At the Antigua Cultural Coffee House on a recent afternoon, Valentina Silva talked with us about Eastside Food Bites, her voice carrying over the coffee grinder's noisy whirr and the stereo's booming cumbia. Silva often eats at local spots such as Antigua, close to her Mt. Washington home in northeast L.A. Many of those eateries become topics for her almost 2-year-old blog. The site features first-rate photos alongside crisp, engaging prose. How could you resist mole poblano chilaquiles from CaCao Mexicatessan in Eagle Rock after reading…
The combination of rich sweetness from the mole mixed with the perfectly yolky fried egg and raw onions made for the disarming contrast. Addictively disarming contrast. A detectable but not overwhelming amount of Monterey Jack cheese is melted within the layers of tortillas, and there's even some crema to smooth things out. I'm now of the conviction that eggs and mole should never be apart.
We asked Silva about northeast L.A., eating local, and the food blogging craft. She shared her infectious good humor and enthusiasm, plus the secret to tender carnitas.
Squid Ink: How do you define Eastside? Many Angelenos debate which neighborhoods that term includes.
Valentina Silva: Even as someone with strong family roots in East L.A. and who understands the political history of the term “Eastside,” I accept that language and regional identity are fluid. My grandfather still calls Cesar Chavez Avenue “Brooklyn Avenue,” so I get how important these identifications can be. [Brooklyn Avenue was renamed in 1994.] But change is inevitable. While I do write about East L.A., my blog mostly focuses on northeast Los Angeles, so I write a lot about Highland Park, Eagle Rock, Echo Park and Atwater Village. I also include anywhere that an Eastsider can get to without too much hassle, so I do posts on downtown, Hollywood and Los Feliz. But I don't consider those areas the “Eastside” by any stretch of the imagination.
SI: What are your thoughts about the northeast L.A. dining scene? Some praise the influx of hip new restaurants, saying it boosts the area's economy and trendy character. (Fatty's, Larkin's, The York and Good Girl Dinette all opened within the past several years, for example.) Others express ambivalence about possible gentrification. Meanwhile, mom-and-pop spots abound. Many of these serve ethnic fare, such as the acclaimed El Huarache Azteca with Mexican dishes. Old-timers include popular pizza joint Casa Bianca (1955), and Colombo's Steakhouse (1954). Then there are countless taco trucks and stands roaming the streets.
VS: I hope and think it will be balanced between old and new. Places like Maximiliano's are coming in, putting a valet stand on York Boulevard. The owner Andre Guerrero grew up in Glassell Park and knows the neighborhood. The prices are good, and there's a family atmosphere. And they offer locally grown fruits and vegetables — I hope that aspect spreads. Of course there will always be mainstays like La Abeja. I'm hoping northeast L.A. doesn't follow that same path as Silver Lake, where some areas are so bourgie, for lack of a better word. At certain spots there's no semblance of what it used to be.
SI: Who is your blog intended for?
VS: Mostly it's for people who live around here. A lot of us don't leave our areas because of traffic. I'm the biggest criminal in that! I think of the blog as a way to introduce people to new restaurants, or reintroduce them to spots they may have heard about but never had the motivation to visit.
VS: There are so many L.A. food blogs, and a lot tend to focus on Mid-City and the Westside. Restaurants like A.O.C. and Providence get written about so much. It's more interesting for me to write about something small, local, to give business owners attention they would never get otherwise. Some people think, “Why would I write about El Huarache Azteca? It's been around for so long.” But a lot of people new to the area don't know about it yet.
SI: Do you see more people starting to embrace a local lifestyle by dining in their neighborhoods?
VS: So many people get in their cars and drive far. Still, a lot of people I know in Silver Lake and Echo Park tend to stay in their areas. I don't know if it's desire to explore the neighborhood or just because they can walk to a certain place. Meanwhile, there is an emphasis on local produce, meat and cheese. “Local” is such a buzzword that you don't even know what it means anymore. Local … as far as what? Napa? Or Highland Park?
SI: You must pay special attention to words because you have two English degrees and work as a writer. Can you tell us about your job?
VS: I'm a beauty copywriter for packaging and websites. That's probably the reason I started a blog — I wanted to write about something other than lipstick and acne cream. But copywriting is a great way to make a living when you want to write.
SI: How would you describe the writing on your blog?
VS: The posts are like little stories. I try to be funny, for better or for worse. And casual in my tone. I love that some blogs sound like a magazine, but mine's more conversational. I try to be engaging. I don't want to just give a lot of facts.
SI: How has the style developed since you started the blog almost two years ago?
VI: At first I would write about every dish from appetizer to desert. Some people do that well, but for me it got monotonous and boring. I want to give the essence. Also, I don't feel the need to use the “right” food-blogger vocabulary anymore. At the beginning, I thought, “I have to explain the flavor profile in a proper way…” Now I just write, “It was delicious!” Or I'll make up words, like “softish.” I'm more interested in being funny.
SI: What criteria do you consider when you evaluate restaurants?
VS: The food has to be good, but it doesn't have to be amazing. I like places with booths and comfortable seating, where I don't feel out of place. Or nervous that I can't pronounce the name of a dish correctly.
SI: You seem to write about a lot of Mexican eateries. Did you learn about Mexican food from your family?
VS: Northeast L.A. is saturated with Mexican restaurants. I'm from Norwalk, and had a Mexican and Chicano upbringing. My dad's mom, from Michoacan, made authentic Mexican food — tortillas, mole, enchiladas. My mom's mom took me out to eat in East L.A. I've actually learned a lot about Mexican food from Bill Esparza from Street Gourmet. He's like an encyclopedia! For example, he explained that the carnitas at Metro Balderas in Highland Park are so good because they're not fried in lard. They actually cook the carnitas for a really long time. Most places in L.A. take the cheater method – they'll boil them and then fry them in lard, which is why they're really stringy and crispy. At Metro Balderas they're tender.
SI: I love the pambazo, a Mexico City-style sandwich, at Metro Balderas. I wish more of my fellow students at Occidental College in Eagle Rock would frequent local, ethnic eateries rather than the Americana in Glendale or Old Town Pasadena. How can they be encouraged?
VS: I would stress that the area's friendly and safe. I think it has a history of being dangerous. New students might not understand that the way it looks is different from how it is. And they might worry about feeling unwelcome, especially if the restaurants only speak Spanish. But you don't have to speak Spanish. They'll be cool to you. They're just happy to have the business.
SI: Anyone can be a published writer these days — it's so easy to make a blog or self-publish a book. Does that enrich the food discussion or detract from it?
VS: If something's well written, and has a good point of view, I think it has a lot of value. The cream rises to the top. I'm not the most informed food writer, but I'm an informed writer. I don't intend to write a Pulitzer Prize-winning blog. I don't aim to be a popular personality. No food blogger reality show dreams. I do it for fun and because I like it. If nobody read it, I would be just as happy as if a couple of hundred people did. And, from what my blog stats say, they do.
Past “Meet Your Food Blogger” interviews:
Amy T. Shuster of Backyard Bite (Jan. 18, 2012)
Adam Roberts of The Amateur Gourmet (Jan. 9, 2012)
Billy Vasquez of The 99 Cent Chef (Dec. 30, 2011)
Javier Cabral of Teenage Glutster (Feb. 1, 2010)
Pat Saperstein of EatingLA (Dec.10, 2009)
Matt Armendariz of Matt Bites (Nov. 16, 2009)
Tony Chen of Sinosoul (Oct. 29, 2009)
Chris Bostick of The Varnish (Oct. 16, 2009)
Rickmond Wong of Rameniac (Oct. 8, 2009)
Jeni Afuso of Oishii Eats (Sep. 29, 2009)
Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA (Sep. 16, 2009)
Amanda Simpson of FoodPornDaily (Sep. 10, 2009)
Cathy Dahn of Gastronomy (Sep. 2, 2009)
Eddie Lin of Deep End Dining (Aug. 18, 2009)