Watts and Compton might be best known as the cultural birthplace of gangster rap, but they also reign supreme in another way: delicious, home-style food. A lot of love goes into this cooking. While Roy Choi's LocoL may have blown up the Watts scene, there are institutions with long histories in the neighborhood, places that offer everything from addictive fried chicken wings to tender steamed tacos. Further down in Compton, diners are blessed with top-notch barbecue and fried turkey served nearly 20 different ways.
Hawkins House of Burgers
If you want a good old-fashioned burger done right, Hawkins House of Burgers is where it's at. This L.A. institution has been in Watts since owner Cynthia Hawkins first opened the restaurant in 1983. The space looks like a two-story house from the outside and was built by Hawkins' grandfather. It's since passed through the generations, taking many forms, from a mod ice cream shop to a grocery store. Hawkins takes pride in her burgers, crafted from Angus beef, served on brioche buns baked daily and topped with crispy applewood bacon. While Andrew Zimmerman of Bizarre Foods may have put Hawkins' "whipper burger" — a concoction of beef patties, pastrami and hot links — on the map, Hawkins says her favorite is still the bacon cheeseburger. "I put love in my burgers," she says. Beyond the beef patties, you can also get breakfast items, grits, chicken wings and hot-link sandwiches. While it's a little cramped inside the fast-food joint, outside you'll find some tables covered with red-and-white gingham under an E-Z Up. Hawkins says she opened her burger joint because she felt that there was "no good quality food in the neighborhood" at the time and she wanted to give back to the community. She's done more for the neighborhood in other ways, too. She takes kids from Watts to Disneyland and her alma mater, USC, pointing out that some of them have never even set foot outside of Watts. Locals also get a 25 percent discount on food. It's all about the community here. 11603 Slater St., Watts; (323) 563-1129, hawkinsburgers.com.
Watt's Coffee House
Watt's Coffee House isn't your run-of-the-mill neighborhood diner. It has a lot of history and some seriously delicious soul food. It's a newer reiteration of the shuttered Watt's Happening Coffee House, which was built in the 1960s. This updated version is run by owner-chef Desiree Edwards, who opened its doors in 1997. It's practically hidden from the street, tucked away in a community center next to a charter school. Walk through the building and you'll find a restaurant with lots of character; the space is decorated with vintage soul and R&B concert posters, old-school record sleeves and signed black-and-white headshots of celebrities like Mariah Carey and 50 Cent. It's a cozy breakfast and lunch spot that has some of the best fried chicken wings in town; they're crispy on the outside, with warm, succulent meat on the inside. If you want to round out your meal, the wings can be accompanied by buttery waffles shaped as rounded rectangles, and maple syrup — which you should definitely drizzle over everything. The menu also includes a shrimp po'boy, fried bologna sandwich and Cajun-style ham steak. 1827 E. 103rd St., Watts; (323) 249-4343.
Roy Choi — L.A.'s O.G. purveyor of Korean-Mexican cuisine — attempted a food revolution in January when he and San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson launched LocoL in Watts, the first outpost of what they intend to be a healthy fast-food chain. All the food is made from scratch using fresh ingredients. You won't find a soda here, either — they have house-made aguas frescas instead. The menu channels Choi's creative flair: flavorful burgers, noodle dishes, the taco-meets-quesadilla "foldies" and veggie sides. Highlights are the LocoL Cheeseburg — made with scallion relish — and the Noodleman, a noodle dish with ginger, chili and lime. If you can get up early enough for breakfast, they've got some killer egg-in-a-hole combos. An added bonus is that the bright and airy space always has fun music, with lots of old-school hip-hop classics to keep your head bobbing. 1954 E. 103rd St., Watts; welocol.com.
Don't let the fact that the Hamwich Shack is a tiny stand fool you. Instead of greasy dishes you might find at a regular burger drive-thru, this restaurant leans toward gourmet and healthy food, with ingredients such as free-range turkey, vegan bread and heirloom tomatoes. George Harris, who grew up in Watts and later moved to the San Fernando Valley, decided to go back to his hometown to provide locals with more healthy options. "I noticed all the fast food — like hamburgers — were all the same [here] since I grew up," Harris says. He bought property from his uncle to transform it into the Hamwich Shack, which opened three months ago. On its menu, you'll find a behemoth turkey burger topped with turkey bacon and turkey chili. You can also find chicken sliders paired with portobello mushrooms and drizzled with truffle oil; grilled wild salmon salad; a variety of sandwiches; and turkey and sausage hot dogs. Harris has replaced soda with made-to-order juice drinks such as ginger-kale-lemon. And his high-quality meats are all-natural, with no hormones, GMOs or steroids. Harris — a self-proclaimed "street chef" who learned to cook from his grandmother and mother — says he's "recalibrating the taste buds of the community." Soon, he plans to start an herb and vegetable garden on the lot and use those ingredients in his cooking. On a good day, you might even get a chance to try his freshly baked purple sweet potato pies. 1330 E. Imperial Hwy., Watts; thehamwichshack.com.
Tacos la Potranka
When Isabel Manzo first started slinging her steamed tacos (aka tacos al vapor) in L.A. 17 years ago, she says she didn't see anyone else cooking tacos that way. Her Tacos la Potranka started as a little cart, then grew into two taco trucks — one of which is still running in Watts — and, eventually, a brick-and-mortar that opened in Compton a year ago. The only protein Manzo carries is beef. While you can get your regular asada, she also uses a variety of delicate, different parts — including lip, cheek and brain — in her tacos. Instead of the shredded beef tongue (aka lengua) that you might find from other taco purveyors, Manzo cuts the melt-in-your-mouth meat into thick slices, a method that she says "preserves the flavor." The tortillas and meats are all steamed, and no oil is used, making this a healthier taco option. Make sure to top your tacos with the restaurant's flavorful, house-made habañero and green salsas. Over at Manzo's Compton location, you can also get burritos and tortas, as well as menudo and pozole on the weekends. Manzo says she learned how to cook from her parents in Guadalajara — and that any other steamed tacos in the city are mere "imitators." Taco truck at 2500 E. 115th Place, Watts; restaurant at 1501 N. Long Beach Blvd., Compton; (323) 351-6981.
This is the year that L.A. became barbecue-obsessed. There are new, swanky barbecue places opening all over town, TV personalities hosting barbecue pop-ups on their backlots and famous barbecue critics coming to L.A. to sample our wares. But when the urge strikes for smoky meat and comforting sides, you’ll still find us driving to Compton for Bludso’s. Kevin Bludso, a fourth-generation pitmaster, has taken his Texas heritage and created an L.A. mainstay that was here long before barbecue became a trend in SoCal and will be around long after the cheffy set has moved on to other pursuits. It’s a classic place — you stand in line and order at the counter, get your brisket or chicken or ribs or pulled pork in a Styrofoam container, and sit elbow-to-elbow with the hungry crowd to eat. It’s the type of place where you put your head down into that container and don’t come up until everything is gone and your face and hands are a sticky mess and you don’t quite know what happened. That’s the kind of barbecue magic that you don’t find just anywhere. —Besha Rodell 811 S. Long Beach Blvd., Compton; (310) 637-1342, bludsosbbq.com.
Loreto's Fried Turkey
For 14 years, chef Joe Loreto and his family have been running Loreto's Fried Turkey, a quaint fried-turkey restaurant in a Compton strip mall. Loreto's juicy turkey is served nearly 20 different ways: in a burrito, in noodle soup, in a salad and in chili, to name a few. A must-try is the turkey "soul" sandwich. Chopped pieces of dark and white meat are stuffed in the restaurant's freshly baked and fluffy wheat-and-parsley bread, then smothered in house-made creamy gravy (aka the "soul"). The brining recipe for the turkey is more than a century old, passed down from the family's ancestors. Loreto says deep-frying the bird "surpasses traditional baking," keeping the meat moist. Loreto's recipe for tea cake cookies also was passed down through the generations. This is mostly a to-go place, but if you can't wait to chow down, there are some shaded tables and chairs outside. Pro tip: Bring cash. 983 W. Compton Blvd., Compton; (310) 537-7612.
La Doña Tamalería
When you step into La Doña Tamalería, you know the owners mean serious business. Workers are making massive stacks of corn husk–wrapped, masa-filled packages. Gigantic metal containers are filled to the brim with hundreds of ears of fresh corn ready to be husked. You'll find a dry-erase board hanging on the wall with a list of the different kinds of tamales available on different days of the week. Some of the best sellers are the chicken, pork and sweet corn versions, but on the weekends you'll also find strawberry- and pineapple-filled tamales. The shop's been open for a decade and the owner hails from Sinaloa, Mexico. This isn't a sit-down restaurant but, rather, the kind of place where you pick up your order to-go so you can gorge in the comfort of your own home. 4818 E. Compton Blvd., Compton; (310) 635-4800.
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Uruapan Tacos is a hidden gem located in the epitome of a hole-in-the-wall location. The no-frills restaurant occupies a small, narrow space joined at the hip to a little market. Inside you'll find braised, Michoacán-style meats on display behind glass on one side and a long counter with stools against the wall on the other. You can get delicious green chile pork, machaca and fatty cuerito (pork rinds) in your tacos and burritos. The restaurant is owned by a Korean man named Myung Hong, who has helmed Uruapan Tacos for a decade, after a friend passed on the business to him. Many who stop by say the tacos taste just like they did when they visited the shop as children. It's no wonder, though, as the chef who was cooking at Uruapan Tacos 25 years ago is the same cook slinging the food today. 604 E. El Segundo Blvd., Compton; (310) 886-0301.
One of the original Louis Burgers fast-food franchise locations has been faithfully situated on Rosecrans Avenue in Compton since the mid-1970s. While the restaurant is known for its burgers, it's also famous for house-made chili that's made from scratch daily. Get crispy fries smothered in the chili and melted cheese to take things up a notch. Louis also has some delicious pastrami sandwiches, with a hefty helping of fatty, thinly sliced meat stuffed inside a sliced french roll, accompanied by sliced pickles and tart yellow mustard. 1501 E. Rosecrans Ave., Compton; (310) 603-9547.