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Barrio Logan: Preserving the Flavors of Mexican and Chicano Culture

Learn more about other Mexican flavors on "The Migrant Kitchen" S3 E3: El Jardin

It’s barely noon on a Tuesday, and already a line snakes around the corner of Logan Avenue and Sampson Street where a popular street taco shop feeds eager locals, military personnel, office workers and out of towners. At Chicano Park, the elderly sit on benches in the sun, teenagers huddle, cars whizz across Interstate 5 overhead. Come evening, a craft brewery hosts Loteria night where customers span three generations: a common sight. Across the street, an eatery adorned with lowrider memorabilia slings hot dogs tucked in Sonora-style artisan rolls and spicy micheladas for a cluster of Millennials.

This is Barrio Logan in San Diego, historically a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood where Chicano culture is easily seen, heard and especially tasted. As commercial development and changing demographics reshape the neighborhood, the question is this: What does Barrio Logan’s future hold, and what role does food play in perpetuating its cultural narrative?

Barrio Logan, shaped and reshaped by history

That Barrio Logan is changing is a story that’s repeated itself over two hundred years.

During the 19th century, much of present-day California was Mexican territory until it changed hands under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Beginning in 1910, between 50,000 - 100,000 Mexicans fled North to escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution, while others sought better economic opportunity.

By 1940, Barrio Logan (then called Logan Heights) was one of the largest Mexican-American communities on the West Coast. Then came World War II, a Naval base and a shipbuilding industry that would block the neighborhood’s access to the waterfront.

The construction of Interstate 5 in 1963 and the San Diego-Coronado bridge in 1969 reshaped the area once again and displaced tens of thousands of longtime residents in the process. Some establishments endured, including eateries that still serves its community and curious visitors today.

Iconic Barrio Logan restaurants

“I remember when the side of beans were fifty cents!” said Josephine Talamantez, community advocate and a co-founder of historic Chicano Park. She’s referring to Las Cuatro Milpas, a cash-only operation. On any given day, patrons line up along Logan Avenue to fill up on a simple yet trusted menu of rolled tacos, beans and rice it’s served since 1933.

“These women make simple food – like taquitos dorados – and the line is out the door every single day,” says Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, chef of El Jardin restaurant in Point Loma who’s visited Las Cuatro Milpas since she was a teenager.

Nearby, El Carrito serves five types of chilaquiles, tortas and steamy cups of cafe de olla — spiced and sweetened coffee traditionally made in a ceramic pot — out of a converted trolley car from the 1930s.

Food from El Carrito | Courtesy of El Carrito
Food from El Carrito | Courtesy of El Carrito

Food and Family

Its current stewards, Carolina Santana and Milo Lorenzana are longtime San Diego residents and run El Carrito’s daily breakfast and lunch service with the help of family members; Santana’s mom helped create the menu, and her dad is co-owner and can be found behind the cashier and running plates of food.

“You’re kind of expected to help out the family business, but we take so much pride in it,” says Lorenzana.

Similarly, Las Cuatro Milpas has been a multi-generational operation since its inception. Margarita Hernandez, whose grandparents opened the restaurant, currently helms the no-nonsense eatery.

“They give you so much sass if you take too long on the line. Those women [at Las Cuatro Milpas] are what fuels me and reminds me of my grandmother, my mom, and my tias so that particular spot for me is incredibly special,” says Zepeda-Wilkins, who grew up between San Diego and Tijuana.

Newcomer Barrio Dogg is an homage to the cross-border street foods that have accompanied co-owner and operator Pablo Rios’ youth. From bacon-wrapped hot dogs and sides like tomato-based calabacitas and nopalitos made tangy with lime, “This is Chicano comfort food,” Rios says.

Barrio Dogg selections | Ligaya Malones
Barrio Dogg selections | Ligaya Malones

Story continues below

Beyond the barrio

While Barrio Dogg’s tagline, ‘For the barrio, from the barrio,’ acknowledges the neighborhood’s roots, some neighborhood businesses aim to bring its flavors to a wider community.

Since opening, Rios has delegated Barrio Dogg’s hot dog cart (its first iteration before moving to a permanent spot on Logan Avenue, “in the same space that used to be a seafood restaurant I went to when I was a kid!” says Rios) to catering gigs around the county.

Across the street, David Favela owns Border X, a craft brewery where he’s mined his Latino heritage in order to “explore cultural roots,” by creating flavor profiles — like their Abuelita’s Chocolate Stout, a smooth pour of chocolate and cinnamon — everyone can enjoy, “whether you grew up with them or not.”

Both Favela and Rios plan to expand Border X and Barrio Dogg to Los Angeles in the coming year. Rios also has his eyes on Japan, where lowrider culture is as popular as it is linked to Chicano culture.

The future of Barrio Logan

“Growth is inevitable,” says Lorenzana. “Whether it’s me and Caro[lina], or John and Sue.”

A 2016 report by the Downtown San Diego Partnership and UC San Diego Extension Center for Research on the Regional Economy says that the Downtown population is expected to grow by 90% — or an additional 20,000 plus residents by 2050. The area, which includes Barrio Logan is “expected, planned and zoned to grow quickly both from an employment and residential perspective.”

As Barrio Logan evolves, its stakeholders believe sharing their template for small business success with like-minded entrepreneurs can help their cultural legacy live on beyond the neighborhood.

Santana recalls a woman who visited Por Vida (a coffee shop and art gallery she and Lorenzana opened in Barrio Logan) and was inspired to open a similar concept in Puerto Rico after visiting their cafe. Closer to home, they’ve helped small businesses outside of Barrio Logan, including Marleez Coffee and Dia del Cafe get up and running on their own. “We’ve held their hands and are generous with our information,” says Santana.

Por Vida exterior | Ligaya Malones
Por Vida exterior | Ligaya Malones

Elsewhere, Barrio Logan’s food has gained nationwide interest with recent features on the Travel Channel and National Geographic. In one scene, Travel Channel show host Andrew Zimmern stands up in the middle of Salud (that popular taco shop mentioned at the top of the story) and asks a packed room, “Who thinks that if you come to San Diego and don’t go to Barrio Logan, you haven’t been to San Diego?” The crowd cheers.

“What I’ve always taken from Barrio Logan is the pride they have for their culture, and that’s something we have whether you’re Chicano or Mexican,” says Zepeda-Wilkins. At El Jardin, reverence for heritage and family is evident in her rotating menu. It reads like the acknowledgments pages of a novel; a new chicken recipe inspired by a female chef friend (“I’m the only girl in my family so my sisters are close friends of mine”) from Oaxaca, mom’s albondigas, pozole with kombu dashi base.

“Food is communal,” says Lorenzana. To Favela, it offers an emotional acknowledgment of an experience. And by sharing Barrio Logan’s flavors beyond the neighborhood’s borders, “By preserving the flavors, we’re preserving the culture,” says Rios.

Top Image: Por Vida exterior | Ligaya Malones

 

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