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?
MH: I want to say that it's good. For example, I see a lot of cops at Urth Caffe downtown.
SI: You're joking. Shhh. I am imagining a fully uniformed, gun-packing member of L.A.'s finest ordering a cup of Awakened Buddha herbal infused tea and a nice, individual size, tomato-basil quiche.
MH: [laughs] They also have a slow-cooked pot roast sandwich. It's not just LAPD that I've seen there. I've seen county sheriffs there and other departments there.
SI: The reason I mentioned “inexpensive” and “quick” is that we always see Ben or Sammy or Cooper having to toss half-eaten tacos or little cardboard trays of french fries in the garbage can because they've received a call.
MH: It depends on any given day. You think of [cops] as rough-and-tumble and going to Scooby's for hot dogs. But if they're eating inexpensive food all the time, I'm sure they want to have a change. So they're open to going someplace that's not so economical. Especially the cops on patrol: They're so much into the street and the grittiness of the street, then sometimes they need a break from that.
We have seen a lot of officers at the food trucks across from [LACMA] on Wilshire. There's a whole bunch — everyone from Great Balls to the Lobster Truck. Truck Norris. Another place we've seen them is Molly's, which closed down last year. For some reason, the story that I heard was the owner of Molly's held out as long as she could and ended up selling the place for, like, $2 million to a developer. Unfortunately, we lost that location.
SI: Which officer on Southland has the most refined palate?
MH: If you asked me last season, I would have had to say Lucy Liu's [ethically challenged Officer Jessica Tang]. She was all about the food and going to different food trucks and restaurants. [Long pause] I think after her, it's Ben. He's got both worlds — the wealthy side [he grew up in] and the hipster side. Now he lives in Santa Clarita. But at one time we had him living in Silver Lake.
SI: When you shoot at a restaurant, is it all visual? How important is it that the Southland cops are shown eating at a place that actually serves delicious food?
MH: We want to have at least some interesting features of the restaurant. But we are also of the belief that whatever is real is real. If we're told to find a certain kind of restaurant, we will. We like to go on locations that are readymade, that we don't have to enhance. The challenge for me and my scouts is to really make sure it fits the character, without having to do anything. A lot of shows dress a location to fit the character. Sometimes that doesn't feel real. It looks art directed as opposed to looking like a real location. I think that's key to our show having that gritty, real look. In the next couple of episodes, you're going to see some locations that we never could have art directed.
SI: For example?
MH: We're doing an homage to The Onion Field. One of the locations was a meth house. We found one and we took the director there. The minute the director walked in, he said, “Perfect.” In episode nine, we go to Dinah's Family Restaurant. In episode eight, we go to Langer's and Mexican Village over on Beverly Boulevard and Church's Chicken, one of the few chain restaurants we'll go to.
SI: What's the diciest thing that's ever happened while shooting in a bad neighborhood?
MH: Part of my job is to make sure things don't go out of control. In the neighborhoods where there are a lot of gangs, we'll always make sure that the appropriate people in the neighborhood have been contacted. We want people to see other parts of the world outside of being a gang-banger, so we'll hire a lot of the neighbors as background and we'll put other ones on payroll to work as residential consultants or help us out with security. That way, we maintain a level of comfort on both sides.
For the most part, we've never had any issues. My technical adviser that I brought on is an inactive Blood member, and he'll tell me that there are certain neighborhoods not to go into. We'd been doing a lot of work in Watts, and before it closed I always wanted to shoot at Jordan's Café. That's an iconic soul food place. Chicken, waffles, grits, collard greens, all of that stuff.
SI: The characters always speak so knowledgeably about the food. For example, last week the cops sung the praises, albeit by way of a vulgar metaphor, of the chorizo at Chano's.
MH: Once we find a location, we sometimes adjust the dialogue. El Tepeyac was that way. [We threw in a line] about the Hollenbeck burrito. In episode 10, we go back to El Tepeyac and the dialogue was adjusted to reflect that one of the family members had just passed away last year and told a little bit of the history.
SI: Recently we read the truly heart-sinking news that Regina King, Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy have all booked pilots. Is Southland returning for a sixth season?
MH: We don't know if it's coming back. I don't think we'll find out until sometime after the upfronts in May. So we'll know by late May or June. Hopefully, TNT recognizes the show again.
SI: Especially since Southland just received a prestigious Peabody Award AND managed to secure the LAPD stamp of approval
MH: When we first started the show we had no LAPD approval of any kind. Chief Bratton was in charge at the time. We could have tried to get approval of the LAPD, but in order to do that, we'd have to cave in some aspect of creative control. Obviously, they didn't want to be shown in a bad light. Once Bratton left, Chief Beck came in and it slowly started. First we were allowed to film the outside of Rampart. Cut to this year: They allowed us to shoot inside of the police station at Central division and the interior of Rampart. And it culminates with a cameo that Chief Beck made in episode 10. It's exciting.
Southland is on Wednesday nights on TNT at 10 p.m. There are four more episodes, including the one on April 3, until the finale.
And in somewhat related news:
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