Editor's note: The article has been updated to reflect Compton's improved accessibility to parks, but continued need for more open space.
While Compton is best known for being the birthplace of West Coast hip-hop and gangsta rap and where household names such as Ice Cube or Dr. Dre emerged, it was first actually a city known first for its thriving agricultural landscape. As one of the oldest cities in Los Angeles, it is the true geographic epicenter of Los Angeles County, with community gems powered by its residents.
While rich in history, Compton is not without its share of issues. "The fact that we live so close to freeways is a gift and a curse. It's a gift because you have access to Compton from four freeways," says Dani Solorio, owner of Compton Health Bar. But it's a curse because residents often experience health issues such as asthma or respiratory diseases due to their proximity to the highly-trafficked roadways. "There's no mitigation or preventative measures in place, so people have to figure it out on their own. We're trying to be a part of the solution at Compton Health Bar."
We asked Solorio to share some of her highlights of the neighborhood, to which she immediately responded, "Ah, one of my favorite things is actually the foodscape in Compton." The resulting recommendations are a unique blend of food, agriculture and culture that only a true local would be able to share:
Underground Taco Crawl
In Compton, the secret to finding the best taco stand is not Yelp, but insider knowledge.
"When you go on Yelp and search restaurants, unfortunately, you don't find a lot," Solorio says. "You need to know what streets to go on because the street vendor scene in Compton is pretty robust — there's a lot of delicious food." To give an example, Solorio says that only locals would know that if you drive up Alameda Street between Rosecrans and El Segundo, you'll find about 10 different street vendors/taco stands. "You'll find a variety of street vendors, some making fresh, hot tortillas for the tacos."
Solorio, who grew up in Compton, said that going to taco stands is a nightly tradition for families. "If you drive a little further north on Alameda, you'll find pupusas, you'll find fresh-made churros that this lady makes that are amazing; five for $1, something crazy like that." If that's not enough, the social media-savvy businesses are able to drive traffic to their pop-ups via Instagram or various other apps. "Taco stands are always evolving to reflect the rich diversity of both the Black and Latino cultures which predominately make up Compton's population," says Solorio, "I take friends on the 'Taco Tour' and they can't believe the selection, the quality and the flavors there."
Taco stands are always evolving to reflect the rich diversity of both the Black and Latino cultures which predominately make up Compton's population.Dani Solorio, Owner of Compton Health Bar
Solorio's favorite stand is on the corner of El Segundo and Central, just down the street from Compton Health Bar. It is run by an Indigenous family from the Oaxaca region of Mexico. She doesn't even know the actual name of the stand. "Most of them just have those neon signs that say tacos," Solorio says. "This stand isn't any different. They're there every night except Mondays. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, they are there till 1 a.m. They are the one of the few that cater to vegetarian tastes. They're super accommodating and all their tortillas for mulitas (a Mexican wrap sandwich usually made with meat, cheese and salsa) are freshly made. They are the sweetest people."
Solorio's weakness is their bean and cheese mulita. "That's by far my favorite. Add some guacamole sauce and OH MY GOODNESS." Solorio is such a regular that the shop already knows her order even before she places it. "I come up and they say, 'Same thing?' and I'm like, 'Yup!'" She says the guacamole sauce is the key ingredient. "I think it has cilantro, a little bit of serrano and avocado that they add. I don't know — it just tastes so good. I'm going to get their recipe next time!"
The Goat Mafia
Although there's a significant lack of green spaces in Compton, there are a few families that have plots of land where they tend to cows and goats. This more pastoral lifestyle harks back to the city's beginnings in 1888, when Reverend Griffith Dickenson Compton donated his land to the city, stipulating that part of it would be zoned for agriculture. This zone would eventually be known as Richland Farms.
On some Sunday mornings, music fills the neighborhoods built around the micro goat farms. "Literally, people just have enough land and they have goats," she enthuses. "I think it's down to one neighborhood now, but there's this one little pocket where almost everyone has either goats and/or cows." Solorio reflects that this neighborhood has the nostalgic essence of a rural rich agricultural region like the Midwest of Mexico.
There's one particular goat-peddling chef from Compton by the name of Juan Garcia that is getting a lot of attention for his family's fourth-generation recipe of traditional, slow-cooked, Mexican goat birria. Goat Mafia's taco has been featured in Bon Appétit, "United Tacos of America" and "Cheap Eats" on the Cooking Channel to name a few. You can find their pop-up at ROW DTLA every Sunday at Smorgasburg Los Angeles from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., but they also have catering options to help curb your cravings on the other days of the week. While the recipe is a closely guarded secret, the hint of cinnamon, chocolate and citrus notes sing in perfect harmony with the chorus of peppers and spices. "The Goat Mafia is a pretty cool Compton attraction," says Solorio, "I always tell our clients that when it comes to health, you don't want to overdo it, but they are nice treats from time to time."
For your java fix, Solorio highly recommends a visit to Patria Coffee owned by Deanna and Geoffrey Martinez, over by the Compton Courthouse. "They're the type of place you'd expect to find in Silver Lake, maybe somewhere in the arts district in downtown. It has that type of vibe, but it's right in the center of what used to be downtown Compton. Aside from their modern interior vibe, they also very much align with their values of honoring the people and the soil where their products come from. All of their coffees are sourced directly from farmers in Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras." She says that it's an essential place for quality coffee. Solorio muses, "I love my Café de Olla — that's my treat – it has that cinnamon-y essence that reminds us all of our grandmothers."
Alma Backyard Farms
Alma Backyard Farms is another nod to the rich agricultural movement that Richland Farms has long modeled. It is the only farm stand in Compton, whose fresh, organic produce is sourced directly from its on-location farm. Co-founders Erica Cuellar and Richard Garcia have cultivated this urban farm concept since the very inception. Having collaborated with them before, Solorio has only the highest regards for the farm's wonderful contributions to the community.
"Throughout most of 2020, every other weekend, they would give away produce bags and fresh-made bread," Solorio says. "We would partner with them to also include some of our products in their free giveaway bags. Their work is amazing in general. They have this program for folks who are reintegrating after coming out of prison." Their community involvement also extends to at-risk children, youth and food insecure families. Apart from their Compton farm stand, Alma Backyard Farms also operates a second stand in San Pedro. Their fresh produce has also graced the refined plates of restaurants like Rossoblu in collaboration with The Butcher's Daughter.
"They have seasonal produce. So right now, this is the season for all the nightshades," says Solorio. "Chilis, eggplants, tomatoes and squash are in season right now. They have a bunch of cherry tomatoes, heirloom potatoes, herbs, chards and kale." Their house-made banana chips are perfectly crisp and sweet, they won't last a day in your home. Delightfully refreshing agua frescas and green smoothies that display the natural sweetness of their seasonal fruits are sure to cure your morning thirst. No matter the season, it's never a wrong time to experience this special farm in Compton.
If this leaves you wanting more, here are a few more gems Solorio offered in Compton:
Compton Creek Natural Park
In a city with a high park need like Compton, Compton Creek Natural Park is a humble little oasis for the neighborhood and the children at the adjacent George Washington Elementary School. Owned and developed by the Mountains Recreations and Conservation Authority, this special three-acre park packs a small punch with its fitness equipment, picnic tables, walking paths, little amphitheater, interpretive signage and more. Additionally, The Los Angeles Conservation Corps takes up residence by maintaining onsite operations and training up local conservation leaders at their onsite office. Solorio can't help but have a vision of wellness for this quaint park, "We're trying to work with them. Those garden beds are just sitting there and it pains my heart. There are so many medicinal plants that we grow and have folks come out and remember their connection to the earth. There's so much potential!"
Compton Community Garden
If you're not already convinced of Compton's green thumb, the Compton Community Garden is proof that the neighborhood has a lock on bringing restorative practices to their community. Owned and operated solely by the neighborhood, this little gem represents the heartbeat of a community that aspires towards a powerful and positive impact on burgeoning and seasoned gardeners alike.