When it comes to knowing Los Angeles' food mainstays, those who are visiting for the first time could do themselves a big favor by studying episodes of TNT's Southland (which also happens to be the best cop show on television). There are a handful of main characters on this Peabody Award-winning ensemble series about the lives of LAPD beat cops and detectives: Ben, Sammy, Coop and the sleep-deprived new mom, Detective Lydia Adams (played by Regina King, whose poignant performance, veteran Los Angeles crime reporter Michael Krikorian has often said, is the best part of Southland).
And while it's the screeching car chases, breathless foot races and thudding perp tackles that give this hourlong drama its crackling energy, the air of unvarnished authenticity also has a lot to do with the ramshackle taco stands, dimly lit holes-in-the-wall and noisy barbecue joints where the show's cops pull over to grab a bite. Recently we caught up with Mike Haro, a Southland associate producer and location manager, and quizzed him about what it takes for a restaurant to be cast on the show, where the real-life Southland gang meet for dinner and whether TNT will grant this criminally underrated gem another season.
Squid Ink: How do all the right places in L.A. end up on Southland? Do you make suggestions? Or is it spelled out in the script?
Mike Haro: It's a combination. Our writers definitely write in some places that are fairly well known, like Philippe's or Langer's. We went to Tony's Steak House, which I don't think exists anymore. I grew up in Los Angeles, born and raised, and I know it like the back of my hand. Throughout my years of scouting, I know restaurants. I take people to lunch. Other times it's just driving by and seeing where the cops are hanging out.
SI: Give me some examples of go-to restaurants.
MK: El Siete Mares over on Sunset Boulevard is right in the wheelhouse of some of our characters.
SI: What's the appeal? The orange exterior or the ostiones en su concha and fish tacos?
MH: It looks great, it's got a great visual outside, and we just felt this is the kind of place that these guys would hang out on their lunch break, meet up with other cops. There's also another one toward Lincoln Heights. We haven't shot there yet, but we've definitely scouted it. But we've gone back to the one on Sunset Boulevard, several times in different seasons.
SI: Do you eat while you're there?
MH: Sure. We'll eat from there if we're hungry or scouting. Our executive producer/director, Chris Chulack, loves to eat.
SI: Does he ever throw in his two cents?
MH: If it's not within the script and I have some other ideas within a specific script, I'll go to him. He'll be the decision maker. El Tepeyac is another place that we've gone to a couple of times in the last two seasons. That's over in Boyle Heights and it's been there for probably 50 years.
SI: And why not shoot there? You get a charmingly picturesque location as well as burritos that are the size of a fat baby.
MH: Yeah, Manuel's special burrito. [Laughs.]
SI: Curiously enough, we spotted something that looked like a partially eaten Manuel's special in last week's episode.
MH: That was shot at Cha Cha Cha.
SI: The Caribbean restaurant Cha Cha Cha now has extraterrestrially large burritos on their menu?
MH: I don't think we played it as Cha Cha Cha. It was supposed to be a down-to-earth Echo Park Mexican restaurant. Our director for that episode just loved the way the place looked.
SI: Where do cops in Los Angeles get tacos?
MH: I've definitely seen them at 7 Mares and El Chano over in Lincoln Heights.
SI: Name a favorite restaurant that's appeared on Southland.
MH: I have several favorites. For us, budget is always a concern, but we were able to film briefly at Bottega Louie. Earlier this year we had a scene where a car totally crashed into a restaurant and we used this really cool Filipino place called Bahay Kubo.
SI: Chicken adobo! How did you find it?
MH: A lot of it is just driving around. As we're driving around, even if it's not for the current episode, and I see something that looks interesting, I'll have one of my scouts come back and investigate it.
SI: Explain your process step by step: Do you drive around by yourself?
MH: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. The way the show works, I'll get the script and break it down and discuss ideas with the director and production designer. Once they sign off, I will have my scout go out, but oftentimes, because I know the city so well, I'll say, "Go here, and check around these streets." He'll go and come back with whatever he can find in those areas.
SI: Then what?
MH: A lot of our scouting is also created by our schedule. We have seven days to shoot the episode. For the most part we're shooting from two to five locations in a given day. What ends up happening is that our major locations for the day with the most work become the anchors, and from that we'll try to match up those small locations, which often are the restaurants. We spread out from the anchors.
SI: Have you ever gone back to a restaurant post-shoot?
MH: Yes -- S&W Diner I went back to. Johnnie's Pastrami. One of the places that we shot at that became our hangout after work is Pacific Dining Car. I've seen detectives at Pacific Dining Car at lunch, but it's also the place where our director, actors, everyone goes to.
SI: Yours is a beef and booze crowd?
MH: Yeah, two weeks ago when we wrapped, we met up at Pacific Dining car and Chris Chulack, Jenny Gago, Ben McKenzie, Michael Cudlitz and Shawn Hatosy, our gaffer Dayton, had some wine and ate some steaks and talked about the day.
SI: When you meet LAPD, cops do you quiz them for tips about their secret pit stops?
MH: No, but I think a lot of the places storywise that come up in the script are places that our technical adviser, Mario Cortez, who works in the SWAT division of the LAPD, has talked to our writers about prior to the season starting. We see a lot of cops at Tommy's Burgers and at Grand Central Market and we've shot there several times.
SI: Gloriously juicy carnitas gorditas at Tacos Tumbra a Tomas! From your perspective, what makes a place attractive to a cop? That it's inexpensive, that it's good, that it's quick. What?