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Global Cuisines, Folk Art and Nonprofits Thrive at South L.A.’s Mercado La Paloma

Tucked on the far side of the 110 from USC in the Figueroa Corridor, Mercado La Paloma is a vibrant treasure trove of internationally eclectic food stalls, artisanal crafts and a thriving community that supports non-profits and first-time business owners. More than a mere food court, the dining options in the hall include an Ethiopian kitchen, an Oaxacan juice bar and café, a Thai stall, the critically acclaimed Yucatán eatery Chichén Itzá and it’s recently opened sister stand Holbox, which serves Yucatán-inspired seafood specialties. All of them share a common dining area, and are independently owned and family-run, as are the vendors there who sell jewelry, pottery, clothing and folk art from Mexico, Central and South America. The space also frequently hosts community workshops, dance classes, live music, yoga and more.

Launched in 1999 by Esperanza Community Housing, which works to promote affordable housing, accessible health care, economic and community development, Mercado La Paloma offers a uniquely L.A. dining experience. The space offers empowering opportunities for immigrant families, their children who are carrying on the culinary torch, and the diverse communities of Los Angeles to come together to share a meal.

Exterior of Mercado La Paloma
Exterior of Mercado La Paloma | Danny Jensen

“From the very foundation, our outlook was really a human rights approach to building sustainability in this community — making sure that people stayed in their homes and had access to all opportunities available to them,”  explains Nancy Halpern Ibrahim, executive director of Esperanza, which has offices just upstairs from the Mercado. While the food hall was not initially part of the organization’s plans to provide opportunities to South L.A. residents, the project became a logical progression of its goals and mission.

Esperanza Community Housing was founded in 1989 by Sister Diane C. Donoghue, the organization’s revered matriarch who recently passed away in February. The non-profit was designed as a neighborhood-based community development organization aimed at creating affordable housing and other services for low-income families in South L.A. To date, Esperanza has developed nine affordable housing developments with a total of 165 units, which all goes by lottery. Though according to Ibrahim, after USC and its affiliates began purchasing properties in the neighborhood and flipped most of the buildings, Esperanza hasn’t been able to build or rehabilitate additional residential properties since 2004.

Altar tribute to Sister Diane C. Donoghue, founder of Esperanza Community Housing and Mercado La Paloma
Altar tribute to Sister Diane C. Donoghue, founder of Esperanza Community Housing and Mercado La Paloma | Danny Jensen

Ibrahim was recruited in 1995 to develop Promotor de Salud, an economic development program that trains local residents as community health promoters who utilize their cultural knowledge to connect underserved communities with services they need. Then around 1998, Ibrahim explains that Esperanza began to look for other ways to develop economic opportunities for people who weren't going to become health leaders. “What else could be done to help stabilize the family?” she asked at the time. “Looking at our community, which is largely immigrant, very much marginalized and kept away from other job opportunities — whether because they are immigrants or because they're black — we decided to look for a way that we could actually launch a business plan that would also help to address the fact that we were in a food swamp. It's not quite a food desert, but a fast food alley that had no sit-down places for families, and a mile and half from any grocery store. Having no access to whole grains and produce, it feels cheaper on the day to day to have pizza delivered than to actually collect the ingredients to do something more nutritious.”

That thought process, and enthusiastic support from community members, gave rise to the creation of Mercado La Paloma, a local interpretation of the markets found in the countries from where many of Esperanza’s housing development residents had immigrated. Ibrahim explains that they began by inviting would-be entrepreneurs and restaurateurs to propose concepts for a family-run restaurant. Beginning with a group of around eight families — some would later drop out — they hosted a dialogue over the next several weeks about the barriers they faced for starting a business. “We learned a great deal from that conversation about business licenses, and all of the real estate aspects,” she says. “If you want to open a restaurant today, you have to think beyond your own kitchen. You also need restrooms, common space, parking, and a lot of that overhead was overwhelming for folks, even if they could find a way to navigate towards a license. From that we began to look for places where we could co-locate businesses, take some of that overhead away and develop a place that was designed for first-time family-owned businesses to take root.”

Interior of Mercado La Paloma
Interior of Mercado La Paloma | Danny Jensen

Following an extensive search, Esperanza found a home for the Mercado in a former garment factory on Grand Avenue, just north of 37th Street. But turning the vision into a reality, required overcoming a variety of hurdles to secure funding for the project and necessary renovations of the building. “We had to fight long and hard, even with investors who wanted to put money here, because there was an insistence that we needed to put an anchor franchise in the building to make it work, even something soft and fuzzy like Ben & Jerry's,” Ibrahim explains. “And we actually turned down a lot of money because our position was that the project we envisioned was either going to rise and succeed on our efforts and the efforts of the families who are giving everything to entrust their businesses with us, or we wouldn't do it. We're not in the business of building out marketspace for Ben & Jerry's or Panda Express or any of those mini-mall models.”

Once funding was established, Esperanza was able to renovate the building with a ground floor that offered a large communal seating area with food stalls, each with it’s own kitchen, along the periphery. They also created stalls where handmade goods could be sold, while the second floor provided space for nonprofits, as well as offices for Esperanza’s health programs, including Esperan Salud, a public health drop by center; Best Babies, focusing on reproductive and maternal care; an asthma program, and programs focused on environmental justice, and arts and culture. And if you ever need any tailoring help, Gloria’s Alterations can be found in one corner of the Mercado, where Gloria has been mending and hemming for over 14 years.

Cochinita pibil tacos at Chichén Itzá
Cochinita pibil tacos at Chichén Itzá | Danny Jensen

One of the first family-run restaurants to join the Mercado — one of two that still remains there — was Chichén Itzá. On the menu, you’ll find Yucatecan favorites such as cochinita pibil, the slow-roasted pork marinated with achiote, sour orange juice and spices, cooked in banana leaves; a variety of tamales; panuchos, crispy fried corn tortillas stuffed with a black bean puree and topped with shredded turkey, red onions and avocado; and kibi, a dish brought to the Yucatan by Lebanese immigrants, consisting of patties of ground beef, cracked wheat and spices. At the bustling counter, you’ll find a steady stream of loyal regulars and curious newcomers. But it wasn’t always so busy at Chichén Itzá.

“It was hard at first, the product was really unique and pretty singular in Los Angeles at the moment, nobody else was doing this type of food,” explains Gilberto Cetina Jr., who helped open Chichén Itza with his father. “There was some resistance from people, there wasn't acceptance right off the bat. People would ask us, 'Where are the burritos? Where's the carne asada?' And my dad made a decision very early on that he would stay true to authentic Yucatan recipes and wouldn't deviate from that. People said he was crazy and that nobody knows this type of food. And that was the case at the beginning. It was hard to see people come to our booth, look at the menu and walk away to another place.”

Long before opening Chichén Itza, Gilberto Cetina, Sr. had been a civil engineer in Merida, the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan, but decided to move his family to the U.S. in search of better opportunities. “My dad has always been a cook, since a little kid when he helped my grandma,” Cetina, Jr. says. “We moved to the United States in 1985 and as with most migrant families, my dad found himself working in kitchens. He worked everything from dishwasher and busboy to server, prep cook and chef.”

Chichén Itza
Chichén Itza | Danny Jensen

Then in 1999, Cetina heard about the project of the Mercado, thanks to the outreach efforts of Esperanza, and he pitched them the idea of doing a Yucatan style restaurant. He was accepted into the program, which helped with everything from small business training, financial training, food handlers certification training, and help with financing, which helped with co-signing loans and other things necessary to start the business, says Cetina, Jr. “He bit the bullet and quit his two jobs to come here and set up shop, and I agreed to come on board and help him for six months. In the beginning, it was slow and a little difficult. It was him, my mom and myself running the kitchen. I was front of house, he was the chef and my mom would help out most of the tamale making and in general helping him in the kitchen. Our first employee was a dishwasher, then we hired a cook to help my dad, and it was that crew of five of us for the first year.”

Cetina, Jr. admits that what really helped the family get through the first couple of years of business was L.A.’s small, but close-knit Yucatan community. “They started coming in and ordering panuchos and cochinita pibil,” he explains. “And through Esperanza and their network of nonprofits, catering also took off and we started doing that, which allowed us to stay afloat.” Gradually the restaurant developed a steady stream of support, including fans beyond the Yucatan community, thanks in part to praise from celebrated food critic Jonathan Gold. In 2005, the family expanded to a second location near MacArthur Park, but following the financial crash of 2008, closed up shop there. But it was during that time that Cetina, Jr. took an increased interest in cooking and began working with his dad in the kitchen. When his father’s right hand man in the kitchen had to move back to Mexico, he decided to not hire someone else and took over. Cetina, Jr. worked with his dad for a few years, until he eventually took over the kitchen operations, when his dad recently retired completely from the business. Leaving behind his former career programming and network installation in the IT world, Cetina, Jr. dove head first into new passion. “I fell in love with cooking, or became obsessed with cooking in my wife's words, bought every single book I could on cooking and practiced with them all, and now I'm continuing the family business.”

Chile rellenos at Holbox
Chile rellenos at Holbox | Danny Jensen

Thanks to funding from a New Market Tax Credit, a competitive program that aims to help enhance community businesses in distressed communities, Esperanza was able to convert a vacated bakery space in the Mercado into a state-of-the-art kitchen and service area. It was there that Cetina, Jr. launched his new project, Holbox, earlier this year. “It's definitely influenced by Yucatan flavors and ingredients, but is not traditionally Yucatan,” he explains. “We're having fun with ingredients that we can get and things that we know how to do.” On the menu, you’ll find deliciously bright ceviches made with local halibut, sea bass, octopus and shrimp; oysters on the half shell; tortas of breaded shrimp; and tacos on house-made tortillas loaded with grilled halibut, octopus and even lobster. Everything is vibrant and fresh with a balanced acidity and often terrific heat from house hot sauces. You’ll find daily specials, and if you’re a sea urchin fan, keep an eye out for the uni and yellowtail ceviche. And you’ll want to try the fried chile rellenos filled with fresh tuna, and served with tartar and a morita chile salsa.

“Both of them still are the family business, and for me they'll continue to be that way,” Cetina, Jr. says of Holbox and Chichén Itzá.” This all started with my dad's idea to do a restaurant, I came on board to help him and it's turned into my career. This is what I do know and what I plan on doing for the next 15 to 20 years, which is not what I planned on doing before. It's great to be in the same location. We can offer our existing customer base something new and also attract new customers to the Mercado.”

Holbox
Holbox | Danny Jensen

Directly across the Mercado from Holbox, you’ll find Azla, a vegan Ethiopian restaurant run by Azla Mekonnen and her youngest daughter Nesanet Abegaze. Walking up to the counter, you’ll find a colorful array of Ethiopian stews, known as wot, including spicy red lentils with berbere, kale and collards with garlic, and curry potatoes with carrots and cabbage. All of the hot dishes can be ordered with brown rice or injera, a spongy sourdough flatbread made with gluten-free teff flour. There are also a variety of salads and fresh juices, made with healthy ingredients including one with hibiscus, ginger and cinnamon, and a lemonade with ginger and turmeric.

“The recipes are based around my mom's love of cooking and entertaining,” explains Abegaze. “When we were young, my mom would always have these epic Sunday dinners where literally kids from down the street would just roam in and all of my cousins were there. My mom has always said, 'You can never cook if you're not in a good mood because you can taste that.'”

Abegaze’s family first immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia in 1982, ultimately landing in Bakersfield where she grew up with her five siblings. And while Mekonnen retired in 2002 and moved back to Ethiopia, she eventually grew bored of retirement and decided to move back to California, settling in Los Angeles where much of the family was living. Soon after, Abegaze teamed up with her mother to bring her mother’s recipes to a larger audience by opening a space in Mercado La Paloma. “For us we saw it as an opportunity to expand,” she explains. “My siblings and I felt really fortunate growing up in a home where food was really a way to express love and we felt that nourishment. You hear a lot of horror stories about opening a restaurant, and honestly — knock on wood — it's been a big joy. Not to say there haven't been long hours and challenges that come along the way.”

Abegaze is excited about the opportunity to bring plant-based Ethiopian dishes to South L.A., and a diverse clientele who come from all over the city. “For Ethiopian cuisine, it's a new geographic location. There aren't a lot of Ethiopian restaurants outside of Fairfax's Little Ethiopia and a little enclave in Inglewood,” Abegaze says. “It's exciting for us to not only represent Ethiopian cuisine, but also plant-based food in a whole new light. I'd say 80-90% of our customers are not even vegetarian, let alone vegan. They might say, ‘Oh, okay lentils, I have that in my cuisine,’ or ‘Hey, I have this health issue that I'm trying to deal with,’ or ‘I just love spicy food.’ There are just so many different points of entry for our customers, so we really love how diverse the customer base is here. We're not trying to preach the gospel of veganism, but we just want people to understand that there are a lot of benefits from adding more plant-based foods into your diet.”

Combo platter from Azla
Combo platter from Azla | Danny Jensen

The community of Mercado La Paloma also fit a natural progression of Abegaze’s previous work and offered a way to bring healthful food into the equation. “We've been here almost four years now and I couldn't have thought of a better situation to walk into as a first time restaurant owner,” she says. “There's a very communal vibe with the space, in terms of the other vendors, but also with Esperanza and what they're doing upstairs. I actually come from a social justice and education background, so it was very seamless and it felt like all of my different interests were wrapped up in one physical space. And for my family, we always wanted to create a space where people could come and not only be fed in terms of physical food, but also with ideas to share, and sit down with someone and have a conversation. We don't feel like there's enough of that in L.A. and it feels very welcoming here, and not just super hip and niche, while still having an eye for design and aesthetics. It's been a dream come true and really fun.”

Abegaze and her mother have also been involved with programing many of the events at the Mercado. They hosted a Dia De Los Muertos community altar-making event, led by friend and artist Jennifer Morgan, and hosted the Get Right Brunch Club with DJs. “One of my passions is independent film,” Abegaze says. “So we had a renowned Ethiopian filmmaker, Haile Gerima, come and teach a two day independent filmmaking workshop. We've screened films, had live music performances. We do an event around the Ethiopian coffee ceremony and introducing people to that tradition. That was one of the main draws of locating ourselves inside the Mercado was, while we had a smaller restaurant space, we have access to a larger venue to be able to host events, both as individual vendors and also collectively with other vendors and Esperanza. We think it's a really great addition to the South L.A. community.”

Clothing and crafts sold at Artesanias Oaxacenas
Clothing and crafts sold at Artesanias Oaxacenas | Danny Jensen

The Mercado also hosts yoga classes every week, Zumba classes, the occasional jazz ensemble and DJ Mr Pollo teaches salsa classes. Ibrahim explains that while they’ve had plenty of larger events in the past, funding has been scarce in recent years. “When we've had solid funding, we've had fantastic, big events here, and we don't have that funding anymore, but we're still looking for it. Since we're not an arts institution, though, we usually get a nice pat on the back for considering the arts as central to a healthy community, but not funding that is usually reserved for larger institutions. I always tell artists that they have a home here, and when we have funding, we will make that available because that's part of our economic development model. Artists should also be supported.”

One thing you won’t find at any of the events at the Mercado, or at any of the restaurants, is alcohol. “That is also part of our mission,” Ibrahim explains. “We're in South L.A. and alcohol has not been kind to South L.A. We also have a middle school across the street, we have partners in recovery, and we have the biggest party school this side of the country right under the bridge. And so we're very deliberate about that. It's not particularly popular, and it's not a political stance, it's an essential responsibility. So everybody could be making more here, but it would not be the same place. I think it also helps put the focus on places that have unique drinks, too.”

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The Cetina family has also played a major role in helping to organize communal events at the Mercado, including hosting cooking classes. Cetina, Jr. also points out that the dynamic of the Mercado is unlike other restaurants or food halls, where there’s not only an engaged community of customers, but also close relationship with Esperanza, which helps the businesses thrive. “It's definitely a unique space in the type of relationship we have with our landlord,” he says. “It's not a landlord-tenant relationship, we have a partnership — they look out for us, we look out for them. The bottom line is the last thing that we talk about or worry about. We're never worried about the rent being obsessively increased from one lease to another, they're very conscious of that. And the objective is to have a community gathering place, a place where people can come in South L.A. to eat, to meet with the conference room, to work at the non-profits, and a place where small businesses can start with the support system that's in place here.”

Many of the restaurants will also help each other out, lending a hand or an ingredient when needed. “Whenever somebody has a big catering job and they come to us in need of extra people we'll help them out and whenever we need something we'll ask them, and we're always sharing ingredients,” says Cetina, Jr. “There's also a very healthy competition between the vendors. For years now there's been a tendency not to outdo each other, but to raise the bar and make better food, offer better service, and that's been beneficial to all of us. It's inspiration, and that's a great dynamic to have.”

Fish tacos at Holbox
Fish tacos at Holbox | Danny Jensen

Cetina, Jr. has notes that the customer base at the Mercado varies depending on the day of the week. “We've managed to tap into two completely different demographics,” he says. “Weekends it's a different crowd that's in here. Weekdays we get the people who are working in the neighborhood, USC, downtown, hospitals, manufacturing people from around here. And the weekends it's mostly families coming from all parts of L.A. and Orange County. Big groups, six to ten people at each table with the grandma, the parents and the grandkids. It keeps us busy every day.”

He also says that while they’re excited to grow with Holbox and welcome new customers from all over L.A. and beyond, the family also wishes to maintain a connection with the community that helped get them started. “For me, it's very important to maintain our original core demographic, which was those families of Yucatan descent. Because when we lose that demographic, it's a sign to me that we've lost the authenticity of our product, and we haven't. And that demographic is still growing too, now we get the Yucatan people coming in with their friends and families, and coworkers from other parts of Mexico.”

Ibrahim points out that other stalls also continue to attract large numbers of customers from their respective communities. “Michoacán families will come here and often have events. A lot of the Oaxacans come as well, and Azla does a lot of family-type events where it's just like an open house at grandma's. It's wonderful.” She’s also seen the families of many of the businesses grow over the years, including the Morales family who runs Taqueria Vista Hermosa, which specializes in Michoacán cuisine and was one of the first vendors along with Chichén Itzá. “When we first met them, they had four little girls and they would put the girls in the car along with a big vat of tamales and go from one factory to another catering to the workers,” and now, she says, “The oldest daughter just graduated from university.”

One theme you’ll notice throughout the Mercado is a strong sense of engagement and enthusiasm for building and nurturing the community. Ibrahim explains that not just any restaurant concept works in this environment, rather it requires “a commitment to the culinary arts, a vibrancy and dynamism with a willingness to work in the company of other chefs and artists. It requires a degree of social presence, and ability to interact, and it also takes the whole family, they have to be all in. It's a 24/7 job, and it can't be a sole person's vision.” She also says that they’ve worked to maintain a diversity of cuisines, each offering a variety of price points and avoiding overlap in what they offer. “Everybody can have juice and coffee, but we can't have overlap and each business has to have their own concept and stay true to it.”

“We're often called an incubator, but we're not,” Ibrahim clarifies. “Our main model in our housing, our Promotor Program, and here as well, is to develop sustainable programs, and build excellence in South L.A. to stay in South L.A., not just incubated here and transported.” For the future, Ibrahim says they’re looking for opportunities to consolidate some of the space to potentially bring in additional vendors, as well as creating a green grocer co-op with fresh produce that’s owned by the workers. “We're open to lots of ideas, as long as they abide by the non-compete agreement on what we do to nurture this intentional community, and that it conforms to this vision of having handmade goods or homemade foods.”

Esperanza also recently partnered with Piece by Piece, an arts program based out of Skid Row that provides low-income and homeless people free mosaic art workshops in order to develop marketable skills, income and self-confidence. The Mercado is currently using one of their retail spaces to showcase and sell works by the participating artists. “So we're going to diversify what's here, and we'll also do art and health workshops here,” Ibrahim says.

“Food is the great icebreaker, always,” Ibrahim says. “We have communal tables and there are wonderful conversations that emerge at those tables. And the advantage is that you also get to have a relationship with the vendors as well. One thing we don't encourage here is to sit at a laptop all day and nurse a cup of coffee. The entire universe in this area, the downtown world, is catering to students who find that everywhere they go. And this is a place for hospitality to everyone, but on our terms.” She also points out that many professors from USC often host office hours at the Mercado and several of the universities around L.A. utilize the Mercado as a focal point of study for a variety of classes.

Exterior of Mercado La Paloma
Exterior of Mercado La Paloma | Danny Jensen

When asked if she envisions creating another space similar to the Mercado, Ibrahim admits, “We have a lot on our plate, so I don't see ourselves opening up another place like this. But I am very enthusiastic for other people who have a vision like this in other neighborhoods. I think it really does so many things at the same time and it helps to create a local economy that actually functions. We are looked upon as a model that has worked for the past 16 years. Right now, the average tenancy is about 10 years. So they're all very stable families and businesses that we have now. And it's a great launching point, so these anchors can start up other endeavors in different places.”

Cetina, Jr. is also hopeful that others will be inspired by the example of Mercado La Paloma to create other intentional communities based around food. “I think other places like this are inevitable in Los Angeles,” he says. “I think Los Angeles is a market that's very open and accepting to this type of place. That's one thing that I love about the L.A. food scene: it's about the food. We don't care if the table has a tablecloth or it doesn't, if there's valet parking or not. There's a demographic for that, but there's a big enough group of people in L.A. that don't care about that, it's just about the food. You could go from Michelin star-type restaurants in Santa Monica, to Mercado La Paloma, to the quesadilla lady in Echo Park, people go. If the food is good, they'll go.”

Abegaze adds, “We grew up in California and there's always been so many influences, and there's something here that feels accessible. We love the ability to mix and match, and learn from the other cultures, and be inspired by the great diversity that we have in South L.A.”

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