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Reviving the Iconic Paramount Ballroom Venue, the Boyle Heights Native Gives L.A. Weekly a Tour of His Cultural Heritage

The rolling hills that look down on Downtown Los Angeles from the east are home to the oldest major L.A. suburb, Boyle Heights. Named after Andrew Boyle, who purchased 22 acres on the bluffs overlooking the Los Angeles River in the late 19thcentury, it is also known as Paredón Blanco when Alta California was part of the First Mexican Republic. It was the seedling of what is known today as one of the most diverse cities in the country, and the purest definition at the heart of that cultural mix is the The Paramount on East Caesar E. Chavez Ave.

Not only was Boyle Heights the largest residential community of Japanese immigrants at the turn of the century, the white bluffs were also a new home to a blended mix of Jewish, Mexican, Armenian and Russian immigrants by the 1920s, which is represented by headstones at the  Evergreen Cemetery. Established in 1877 and the oldest in Los Angeles, it was the only cemetery that did not ban African Americans from being buried there among the early white settlers.

Courtesy The Paramount Ballroom

The historic Paramount opened upstairs in 1922 on what was then Brooklyn Ave. Street names like New Jersey, Michigan Ave. and Cincinnati St. were given in the surrounding neighborhood to help welcome the flood of newcomers to the west. Rita Hayworth’s father, Edwardo Cansino, taught Spanish, Mexican Flamenco, tap and ballet dances in the ballroom when she was still known as Margarita Carmen Cansino. The intimate upstairs 450-person venue has been home to acts like Tito Puente, Malo, Celia Cruz, El Chicano, Richie Valens, Little Stevie Wonder as well as Suicidal Tendencies, Social Distortion, Black Flag and Sonny and Cher when they were known as “Caesar and Cleo.”

If the Paramount is the heart of Boyle Heights, it’s chef Mario Christerna who is keeping the pulse alive. After going through various incarnations, the venue is being meticulously restored and the home of Christerna’s soon-to-be opened Brooklyn Ave. Pizza Co.  on the street level and the spring 2021 debut of Poblador, with a menu that will pay homage to Alta California cuisine featuring indigenous ingredients sourced from the L.A. River, dating back to 1781. Christerna previously helmed the kitchen at The Briks in South Park, a concept that reflected the diverse culinary backgrounds of L.A.’s early settlers – from North African to Jewish and Mexican peoples. He considers himself the custodian assigned to preserve this history for future generations.

“What we’re doing here is paying homage to the past, present and future,” Boyle Heights native Christerna proudly tells L.A. Weekly during a tour of his working class neighborhood. “There is such a mix of culture here and it’s so important to preserve it and honor this historic space that is the Paramount.  The past is all around us. The present is modern day techniques and the future is bringing jobs to the neighborhood and collaborating to do great things for this community.”

Chef Mario Christerna eats pina empanadas at La Mascota (Michele Stueven)

The Past

The former MasterChef Latino judge was born at General Hospital (the façade was the inspiration for the television soap opera of the same name which debuted in 1963 and is currently known as County USC) on the 100th anniversary of Mexican Revolution General Emiliano Zapata’s birth. His mother Norma went into labor with Christerna while she was eating empanadas de piña at what is still his favorite bakery, La Mascota, which has been on Whittier Blvd. since 1952. It’s just across the street from one of the last surviving original Foster Freezes and  Johnny’s Shrimp Boat.   “She started having contractions here when she was pregnant with me,” he says while devouring a ferrocarril  at an outdoor table in the restaurant courtyard. “And guess what – I still crave these empanadas.”

Surrounded by rows of original Victorian houses, Evergreen Cemetery is L.A’s oldest resting place and a snapshot of the diversity of the city’s cultures. There are tombstones dating back to 1877, when it was established with names like Van Nuys, Lankershim, Hollenbeck and Workman. The Garden of the Pines section of the cemetery is a memorial to Japanese Issei pioneers and there’s an area just for the Pacific Showman’s Association which was organized in 1929, where clowns and vaudevillians are buried with the men separated from the women. Christerna visits once a week to clean off the tombstones and stay connected to the past pioneers, talking to them out loud and updating them on the current state of affairs in Los Angeles. Part of his routine is to walk through Potters Field, where many nameless Chinese immigrants were put to rest.

“This is where they collect all the John Does that nobody claims, cremate them in the crematorium and once a year they have a ceremony when they put all the ashes in one tombstone and bury them together here,” says Christerna as he brushes the leaves off of David Workman’s tombstone.  “Remembering and celebrating the dead is part of my Chicano American culture. It’s why we set up ofrendas on Dia de los Muertos. There is so much peace here.”

 

Chef Mario Christerna in Boyle Heights (Michele Stueven)

As we continue down Whittier Blvd., we approach a section known as the  green jewel. Chisterna reminisces about his childhood in the Wyvernwood Gardens, creating makeshift soccer and baseball fields in the close-knit community. Opened in 1939 on nearly 70 acres, Wyvernwood was the first large-scale garden apartment built in Los Angeles. Each of the 143 buildings is built around grassy garden areas, so that residents walk out their front door and into a park-like setting, rather than a busy street. The buildings, minimalist in design with low-pitched roofs, are light and airy. The garden apartments are next to the Estrada Courts, where another famous Boyle Heights native – will.i.am – grew up.

“We climbed the pepper trees and came home full of grass stains every day,” says the chef. “All the neighbors knew each other. Driving through you’ll still see neighbors celebrating quincineras outside. My nana, who was my babysitter, still lives here. “

The Present

We grab some nourishment at La Güera Tacos along the bustling Olympic Blvd. food corridor, in the shade of the iconic Art Deco Sears Building that can be seen from miles away on the freeway. Within walking distance of the Wyvernwood Gardens, the intoxicating aroma of grilled meat and onions wafts through the neighborhood. “There is no end to the number of regional choices here from mariscos to birria,” says Christerna. “It’s who I am, it’s my heritage. I still love to pick up a taco and walk over to visit nana. Nostalgia has the power to trigger the part of the brain that gives you a memory that makes you happy.”

Not far from his childhood church, The Resurrection, the married father of two does regular inter-generational cooking demos in the Boyle Heights Community Garden, decorated with murals and mosaics depicting the history and diversity of the neighborhood. “I teach them how to cook heart-healthy food and we cook together,” he says. “The community comes here, they grow, and they trade. “

Chef Mario gets tacos from street vendors on the Olympic Blvd. food corridor (Michele Stueven)

The Future

“I started to ask myself, as a man of my age, if I could go back to when I was a kid with the experience I have now to open up my own pizzeria, what would it taste like?” Christerna asks back on the balcony of the Paramount, “It will taste like my childhood with a lot of tamarindo, chili and mango. It’s my heart on a plate.”

Christerna is working with local purveyors and vows to keep the menu approachably priced for the neighborhood and has taken on the role of custodian of the past, vowing to preserve and revive the cultural institution located on East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue.

Located in what was originally the Jewish Bakers Union, menu items at the Brooklyn Ave. Pizza Co. will include Flaming Hot Cheetos-crusted wings, chili mango wings, discada loaded fries, Cubano-style fries, cherry bomb Pizza with spicy salami, pickled cherry bomb peppers, and Guajillo honey as well an homage to one notorious Angeleno, the Mickey Cohen pizza with pink sauce, pastrami, pickles and dijonnaise.

Just across the avenue from the revitalized Paramount complex is the cozy Milpa Grille, another twinkle of what’s ahead for not just Boyle Heights but the future of the currently evolving restaurant industry. The small café, which centers around the traditional Mesoamerican diet, has opened its doors to local pop-ups who are invited to share the restaurant’s kitchen space in shifts. With Smorgasburg in limbo, Macheen Tacos comes in from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., serving up a long list of tacos including birria, pork belly and oyster. Café Café is also in the shop decorated with local art pouring cafecitos daily,  and you might catch a Phat Birds fried chicken takeover there every now and then.

Deysi Serrano, owner of Milpa Grille and Chef Mario (Michele Stueven)

“It all started when we put a community fridge outside the door,” says Milpa Grill owner Deysi Serrano and Christerna’s spiritual sister. “Mario and I want the community and the money to stay in Boyle Heights. It really helps everyone around us, not just the businesses, but the residents also. It’s our culture that keeps this community so close. We’re woke and we understand   our ancestors and where we came from. That’s what makes us powerful. This shared concept is definitely the future. I don’t have to drive to downtown anymore because Mario is bringing downtown to us and I can spend my money here in the Latinx community. We’re moving ahead and this is it.”

 

Click on the video to get behind the wheel with Chef Mario…