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This Family-Owned Restaurant Celebrates the Diversity of Latinx Cuisine and Culture in Mar Vista

Tacos, Canela Cocina Latina
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Just last fall, Canela Cocina Latina opened in Mar Vista, bringing a market-fresh menu, vibrantly colorful local artwork and a youthful energy to the rapidly evolving neighborhood. The casual restaurant’s location was formerly occupied by a Oaxacan eatery, one of several in the neighborhood which is known as a focal point for the Oaxacan community. And while the young new owner, Melo Lemus, intends to continue serving many of the Oaxacan specialties, they also wish to incorporate their families Guatemalan favorites and other Central American dishes. As a self-identified genderqueer person of color, Lemus also aims to offer Canela as a safe community space open to all, where they will feature local artists, fundraisers, live entertainment and more. And while the term “Latina” is in the name of the restaurant, Lemus also refers to the restaurant’s cuisine as “Latinx”, a gender-neutral alternative preferred by many in the LQBTQ community that avoids a limiting binary of Latino and Latina, just as “they” is used instead of “he” or “she”.

While still attending Pierce College as an economics major with a focus in business, Lemus learned that the restaurant space was going to become available thanks to their parents, Oscar Lemus and Noemi Lemus-Perez, who operate a tax and immigration services business in the neighborhood. The previous owner, who had done business with the Perez family, was looking to retire from running the restaurant and hoped that the business would remain Latino-owned. While they didn’t have the bandwidth to take on the endeavor themselves, Noemi urged Melo to consider running it. At the time, Lemus was considering transferring from Pierce with the goal of getting a masters in social enterprise, and had aspirations to pursue a culinary career. Therefore, the new opportunity seemed like an ideal match. So with the offer of in-house business advice and help with finances from the family, Lemus jumped at the chance.

“It's my passion, and even though it's a little daunting, it also felt really important to me that this place stayed Latinx, especially because the community is drastically changing,” explains Lemus. “Historically, there have been a lot of Oaxacan folks in this area. And while I'm not Oaxacan, I'm Guatemalan, I still wanted people to have a place that they can come to that's not necessarily super upscale. For me, it was about creating a place that was more accessible to folks, that has good, healthy food, that isn't necessarily the classic Mexican food you find elsewhere.”

Enchiladas mole negro, Canela Cocina Latina | Danny Jensen
Enchiladas mole negro  |  Danny Jensen

On the menu at Canela, you’ll find several dishes that feature Oaxacan moles, available as a deep red Colorado or a complex and rich Negro, including enchiladas, a chicken entreé or, with a more contemporary spin, nachos. Lemus also added Pepian to the menu, a traditional Guatemalan stew thickened with roasted sesame and pumpkin seeds that contains green beans, carrots and chayote with the option of beef, chicken or seasonal squash.

You’ll also encounter several dishes you might find at other Mexican restaurants around town, though much of it is modernized with an L.A. flourish. For instance, Lemus has eliminated the use of chicken stock and lard, which are often used to make rice and beans, so that the menu can be more accessible to vegetarians, vegans or those with other dietary restrictions. Nearly everything on the menu is gluten-free or can be made so; features many more market fresh vegetables than you might normally see elsewhere; and can be made customized with soy chorizo or turkey bacon as alternative proteins. Lemus also explains that everything is homemade and fresh with the only frozen exceptions being ice and french fries. “L.A. definitely influenced that,” Lemus says of the healthy options on the menu.

I think the idea for me is for this place to always be adapting and changing. We're always learning when we're here. So the idea is for the menu to shift as time passes, as the seasons pass. Although right now it's predominately Mexican, once I have more of a chance to do more of the kitchen work, I do want to have more of a twist to certain dishes and incorporate more Guatemalan food just because that's what I know. And eventually I want to do more food that is Mesoamerican, not necessarily all Latinx because we don't really know South American food. We know more Salvadorean food, and food from Honduras, from Guatemala, mostly Central American food, and how do we bring that so that it attracts people that wouldn't necessarily say, "Let's go get some Guatemalan food." How do you bring that in a way where Guatemalans say, "Hey, this is actually good Guatemalan food." It's about finding the balance of the two.
Soul, carnitas, calabacitas, and fish tacos with the tostada salad, Canela Cocina Latina | Danny Jensen
Soul, carnitas, calabacitas and fish tacos with the tostada salad |  Danny Jensen

When it comes to food, Lemus considers Los Angeles a goldmine of Latinx foods. Born and raised in L.A., they observed that food is very much a unifying cultural component for the diverse array of communities, and creates more opportunities for overlapping menus and ingredients than you might find in other cities. And while many restaurants feature a mix of specialties from different cultures as well as hybridized dishes influenced by the city, just as Canela does, Lemus points out that the influence L.A. has on cuisine can often be more subtle than a dish that’s an obvious fusion of two cuisines. “For instance, Guatemalans don't eat chile or hot sauce really, but growing up in L.A., I now douse everything in hot sauce. I eat everything really spicy,” Lemus says. “Compare that to my parents, who say, 'If there's a chile on there, I'm not going to eat it.' For me, this food is intended for people who grew up in L.A. because you get it, you understand.”

Lemus also points to the Soul Taco, which features sauteed kale, mashed sweet potato, roasted corn and ground turkey, as being one of the most characteristically L.A. additions to the menu. “I feel like if you were to bring that to anywhere that wasn't L.A., people might say, 'What is that? That's not even a taco.' But because it's L.A. and we're used to trying all of these foods, especially as Latinx people, it allows me to be more creative around the menu. And L.A. is also known for it's health tip, so it works.”

Omelet Oaxaqueño, Canela Cocina Latina | Danny Jensen
Omelet Oaxaqueño |  Danny Jensen

Just as the menu at Canela continues to evolve as Lemus learns the challenging logistics of running a restaurant and continues to develop the menu, there’s also been a tremendous learning curve for learning about working with both employees and customers. “This is my school right now, I'm learning day-to-day,” Lemus says. “There were a lot of growing pains, like just figuring out what produce to use, what will last longer and won't spoil, just little things like that. But I've also learned how to be more patient with people and be more understanding, and I've learned to let go more of my assumptions about people.”

Lemus admits that they were pleasantly surprised by how welcoming the community of Mar Vista has been since they opened. “Right from the get-go, people were excited to see a new place and that it was family owned,” explains Lemus. “They've been willing to try new things. And that came as a surprise, especially as someone who is kind of an introvert. It's crazy how tight this community is in general. Mar Vista feels like a community, and not a lot of places in L.A. feel like that.” Lemus also made noticeable improvements to both the exterior and interior of the restaurant, adding a splash of soothing aqua to the walls, a vibrant mural and works by local artists that will rotate, and blue and red striped fabric on the benches from Guatemala.

Art inside Canela Cocina Latina | Danny Jensen
Art inside Canela Cocina Latina | Danny Jensen

On the other side of the counter, Lemus was also anxious about hiring staff for Canela, particularly as someone who identifies as genderqueer. Lemus has been involved with community organizing since the age of 13, mostly focused on mass transit with the Bus Riders Union and the school-to-prison-pipeline with the Labor Community Strategy Center, and admits that background created a bubble of progressive and leftist politics. “What made me anxious at first here was having to hire people that I don't really know where they're at,” Lemus says. “Not even necessarily with politics, but because the restaurant industry is so male-driven, I was a little anxious about what the dynamics would be in terms of who I hired, how I schedule certain people, who's working with who.”

Lemus found that all of the applicants who applied to the job postings for the kitchen staff were men. “Being very obviously queer, I was anxious about that,” Lemus admits. “But I learned to let go of that and to just live with the humanity of people because I get along with all of our cooks and all of the staff. We all have very different beliefs and ways of seeing the world, but it's been nice to feel like we're all on a team, working towards the same thing. It doesn't really matter that we don't see eye-to-eye on everything, but as long as we're all treating each other respectfully and letting each other know what we need, you can get along with pretty much everybody as a person.”

When identifying Canela as a QTPOC (Queer Trans Person Of Color) owned business on the restaurant’s Facebook page, however, Lemus did receive some pushback, most notably from family members. “They were worried it might alienate people or people who have different views might not want to come. But for me, especially with a restaurant because the industry is so male-driven, it felt important for people to know that, one, there is a person of color who owns this place, and, two, that I do identify as queer.” Lemus clarifies that they personally don't necessarily identify as trans, just genderqueer. Some of the other employees at the restaurant also identify as queer, Lemus says.

It felt essential to the space that I'm trying to build. To this day, we haven't had anybody say, "Oh, I hear you're queer, I don't want to come." In fact, we've had the opposite, I've had some people say they saw that we were QTPOC on Facebook and wanted to come check us out because of that. Because there are so few places that openly say, "We're queer, and we don't care, and if you're queer this is a space where you can feel safe." And that was a big thing, to provide safe spaces for other people that are like me. I also think it's important to be visible as a queer person, especially in these times. With a lot of Latino culture, it can be very machismo driven, and I think that's what a lot of my family’s anxieties were about. They weren't sure if it was smart or smart business. But we haven't encountered any issues, which is good.

Lemus says that their background in community organizing and helping at their parents office with immigration and tax work also helped hone their restaurant management skills. “I've also worked with them for a while and learned a lot,” Lemus says of their parents. “From the little logistical things like how you schedule people or pay people, I definitely learned from them. And also work ethic and etiquette. My dad's one of those people who's up at 5 a.m., whether or not he has work.”

The Lemus family has operated their tax and immigration business in Mar Vista for over 17 years, and in doing so have developed close ties to the community, particularly the Oaxacan community. “They're immigration consultants, so they're not lawyers, but they can do familial petitions and documents to help people immigrate,” explains Lemus. “But I've seen how that industry can really take advantage of people who can't really afford a lawyer or read, and I've seen people get really screwed over. I’ve watched my parents be as honest as they can be, letting people know if they have a case or not, and be straight up about it if they don't. And although that may seem cruel, it's better than having a lawyer say 'maybe' and then charge you every month on retainer, even if they flat out know a person can't get documents. They also don't charge a lot for what they do. And I bring that value and honesty here to what I do.”

Canela Cocina Latina | Danny Jensen
Canela Cocina Latina  |  Danny Jensen

While Lemus explains that some people may say that the prices at Canela are expensive compared to what you might find at other restaurants, others argue that the menu is really affordable, particularly given the focus on fresh ingredients and produce. “Honestly, these prices are as affordable as they can get,” says Lemus, adding that some of the cost goes towards providing their employees with a fair wage. “Kitchen staff doesn't start at minimum wage here, I start them higher. The prices are as fair as they can be for someone who's trying to take care of their workers, and pay rent and everything else. And I'm also not going to overcharge, I find a middle ground, so that we can still have a profit. I took that from my parents, I don't want to be somebody who takes advantage of people.”

Lemus’ parents both immigrated from Guatemala before they met, “My dad came when he was about 18, but my mom's history is another story all together,” says Lemus. “She was also a youth organizer in Guatemala in the '80s. It's called a civil war, but it was really U.S.-backed squads against the guerrillas, and my mom was one of Los Desaparecidos — the disappeared. She and her three siblings were disappeared and they were some of the few people who were actually returned. My grandmother was in the U.S. already and she made a lot of noise here and went to the press. And because there was a lot of press on their three faces in particular, they were released. It was a big political play, but that's when my mom came to the U.S. She was gone for close to a month.”

Lemus’ mother continued to work in community organizing and met her husband at the St. Joseph's Center, and later went on to get married and start their business. “My mom was mostly doing work with domestic workers with a program called Listo, to find domestic workers good, fair-paying jobs. And my dad was learning to do taxes, and eventually started his own business, and also doing immigration paperwork. And eventually my mom joined him in that. They're one of the lucky ones that had enough opportunities to start their own business.”

Now that Lemus is building a business of their own with Canela, they reflect upon how the neighborhood of Mar Vista is changing and look to understand how the restaurant can play a role in that evolution for the entire community, and not just select socio-economic groups. “When my parents were first doing work in the area around Mar Vista, there were a lot of gang wars between the Culver Boys and the Venice gangs,” says Lemus. “I think historically immigrant populations often end up where it's most affordable, which also tends to be places with high crime rates because nobody else wants to be there.” Despite some of that rough history, Mar Vista has long been a relatively quiet, family-focused neighborhood. Though, many say that in recent years the neighborhood has seen a notable influx of new residents, in some cases due to nearby Silicon Beach jobs or perhaps having been priced out of other neighborhoods, which in turn has led to increases in rent and home prices.

Inside Canela Cocina Latina | Danny Jensen 
Inside Canela Cocina Latina  |  Danny Jensen

The neighborhood has also seen quite a few new restaurant openings in the past several years, which are in many ways reflective of the changing demographics. That said, many of the new businesses are independently-owned and take great pains to ensure that they’re connecting with the existing community, such as newcomer The Mar Vista did. The neighborhood also has it’s own Art Walk, which occurs on the first Thursday of every three months, and is now undergoing extensive pedestrian and bike-friendly improvements as one of the first participants in L.A.’s Great Streets program. Lemus notes that while much of these developments bring about positive changes to the neighborhood, there’s also a risk that longtime residents could be pushed out as prices and popularity increase.

“As someone who bikes, I'm excited about the bike lanes, and I like art, so I'm excited about the Art Walks,” says Lemus. “I've gotten to know Mitchelito Orquiola and Lenore French, the organizers of the Art Walks, and they are both community-driven and want to make sure that most of the artists are Mar Vista based. Knowing what they stand for, I'm super excited about the Art Walks.” However, Lemus points out that while all of the six cooks at Canela live within a mile radius of the restaurant, none of them knew about the Art Walks or Great Streets until they started working at the restaurant. “It's interesting,” says Lemus. “It makes me question, who are they doing outreach to? Most of them have been in the community for at least 10 or 15 years, a long time, and it's their community as well, where they've grown up, and I wonder, why don't they know about these cultural events. And I'm sure it's about a lack of outreach to certain communities.”

“There's a part of me that loves art walks and events like that, and I'm really excited about it, but then there's the organizer in me that's very anti-gentrification,” Lemus adds. “It does make me worry about people who are being pushed out of their communities and out of their homes. I know it's happening. A lot of my cooks don't speak a lot of English, and I've had them come to me and they're getting notices from landlords that aren't legitimate, they're just trying to scare them. So that makes me wary of the changes.”

When Lemus took the restaurant and opened Canela, they knew that Great Streets was happening and admits that as a business owner that it would be beneficial to have more pedestrians on the street. “But I don't want to become part of the problem, which I think comes down to not becoming some super exclusive bougie place. It's a lot about making sure it stays inclusive. That's also why I'm pushing for it to be a community space, I want people to hold events here because I see the changes happening.”

“How do I continue to be a place that's accessible to people and make sure people don't feel like it's too expensive or not for them?” wonders Lemus. “I'm very aware that the neighborhood is changing really fast and one can very easily become a part of the problem. And I'm still trying to figure that out, but at least I'm thinking about it."

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