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Iconic Neighborhood Restaurants: Whittier

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Whittier is at once a suburban tangle of endless streets and strip malls, as well as a lush, tree-lined town. Its downtown (here it’s called Uptown Whittier) with its park, movie theater, and old-timey architecture, provides a central, small-town feeling that unites all people of Whittier.  Located on the southern rim of the San Gabriel Valley, only 19 miles from downtown LA, it is a world in itself. Despite its small-town vibe, it is also surprisingly eclectic and irreverent. Here, you’ll see rockabilly families, skater girls, punk rock kids dressed in all black, geek chic kids, older adults with piercings, full tattoo sleeves, and bright hair, all walking, hanging out, and sharing the landscape. You will also find vintage record shops, Mexican folk art shops, used bookstores, coffee shops, and restaurants, along with a 99 cent store, a pawn shop, and a beauty school.

Though Whittier is utterly and tediously landlocked, challenging to leave and return to, luckily there’s plenty to do and eat any day of the week. Whittier is becoming a “foodie” destination, offering a good variety of well-crafted meals, from tapas and wine bars, craft brewery, Japanese, to fusion restaurants, more typical of big cities than this suburban college town (Whittier College is a rock’s throw away from Uptown).  In Whittier, you can skip the trappings of pretension, no overcharging the customers, no fussy vibes or snobbery.  Outsiders are warmly taken in, assumed to belong.

Whittier is home to new immigrant families from Mexico alongside fourth and fifth generation US-born families and a young population, with the average age of 32. The restaurants and their food reflect the culinary traditions of its residents, yet present themselves and their dishes with much nuance and individualized flair. Local chefs combine traditional ingredients in surprising, unexpected ways, expanding people’s expectations of traditional food.  The chefs and staff at these establishments, who create the menus,  cook the food, and provide a friendly environment to single people, couples of all ages, and families with wiggly children alike; each time tasting more like home.

The restaurants profiled here represent a cross section of these very welcoming spaces. The dishes profiled are vegan (sometimes modified as such), but still rich and complex.  Each restaurant is also a variation of Latino cuisines, and demonstrates the very dynamic manners in which Latino culture is experienced in this predominantly Chicano/Latino town. What is most exciting about the Whittier restaurant scene is that you can eat savory, satisfying, and interesting dishes in little hole-in-the wall corners, or more formal venues.

Forkin Good Cafe

Forkin Good Cafe is the creation of award-winning celebrity chef and owner Denise Portillo. She began as the owner of a flower shop, which evolved by her love of cooking and presentation, into event planning and catering. She is a 5th generation Mexican American on her dad’s side, and 2nd generation on her mother’s side.  In her family, the love of food and traditional cuisine was essential, and culminated in her interesting and unique takes on Mexican food. She feels that it is possible to be creative with the essence of Mexican cuisine, without watering down any of the elements. Chef Portillo had her daughter in Whittier, and being part of this community, if offering her creativity and her imagination back to the community. She appreciates the small town feel, the trees, and the fact that she can walk to work.  

The menu offers everything from fresh-to-order-fire roasted pizzas, to frittatas, to chilaquiles.  In addition to the food, the coffee is notable, and situated just a few feet from the corner Starbucks on Greenleaf in Uptown, definitely worth walking further to sample their warm, spicy horchata lattes, churro lattes, cafe de la olla, and  rosemary and lavender-infused coffees. Chef Portillo grows her own herbs and makes her own syrups. Her love of coffee goes back to childhood memories of old-school coffee houses in Los Feliz, complete with big burlap sacks of coffee piled up along the walls.  

Forkin Good Cafe is welcoming and bright, with decor that flaunts Chef Portillo’s creative flair. The ambiance is relaxed, if not enchanting, with groups of friends and couples laughing, smiling, absorbed by the Amy Winehouse and Billie Holiday music. Chef Portillo stresses the importance of slowing down enough to be engaged in the moment, the meal,  and the people you come with.

Forkin Good Cafe: 6744 Greenleaf Avenue Whittier, CA — 90601 562 693-1010

Caption: Chef Denise Portillo in front of a peacock graffiti mural by local artist, Nuke. Photo by Claudia Morales
Slow down and have a brunch date (wifi-free) with friends, family or sweetheart at Forkin Good Cafe. Photo courtesy of Forkin Good Cafe.

Colonia Tacos Guisados

Colonia Tacos Guisados is one of three restaurants owned by a locally renowned Chef Ricardo Diaz of Cook's Tortas, Dorados Ceviche Bar, Guisados Tacos, Bizarra Capital (see below) and numerous other locales.  He comes from a family of Mexican restuarant owners of the seafood chain Siete Mares. Diaz shared that he was practically raised working in the restaurants, every weekend, all summer, where he acquired the “Mexican work ethic”. This little tiny spot offers respite along the impossibly long stretch of road that is Whittier Blvd  and that seems to made for cruising than for actual commuting. The building is mint green and shiny silver, it has a 50’s mid century vibe, that looks like it may have at one point been a hamburger joint. It also has an inventive and surprising array of tacos, many of which are vegetarian, something you don’t often see in more traditional taquerias. Diaz shares that he wished to “elevate” vegetables, in the way they are creatively incorporated into dishes in Mexico, but not in the type of food that is expected in a Mexican restaurant within the US. The options are phenomenal, and you are likely to order more tacos than can actually be eaten.

Noteworthy are the cauliflower, doradito, and huitlacoche tacos as well as the green agua, which is a mixture of pineapple, celery, and cucumber juices.  The cauliflower bits are battered in a light breading, deep-fried, and topped with fresh salsa,  sweet corn, and capers on a hand made flour tortilla. The crunchy, savory sweet, tangy combination is absolutely perfect.  The doradito is crunchy, with a soft potato mash inside. The huitlacoche had a more subtle taste, but still very good.  The tortillas are all hand made, which will always, invariably make any taco better. Other items on the menu include braised barbacoa roasted with agave, marinated in a guajillo, with banana leaves. The textures are perfectly balanced, and the fresh juices are refreshing, not sugary. This indulgence is well worth the $2.50 per taco.  Colonia only has tables out front and in the back on benches, but if it rains, you can eat standing up inside.  

Colonia Guisados: 11114 Whittier Blvd, Whittier, CA 90606 (562) 699-2424

Put down your boring taco de asada and try one of these cauliflower, huitlacoche (maize fungus) or doradito tacos. Wash down with aguas frescas. Photo by Claudia Morales.
A seemingly humble taco counter with sophisticated taste. And vegan-friendly! Photo by Claudia Morales.

Bizarra Capital

Also owned by Chef Ricardo Diaz, this restaurant is a Sizzler, turned Egyptian Nightclub, turned Siete Mares, and finally incarnated as this flavorful restaurant, offering small plates, tacos, and agua frescas, including agua fresca margaritas.  Here you can enjoy some mariachi on Friday nights, or listen to Carlos Vives and Juan Luis Guerra as you enjoy the intensely savory and satisfying meals.   Featured here are the Carne Asada Taco and Mole fries.  The food was perfectly savory, spicy, and well-textured.  

Bizarra Capital: 12706 Philadelphia St, Whittier, CA 90601 Phone: (562) 945-2426

Mole verde fries: you know you want 'em. Photo by Roland L

Sol Maya

Sol Maya is a Salvadoran pupuseria that delivers amazingly consistent, fresh and traditional Salvadoran cuisine. Although more traditional in style, it is a unique offering to Whittier, where pupuserias are a rare find. This restaurant was the vision of a mother and daughter team. Mom Antonia Abarca mastered pupusas and other traditional Salvadorian dishes by necessity in El Salvador, in order to help raise her younger siblings. When she came to the U.S., she worked in restaurants for 5 years, and taught her daughter, Ms. Armida Salazar everything she knew about cooking and managing a restaurant.  Ms. Abarca ran a pupuseria for 10 years with her daughter’s help. Sol Maya has been here since 2008. Locally celebrated, largely by overwhelmingly positive Yelp reviews, here everything is savory, to the rice and a brothy refried beans. The prices are low, and the portions are large, and even though it’s in an unassuming strip mall between a liquor store and Pizza Piara, a tropical patio is hidden within, with lush green plants, strings of glowing lights, and bright, colorful folk art from El Salvador. It really feels like a tiny escape, that customers have nicknamed “the jungle”. Vegan and veggie offerings include pupusas con frijoles, yuca frita, plátanos maduros, and rice and beans.  Other meat entrees are available. The pupusas are satisfying and toasty, the yuca, which tastes similar to french fries, but with more texture, is amazingly crunchy goodness. The Salvadoran secret to their savory and smooth bean dish, involves frying onion oil until blackened, then blending the beans in a blender until it has a fine texture. Because beans are the cornerstone to so many delicious Latino dishes, when they are done right, they are the ultimate comfort food. Like many other Whittier establishments, Sol Maya is warm and welcoming, even with little kids, and even makes a good place for a wallflower to observe others.  

Sol Maya: 8808 Painter Ave Whittier, CA 90602  Phone number(562) 698-3190

Enjoy fried yuca with your pupusas at Sol Maya. Photo by Claudia Morales.

Que Buena Taqueria

Que Buena is a tiny, bright taqueria along Whittier Blvd owned by Chef Ladis Ramirez who grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, and cut his teeth cooking and managing as many as three restaurants at a time for 22 years here in the U.S.  For eight years, he worked at Crepes and Grapes on Greenleaf in Whittier.  He recalls having a long-lasting love of crepes, starting from his childhood, with various dessert crepe shops in his hometown. When he was ready to open his own taqueria here in Whittier, he wanted to incorporate the crepe  into the Mexican cuisine without having to buy separate ingredients for the crepes. Thus the original “Mexi-crepe” was born.

The green chile sauce soaks right into the crepe, and they are served with a fresh salad, providing a crunchy, fresh balance to the carby goodness.  He makes his guacamole and tortillas fresh, and seeks to progressively evolve his cooking.  The taqueria has a steady stream of customers, and the coffee here is free!  Chef Ladis plans to incorporate a bananas foster crepe, which is lit afire with rum as a dessert crepe as seen below:

Que Buena Taqueria: 10530 Whittier Blvd Whittier, CA 90606 (562) 908-9777

Crepes doused in salsa and accompanied with fresh guacamole. Born out of immigrant creativity, gumption and love of chile. Photo by Claudia Morales.
Self-proclaimed inventor of the "Mexi-Crepe," Chef Ladiz Ramirez. Photo by Claudia Morales.

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