It’s just minutes past noon but already the San Fernando Valley sun blinds rather than illuminates, giving the air a strange, pearly yellow sheen. The heat is immobilizing and yet the line outside the Taqueria Jerez restaurant in Panorama City’s Plaza del Valle only seems to grow. Every table in the outdoor seating area is taken and those waiting for orders at the popular restaurant stand patiently under slivers of nearby shade sails. Two men in cowboy hats and Wrangler jeans come by to serenade diners with guitar music. 

Poncho’s Cemita Atomica (Courtesy Poncho’s Taqueria)

The scene is typical for Plaza del Valle, a lively “community plaza” that feels like a mini Valley mash-up of Olvera Street and Santee Alley, minus the oppressive crowds. Filled with small food stalls, clothing stores, bótanica, a music school, and even an ice rink, the complex, which opened in 2002, contains roughly 100 vendors. While it may be a retail center on the surface, the emphasis here is as much on community as commerce.  

Everything from $10 salsa lessons to free art and yoga classes is on offer here as is an incredibly wide variety of entertainment. Ballet folklorico troupes, lucha libre wrestlers and mariachi bands all hit the plaza’s stage and visitors who come by on just about any given weekend are sure to catch a performance of some kind. The directory board charmingly warns that profanity isn’t allowed on the grounds. There’s a small Walk of Fame honoring Latino entertainers and area community leaders. According to Ryan Lefton of Agora Realty and Management, Inc. which owns the property, this holiday season, the plaza will provide over 100 free meals to the community. 

New storefronts at Plaza del Valle (Courtney Lichterman)

 Lefton reports they are in the middle of “a multi-million-dollar renovation” that will add eight restaurants and some aesthetic updates sure to thrill InstagrammersWe have been working with famous artists throughout Los Angeles such as Michael Amescua who has designed and built many well-known public art displays for the city of Los Angeles, Mastermind Murals, who have completed numerous large murals throughout California, and Alex Gonzalez, who is known for his murals throughout downtown L.A,” he tells L.A. Weekly. 

Buffet at Bamboo Bistro (Courtney Lichterman)

A key component of the plaza’s success is clearly in the food stalls, and one of the stand outs is the Todos Los Pastelitos Caseros bakery. While known for donuts and cakes, their traditional baked goods like relámpagos (literally translated as “lightning bolt,” this is what some might know as an éclair) and fruit tarts could rival any found in the bakeries of Paris. This writer visited with a house guest who happens to be an award-winning, hard-to-impress professional baker. He was so besotted by their vanilla empanada he went back the next day to load up for the plane ride. 

Shoes at Joaquin’s Boots (Courtney Lichterman)

 For a little more adventure, head to Bamboo Bistro for a traditional Filipino kamayan meal where a smorgasbord of food is laid out on a banana leaf and diners eat with their hands. Menu options for the kamayan include everything from calamari to fried chicken to Cajun shrimp, but if your coordination skills aren’t great, there’s also a $14.95 buffet brunch. Karaoke and comedy events occur nightly Wednesday through Saturday. Like Taqueria Jerez, though, this place is wildly popular with locals so don’t expect peace and quiet.   

New to the Plaza is Poncho’s Taqueria, an eatery started by Alfonso Ceja of Zamora, Michoacan, Mexico. Offering grilled-to-order meats and no less than 10 different salsas, Poncho’s takes its inspiration from many different sources as Ceja explains: “The al pastor fried chicken was inspired from the Nashville hot chicken, we just gave it the Mexican twist. The chimichurri salsa was inspired from the Argentinian chimichurri, adding Chile de arbol as well as mayo, mustard and spices.”  

Joaquin Boots (Courtney Lichterman)

 The restaurant’s most popular dish has a name as dynamic as its effect: “One of our most popular items is the Atomica (atomic in Spanish). The Atomica is a torta but in a cemita bread, we put all the meats (asada, al pastor, chicken, birria, chorizo) and all of our salsas (except habanero), as well as mozzarella cheese and mayo. The taste that you get is an atomic explosion in your mouth as the name implies. 

For a traditional take on Mexican, try the aforementioned Taqueria Jerez. Known primarily for their variations on tacos and burritos, menu selections here range from traditional carne asada to breakfast burritos to simple club sandwiches. Just be prepared for a line as this is a very popular spot.  

Sculpture at Plaza del Valle (Courtney Lichterman)

In a few hours the sun will go down, the string lights will go on, and the entertainment will begin. Families will meander through the plaza’s main thoroughfare, stopping at market stalls that carry everything from tortilla presses to Frida Kahlo tote bags. Teenagers will take selfies in front of the murals and kids will play in the playground as another day ends at Plaza del Valle. 

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