I may live in the Valley, but I consider myself an Angeleno. I was born right here in Los Angeles and have always been fascinated by our mythical, colorful, multi-ethnic city. And I jump at any excuse to go over the hill and experience it.
I am also something of a foodie. I love trying new dishes, whether in restaurants or cooking it myself. I am on a lot of travel site mailing lists, and I spend way too much time poring over the restaurant reviews in cities I know I will visit some day. This is why I love the idea of taking a food tour, where you learn about a city’s history from the primal perspective of how its residents EAT. Instead of traipsing through museums and climbing monuments, you stroll through farmers markets, snack on street fare and sample regional cooking in family-owned restaurants.
And you can do all this without leaving LA, as we have an entire world of exotic cuisines right here — along with a handful of tour operators who can give you the inside scoop on where to find them.
Last year, I covered one such tour for CBS Los Angeles. I had so much fun on the Boyle Heights tour that I dragged my husband back to the neighborhood a few weeks later. And he liked it so much that we’ve gone back a couple of times, just to eat and take photos of some of the historic landmarks.
And last month, we embarked on a different tour in a different LA neighborhood, offered by a company called Los Angeles Urban Adventures. Ethnic Neighborhoods Food & Culture takes you on a walking/bus tour through L.A.’s Koreatown, Thai Town and Little Armenia. These neighborhoods are part of my personal history: The hospital where I was born, the approximate site of my parents’ first home, and the office building where my dad worked were all seen during the course of the tour, which originates at the historic Gaylord Apartments, which used to make my husband snicker until he learned that the building was named for Henry Gaylord Wilshire, the socialist entrepreneur (yes! only in Los Angeles, right?) who developed this part of the city and whose other famous namesake is the lengthy Boulevard that stretches from downtown to Santa Monica.
Our tour guide, Summer, told us the fascinating history as we walked a couple of blocks north to the first of several stops on what was supposed to be a three-hour tour. It turned out to be a bit longer, partly due to the variable of Metro bus schedules but also because the proprietors of just about every dining establishment we visited insisted on plying us with lagniappes — extra dishes that were not on the menu carefully planned by the Urban Adventures tour guides. This is not a complaint, as the tour operator warned us to arrive with empty stomachs… and who doesn’t like getting more than your money’s worth?
So the delicious Korean barbecue kalbi we enjoyed at Ham Ji Park was augmented with additional calamari… The handmade Thai sausages Summer ordered for us at Spicy BBQ was just the appetizer for an amazing coconut flavored Thai chicken noodle soup… the taste of middle eastern cooking at Carousel turned out to be a full dinner plate… and don’t get me started on all the desserts! The only reason I did not gain five pounds from this excursion was the fact that we made the entire trip on foot (aside from a short bus ride up Normandie, from 6th Street to Santa Monica Boulevard).
As I said before, this part of the city is really familiar to me — but it’s been years since I’ve done more than just drive through. You miss so much when you are watching through a car window. When you are led on a walking tour with an enthusiastic guide like Summer, you really see the sights. And when those sights include places to shop and eat, you engage all your other senses, too.
During the course of eight stops from Wilshire and Western to the Red Line station at Hollywood and Vermont, we learned the history of Wilshire Boulevard, the old Ambassador Hotel (now the site of the Robert F. Kennedy School complex), the gorgeous Chapman Market complex on 6th (the first shopping center built for cars! Who knew?), and the origins of the Little Armenia and Thai Town communities.
It was all fascinating. But what I will remember most is the food. And I don’t think I’m ever going to be just “driving through” the neighborhood any longer, because now I know exactly where to stop.
DISCLOSURE: I was not compensated for this post, but I was comped my spot on the tour. We paid a discounted price for my husband to come along. And for a limited time, readers of SoCal Mom can do the same when booking a tour with LA Urban Adventures: Just enter the code SOCALMOM13 good for 20% off any tour booked by June 1st (depart any time in 2013). This includes their other tours, like Stars and Bars Tour (which I think would be a blast for a birthday celebration or Girls Night Out – hint hint), Hollywood 101 and the Beverly Hills Golden Triangle Tour. This is great fun for visiting family and friends or just to get out and learn more about our great city. Summer can even create a customized itinerary that includes more kid-friendly spots for a family outing.