For a while in my early 20s, I had only one clearly articulated ambition: to eat at least once at every restaurant on Pico Boulevard, starting with the fried yucca dish served at a pupuseria near the downtown end and working methodically westward toward the chili fries at Tom’s No. 5 near the beach. It seemed a reasonable enough alternative to graduate school.
After I’d finished work each day at a legal newspaper near city hall, I would walk to the next restaurant on Pico. After dinner I would buy an orange from a street vendor and catch a bus the rest of the way home. (I should mention here that I actually lived on Pico, over a kosher butcher shop near Robertson.) When the enormity of the adventure seemed overwhelming, I might buy a taco at one restaurant, a hamburger at the next and a bowl of chilate y nuegado at a third. I never made it to the beach, but I did eat my way almost to Century City that year, from the El Salvador Cafe all the way to the old Roxbury Pharmacy grill.
I grooved on the Persian-Jewish neighborhood around Beverly, the remarkable strip of soul food between Fairfax and Crenshaw, the pan-ethnic zone around Westwood. I especially liked the neighborhood — mostly Central American — that had sprung up between Vermont and the Harbor Freeway, the thousands upon thousands of Guatemalans and Salvadorans who crowded Pico until dark, choosing toys from big displays set up in grocery-store parking lots, buying mayonnaise-smeared ears of corn from street-corner pushcarts. The restaurants in that neighborhood were good, too. I learned about everything from marinated octopus at El Pulpo Loco, El Parian’s Jalisco-style goat stew, and Salvadoran pupusas to El Nica’s giant Nicaraguan tamales, Cuban fried rice, Guatemalan pepian and Ecuadorian llapingachos.
This was not my mother’s cooking. Pico, in a certain sense, was where I learned to eat. I also saw my first punk-rock show on Pico, was shot at, fell in love, bowled a 164, witnessed a knife fight, took cello lessons, raised chickens, ate Oki Dogs and heard X, Ice Cube, Hole and Willie Dixon perform (though not together) on Pico.
These experiences are, I suspect, not atypical.
Sunset may have more famous restaurants, La Brea better restaurants and Melrose more restaurants whose chairs have nestled Mira Sorvino’s gently rounded flanks. No glossy magazine has ever suggested Pico as an emerging hot street; no real estate ad has ever described a house as Pico-adjacent. The street plays host to the unglamorous bits of Los Angeles, the row of one-stops that supply records to local jukeboxes, the kosher-pizza district, the auto-body shops that speckle its length the way giant churches speckle Wilshire. And while Pico may divide neighborhoods more than it creates them — Koreatown from Harvard Heights, Wilshire Center from Midtown, Beverly Hills–adjacent from not-all-that-Beverly-Hills-adjacent, neighborhoods your cousin Martha lives in from neighborhoods she wouldn’t step into after dark — there isn’t even a Pico-identified gang.
But precisely because Pico is so unremarked, because it is left alone like old lawn furniture moldering away in the side yard of a suburban house, it is at the center of entry-level capitalism in central Los Angeles, and one of the most vital food streets in the world. Pico is home to Valentino, which specializes in preparing customized Italian food for millionaires, and to Oaxacan restaurants so redolent of the developing world that you half expect to see starved chickens scratching around on the floor; to Billingsley’s, a steak house, which could have been transplanted whole from Crawfordsville, Indiana, and to the Arsenal, a steak house decorated with medieval weaponry; to chain Mexican restaurants, artist-hangout Mexican restaurants and Mexican restaurants of such stunning authenticity that you’re surprised not to stumble outside into a bright Guadalajara sun. Greek and Scandinavian delis still flourish on stretches of Pico that haven’t been Greek or Scandinavian since the Eisenhower administration.
I went back to Pico last week, to a faded Mexican joint once famous for the best carne asada in Los Angeles, beer so cold that a thin sheet of ice formed on top of it on hot summer days, and waitresses beautiful as Velázquez princesses. The restaurant had not aged well. It was populated with guys sitting around in stained undershirts, half-looking at the Galaxy game that droned from a TV overhead, dosing shrimp cocktails with generic-brand ketchup, listlessly draining one can of Modelo after another. The food was rank — sour grilled meat, cardboard-thin, a week older than it should have been; watery beans; commercial tortillas. I probably would have pushed it aside uneaten if the cook hadn’t been sitting three feet from the table.
I couldn’t help wondering whether I would have grooved on the scene 15 years ago, followed the game, plowed through the food. (It was approximately 15 years ago, after all, that I had sung with an excruciatingly bad white blues band that used to cap its sets of Peetie Wheatstraw and Blind Lemon Jefferson covers with a song I’d written called “Breakfast on Pico.” The last time we did this, at a disco deep in the north Valley, a bouncer unplugged the PA and then pounded me bloody when we refused to stop playing. Perhaps it was the couplet rhyming “mountain-size” with “chili fries” that set him off.) I thought about Pico restaurants — Mr. Coleslaw Burger, Hody’s, Nu-Way, Chicken Georgia, Ben’s Place, Kong Joo (for goat soup), Carl’s BBQ, the carnitas place on the corner of Vermont with old boxing snapshots on the walls — that had vanished except for a shiny patch of sidewalk or the ghost of a painted sign. I wondered whether my infatuation with Pico was purely nostalgic, standard-issue post-adolescent infatuation with poverty. I finished the bottle of Bohemia, paid the check and walked sadly away from a barely touched plate of food. Was Pico really all that it had seemed to be? Or had I moved onto another scene?
Then, on the next block, the Greek sausage sandwich with tzatziki sauce at Papa Cristo’s was as good as anything I’ve ever eaten, and I knew I’d only wandered into a lousy restaurant. The sun broke out from behind a cloud, bathing the Greek cathedral across the street in honey-colored late-afternoon light.
Or to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, “A man who is tired of Pico is truly tired of life.”