The Art of Opening a Huntington Park Bar Called Novacane — Like the Frank Ocean Song
Frank Ocean fans all over the world were devastated and angry when his long-awaited album did not drop on Friday. It’s been four years since he’s put out an album, and fans have been clamoring to hear new music from the enigmatic artist, nearly to the point of obsession.
No one knows for sure when, or even if, a new album is coming, but when and if it does, there’s only one place in L.A. you need to be when it finally does appear: Huntington Park. At a bar called Novacane.
Yes, it’s named after Ocean’s first hit single. And there’s no line, you don’t have to pay for parking and the drinks are decently priced.
“I don’t want to get my hopes up about a new album,” said 26-year-old bar owner Angie Martinez. “But I hope it makes up for all of the lies he’s been saying about when he’s going to put it out and that it’s as good as the last two [albums]. But I don’t have any doubt though that it will be.”
After experiencing her first big heartbreak three summers ago, Angie became a huge Frank Ocean fan, using his lyrics on "Novacane" to cope with her mourning.
Ask her to recite those lyrics today and she knows every word. She even had the words “Novacane for the pain” embossed on the wall. But that’s not all. There’s so much more Frank Ocean.
More lyrics are displayed in the women’s bathroom: "…[I]f models are made for modeling, thick girls are made for cuddlin.'" The bar serves Pink Matter, a whiskey drink with watermelon, lime juice and honey, and Rich Kids, a sweet but strong cocktail that mixes apple-infused whiskey and vodka with Granny Smith apples, limeade and mint. Both drinks are named after songs from Ocean's album Channel Orange.
“He’s open about his sexuality and being bisexual, and he’s open about love and passion,” Martinez said about what inspired her to name the bar after one of his songs. “Dealing with heartbreak, he’s spot on with his songwriting. I felt always felt a connection toward him.”
In 1987, her parents, a cashier from Mexico and a janitor from Guatemala, saved up their money to open their first bar in East L.A., El Gato Bravo, which has since closed. Since then they’ve opened a string of "paisa" bars in Southern California, as far out as Palm Springs. Her family’s oldest bar, El Vaquero, which has been open for more than 10 years, is still open and is just a five-minute drive from Novacane.
Paisa, which is short for paisano, means “countryman” in Spanish. Martinez explained it as “a place where you can hear live Spanish bands singing about love, heartbreaks, cartels and drugs” and “where older men in cowboy hats and boots drink with ficheras," women who hang out at paisa bars coaxing the men into buying them drinks.
It was this upbringing that raised another major connection to Frank Ocean’s lyrics to “Pyramids,” a song about falling in love with a stripper. The oldest of four kids and the only daughter, Martinez grew up in the bar scene and remembers being an 11-year-old watching strippers get ready for a show in her father’s office.
“I was very intrigued by them,” Martinez said. “I was never judging them; they fascinated me at a very young age because they were very beautiful to me.”
It’s her relationship with the strippers that she says moved her to hire an all-female staff at the bar.
“I’m all about women’s empowerment and girl power,” Martinez said.
Martinez broke the mold in Huntington Park, where she said the majority of bars are paisa bars, in deciding to open a bar that emphasized art and music.
Before the bar opened just four months ago, Martinez enlisted her artist friends and a few more famous artists, such as James Haunt and Natasha Lillipore, to cover the walls inside and outside her establishment.
“Downtown has so much art in every corner you look, I want people to have their own art here and say damn, that’s my hometown HP — this is my city,” said Martinez, who lives nearby in Downey. “People come and pull over all the time and take pictures.”
Despite how different the atmosphere is from the previous paisa bar, some old patrons come in and buy drinks, even if they don’t stay for long.
“There’s a hard-core paisa bar across the street that doesn’t have a liquor license, so I get some of their people in here,” Martinez said. “They come in to buy shots and they’ll sit down for one whole minute, look around and leave.”
Although the bar serves craft beers and complicated cocktails, the menu definitely marries the old school with the new.
The menu includes favorites like hot Cheetos with nacho cheese and “crazy fries,” which dumps beans, cheese, guacamole, sour cream and your choice of meat on top of seasoned French fries.
“Every Hispanic kid ate hot Cheetos with nacho cheese in middle school and high school, so when people come in here and see I have that, they flip out,” Martinez said. “People are always trying to bring old-school back in, and people always want a taste of LA. I wanted to keep that taste at Novacane.”
Martinez, a vegan, also made sure that the bar was veggie-friendly. Vegetarians can try the cauliflower buffalo wings, “Yolanda’s bomb-ass beans” and her grandma’s famous potato taquitos.
While Martinez’s bar has a mixed crowd with many local patrons, she has seen a steady increase of LGBT patrons, and she welcomes them. She’s working on getting a rainbow neon light put up to let people feel at ease about coming in.
“It’s so hard to go into places where you don’t feel wanted,” Martinez said. “Gay people and black people are in hot water everywhere they go, so for me I just want everyone to feel safe here at all times. Nothing’s going to happen to you, because my security is going to take care of you and I’m going to take care of you. I have a huge heart when it comes to that.”
If the album indeed releases, Martinez plans to purchase the album on Apple Music and loop it all night long at Novacane. She hopes that one day she can reach out to Frank Ocean to come visit the bar and show him around.
In the meantime, Martinez gets a kick out of surprising people that a young Latina woman in a catsuit and platform Jeffrey Campbell heels is the boss.
“It feels exhilarating when I have clients asking for the previous owner and they look at me just so shocked and judging me in a way,” Martinez said. “That feels good, especially in the world we live in right now, where more boss ladies and women are taking over. I can only imagine where I’ll be at when I’m 30 years old and looking back at this.”
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