In 1976, when Dora Herrera and her "Mama" descended in the heart of Los Feliz, it was to establish a little taco shop in a converted shoe shiner's hut called Yuca's. Herrera spent the next 45 years contributing to the growth and development of what present Los Feliz is now; a thriving tourist attraction and bustling community filled with business owners who care. We asked Herrera to show us a local's version of Los Feliz, to share what makes this neighborhood so special. With a small scratch paper in hand scribbled with a couple dozen of her local favorites, she was more than ready to share.
When James Beard award-winning Yuca's first set up shop in Los Feliz, Herrera quickly dove into local governance to find out what made this city tick. She became part of the original group of business owners working to attract more interest in Los Feliz. Herrera also joined another group that helped create the neighborhood council. "That was incredible. At the time, I felt like… 'I don't know if I have anything to contribute,'" Herrera said. "But... I thought, 'If they see something in me, I'm going to try my darndest and create something good for the neighborhood.'"
Before long, Herrera and several other business owners were producing yearly events like the now defunct Los Feliz Village Street Fair, volunteering with the local library and hosting a water station at the L.A. marathon for the past 15 years.
Even with tourists from all over the world descending into Los Feliz in search of the Yucatan-style tacos, Herrera maintains a refreshing sense of humility. "We would have people from Europe show up from France, Germany, Sweden in search of the slow roasted, achiote and citrus marinated shredded meat on corn tortillas. The French I could understand, the German not so much, the Swedish not at all, but I could understand the Yucans. They would point to their books and ask is this the place?" Herrera said laughing, "I think they were all expected [sic] a bigger place and I was like, 'Ooh I'm sorry!' But they loved it."
When in Los Feliz, here's Herrera's not-to-miss list:
Yuca's and Palermo were both established in 1976 and are helmed by Herrera and her dear friend and owner, Tony Fanara, respectively. "After the L.A. Marathon is over — we don't stay in the westside, but come back to Los Feliz and have a big ass party at Palermo," said Herrera. "You ask anybody in Los Feliz and [Tony] is one of the most beloved people in the neighborhood, second only to Mama Yuca."
Meeting Fanara is like meeting the vivacious uncle you never knew you needed. He treats everyone who comes through the doors of his restaurant like family. In fact, he proclaimed that he was going to put in his bid to run for governor in the next official election. Without missing a beat, Herrera answers, "Well, if anyone can do it, it's you." Ambition is certainly not in short supply for these two. When at Palermo, Herrera opts to go for the restaurant's signature Pizza 'Mama' Rosa, a simple dish with feta, mozzarella, parmigiano cheese and fresh tomatoes.
Next up, Herrera recommends Il Capriccio, another longstanding Italian fixture in Los Feliz. Herrera considers its owner like a brother, how fitting considering his name is Ermanno. "Ermanno Neiviller is my idea guy. He always inspires me," Herrera said. "He is constantly redesigning the interior and exterior of the restaurant." The ambiance currently boasts a garden patio theme with soft patio lights strung over the sidewalk of the outdoor seating area. When dining, Herrera recommends going for her secret menu dish, the Alfredo with chicken and peas. If they don't have peas, Herrera suggests their chicken vesuvio, made the fast way.
The Los Feliz Branch Library
Herrera's face lights up when she speaks of the Los Feliz Branch Library. "The library is my home. I'm big on education and learning," Herrera said. "Not having a fixed mindset, you can always learn something more, something different. You can always improve on what you know and the library provides it." While tourists may flock to the Ennis House or Hollyhock House for their world-famous architecture, Herrera chooses to highlight the contemporary stature of the Los Feliz library which was designed by architect Barton Phelps and opened in 1999, complete with the signature deodar cedar tree at the entrance.
The deodar cedar is a historic-cultural monument of Los Feliz, commissioned as a city beautification project in 1935 and native of the Himalayas. Fun fact: the library was actually built on the corner where actor Leonardo DeCaprio's childhood home used to take residence. As president of Friends of Los Feliz Library, Herrera brought Phelps back for the library's 20th anniversary to speak at the "Architecture & Beyond" lecture series organized by FOLFL. "Lynn's job was to contact speakers; Pearl, the librarian, provides the library; Kathryn designs the flyers and my job is to provide snacks for the event — and it's not tacos," Herrera said. "Right now, we're working on a scavenger hunt for the neighborhood. There used to be the Annual Holiday Festival which has evolved into the Annual Tree Lighting Festival in front of the library as well." If you're stopping by, don't forget to curl up in the cozy children's reading nook under "moonlit" manzanita branches!
When it comes to art and pop culture in Los Feliz, Herrera's only answer is WACKO, founded in 1971 by Barbara and Hank Shire. Just like its namesake, the eclectic gift and sundry shop boasts a wacky sense of visuals from a unicorn "trophy head" on the wall, to a unique display of quirky Catholic candles. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, WACKO plans on having a proper celebration next year. According to Herrera, "Billy (son of Barbara and Hank) is amazing. He was big in bringing different art forms to the people's forefront."
From the La Luz de Jesus Gallery to the annual art show, you're sure to find some funky art work. Billy provided artwork when Herrera was in need of some décor for Yuca's former Hollywood storefront. "People just went gaga over the artwork," Herrera said. "People actually knew who these artists were and continued to ask me about Billy's art collection." Herrera continued, "It was art education for me to see how he expanded my art knowledge."
Considered the "Central Park of Los Angeles," Griffith Park sits right in Los Feliz. With over 4,300 acres of land, the park is home to a sprawling network of trails, playgrounds, carousels, picnic areas and popular attractions such as the Travel Town Museum, Griffith Park Train Rides, Los Angeles Zoo, the Autry Museum of the American West, Griffith Observatory and the Hollywood Sign. The proposed tram system is also meant to make it easier to travel within Griffith Park, but Herrera disagrees. "I'm not neutral because I love nature so much."
As a founding board member of Friends of Griffith Park, Herrera makes sure to walk the talk for the last 10 years she's sat on this board. "We're all about keeping the wild wild and enjoying nature — not developing it," Herrera said. "I hike there almost every day. We do clean ups, mulching and even designed a natural garden on the edge of the golf course," said Herrera who, apart from managing her two restaurants, helps produce a newsletter, plan events and create children's coloring books on behalf of the park.
If you stop by Griffith Park, check out Herrera's favorite hike, Rattlesnake Trail. "We don't care about how many miles it is, but we use the time to brainstorm ideas for the Friends of Griffith Park newsletter. It's a short hike. What we like is that it's a steep hike. You can do an out and back or hit the picnic bench, or choose to do a long hike. Every time we go, we see something different. The other day, we just discovered an old plaque and you can barely make out Rattlesnake Trail on there. At the top there's a horse trough, for dogs and horses. As a multi-use trail, you can even enjoy the trails via riding horses. There is literally something for everyone."
If these spots leave you wanting more, Herrera recommends these extra locations to get a flavor of Los Feliz:
The Vista Theatre
This popular landmark was sold by former owner Lance Alspaugh to Oscar-winning filmmaker Quentin Tarantino in the summer of 2021. Though shuttered during the pandemic, there are exciting plans ahead for the theatre as it's currently under renovation.
Herrera likes to alternate between the Chinese chicken salad, Chinese tacos, green beans and any noodle dish at Chi Dynasty. Herrera also counts owner Jonathan Chi as another one of her go-to resources. "I'll go in there and he'll ask, 'Dora, what's going on?' We then start talking about the neighborhood. It always goes back to the neighborhood," Herrera said.
For dessert, you can't beat a coffee paired with a six-inch slice of chocolate cake. This is a popular gathering place not only for locals and tourists, but for all the business owners of Los Feliz as well.
Looking to try your hand at creating your own art keepsake? Look no further than the hip and warm pottery studio of Glaze Fire where you can see your artistic dreams come alive through the painting and glazing process!
How to get to Yuca's
By Bus: Connect to the Metro B Line (Red) and get off on the Hillhurst and Ambrose Stop, right across from Yuca's.
By Car: Exit Los Feliz from I-5 and head west towards Hillhurst. Turn left onto Hillhurst and Yuca's will be .2 miles on your left.