The Black Fig is one of the best lunch spots in the Arts District. Being that it's a cafe built inside the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), it's also one of the most hidden.
The modest school café isn't visible from either Third Street or Santa Fe Avenue. And unless you attend the prestigious school, you probably haven't picked up on the brisk business taking place within the roughly 300-square-foot space, nestled between open classrooms and workstations. But this is no college cafeteria.
Every weekday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., twin brothers Chris and Paris Rice run a tight, at times hectic food program that feeds some of the world's top architects-in-training (the public is allowed to eat there as well). At any given moment, Chris may be pouring medium-roast cold brews, while Paris assembles breakfast burritos and grills burgers on the fly.
The chalkboard breakfast and lunch menu covers a handful of comfort choices more familiar at a gastropub than a college lunch place, with the Black Fig burger, an 80-20 beef patty topped with applewood bacon, French onions, mild cheddar and provolone, roma tomatoes and Caesar dressing–tossed mesclun blend. There's a macaroni and cheese that gets regularly ordered during lunch and a rotating list of specials.
Both men are particular about the ingredients they use, quite a few of which are sourced from local or regional purveyors. Roast beef, pastrami or almond chicken might get stacked between your choice of bread from Homeboy or La Brea Bakery. All of the sauces and dressings, including harissa, honey mustard and garlic aioli, are made in-house. Sizable cookies are from La Mousse; muffins come from France Bakery.
One notable exception is the coffee. After sampling beans from across L.A., they chose Oddly Correct, a roaster based in their hometown of Kansas City.
If you stay vigilant, you'll be clued in to their pulled pork sandwich on pretzel bun, which they only put on the menu about once a month. It's an ode to their Kansas City roots, and, with 18 hours of cooking time, it's painstaking for Chris to prepare. Available à la carte, it is nevertheless best ordered with Paris' roasted potatoes with bacon, three cheeses and dill — that is, if he decides to make it that day.
The brothers opened the Black Fig in September 2012, after winning a bid for which they had submitted a menu and cost sheet. Before becoming school cafe proprietors, they spent much of their time playing rock bands and working in the restaurant industry.
The spot is foremost a cafe for SCI-Arc students and staff, though locals and celebrities (among them Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Perry Lang) sometimes stop by. In addition to the Black Fig's menu, the brothers' breezy, personable hospitality is a draw. They know quite a few students and staff members and can often be heard following up on the satisfaction of a recent sandwich or asking about an upcoming vacation.
960 E. Third St., downtown; (213) 613-2200, theblackfiglaca.com.