824 Pioneer Blvd., (562) 860-5621; Jay Bharat, 18701 S. Pioneer Blvd., (562) 924-3310; Kim Tar, 18309 S. Pioneer Blvd., (562) 402-0969; Little India Grill, 18383 S. Pioneer Blvd., (562) 924-7569; Portazil Pastry, 18159 S. Pioneer Blvd., (562) 865-1141; Rajdoot, 11833 E. Artesia Blvd., (562) 860-6500; Standard Sweets & Snacks, 18600 Pioneer Blvd., (562) 860-6364; Susie’s Deli, 12238 Artesia Blvd., Artesia, (562) 860-7272; Udipi Palace, 18635 S. Pioneer Blvd., (562) 860-1950.