The Luna Sol Café: The Past, and maybe Future, of LA’s Radical Restaurants

[This piece first appeared in LA Taco on June 28, 2017 ]

The origins of radical food in Los Angeles
When Jonathan Gold named Locol the LA Times “restaurant of the year,” he emphasized its commitment to serving the people of Watts, where it is located. It offers them inexpensive-but-healthy food as well as job opportunities in an environment that is as hip and multicultural as Los Angeles itself. Gold lauded Daniel Patterson and local hero Roy Choi, the two culinary luminaries who started the restaurant, for their sense of social purpose and commitment to changing the landscape.

What Gold did not say is that Los Angeles has a long and fascinating history of socially engaged eateries and that some of them are far more radical than Locol. Consider the Luna Sol Café, which operated near MacArthur Park from 1996 to 2003. It provided low-cost, nutritious fare and had deep roots in the multi-ethnic, underground scene of its time, but, crucially, it was a worker-owned cooperative, in which responsibilities and privileges were shared in a horizontal, egalitarian way. It is the only restaurant of this type that LA has known and one of very few in California’s history.

From Occupation to Full-Blown Restaurant
Luna Sol emerged at a moment when the credibility of the city’s establishment had reached new lows, and many felt that it was necessary to rebuild society from the ground up. Everyone had seen LA’s Black and Brown masses turn the world upside down during the 1992 rebellion, forcing themselves into the discussion, and many had watched with frustration as politicians responded to this with bogus promises, plans, and programs. There was sort of a running battle between the old guard and the newly energized forces of change. For example, the LA Conservation Corps ran a youth-oriented jobs program that treated the kids like cattle; in response, the youth seized the program’s building in 1995 and transformed it into an activist hub known as the Peace and Justice Center. Continue reading

Post-Industrial Dessert in the Age of Instagram at Little Damage in Downtown L.A.

[This piece first appeared in LA Taco on May 2, 2017]

When Little Damage Ice Cream opened in downtown recently, I imagined it as another boutiquey ice cream shop in a city that is already full of them, albeit one that generated more media attention than others thanks to a buzzworthy flavor of soft serve that they sell: charcoal almond. However, after visiting the store, I realized that there is a lot more going on there. It is a very cerebral place that is compelling not only for what it puts into our stomachs but also for what it puts in our minds: its ability to comment on  our evolving relationship to food in these digital, social-media-heavy times.

When customers first enter the brightly lit shop, they face a marquee that presents them with a choice of just four ice cream flavors. These apparently change over time, but of course I arrived knowing that I wanted the charcoal almond, which has made a splash on social media. This dark grey swirl came piled into an equally dark grey cone, also made with charcoal. I requested a white coconut flake topping, which gave the dessert a two-tone aesthetic—goth but with some ska thrown in.

This peculiar flavor actually has a point to make: it criticizes the old industrial attitude to the world that held sway throughout the twentieth century and affirms the new, information-based economy. Consider the ingredients. Charcoal evokes all the grit and grime of heavy industry. To make a food out of it, particularly a dessert, is a way of showing that the remnants of the old industrial landscape can be reimagined and even made into sources of pleasure. We see something similar with other projects that “repurpose” the built environment: food trucks that turn vehicles into restaurants, fancy lofts built out of old factories, and even some fitness regimes (like parkour). All of these things validate our ability to reimagine the physical world and highlight the industrial outlook’s rigidity, which was too narrow minded to grasp its full potential. The presence of almonds is an important counterpoint: if charcoal conjures up twentieth century industrialism, which wanted to remake everything but was inflexible, these little gems, which do not need cooking to be edible, remind us that sometimes we don’t need to do anything to find rewards in the world. The idea is that we need to be creative but also sensitive. These are resonant points in downtown, which is increasingly a hub for high tech firms that make billions in the post-industrial, information-based economy.

As I bit into the ice cream, I first noticed that it was not saturated with sugar like most American brands—it was sweet, but not overwhelmingly so. This made it much more palatable. In fact, I could have had two servings without feeling sick, which is not something that I can say about Ben and Jerry’s or Häagen-Dazs. It was also less granular in texture as a result, even for soft-serve. It reminded me of machine-dispensed frozen yogurt, although it was more dense, which likely reflected the use of high-quality ingredients (and that it wasn’t filled with air). The charcoal was mostly tasteless other than a hint of alkaline; this put the faint, buttery clarity of the almond in relief. This combination definitely worked well. More than just a vehicle for sugar delivery, and more than just strange, it was good, interesting ice cream.

However, something else captured my attention: everyone was snapping photos of their ice cream, of themselves, and of themselves with their ice cream, which they were clearly uploading or would soon upload to Instagram or some other site. This was happening inside and immediately outside of the store. Most were using their phones, except for one woman, who came armed with a huge DSLR camera, which she piloted around the establishment. The shop even had a photo booth of its own, just in case you had come unprepared. I admit that I smirked when I became aware of all of these documentarians, until I realized that I was also photographing my ice cream and thinking about posting the pictures online. I hesitated before snapping a picture of the counter area—I feared that would feel invasive to the woman working there—but she seemed indifferent to it all. Presumably she had accepted that this digital exposure is part of her job like it is, for example, for the women working booths at tech trade shows.

This was so pervasive that it made me wonder about Little Danger itself: is it really an ice cream shop or actually in the business of selling edible props that people use to enhance their social media profiles? And what does this say about the impact of social media on food generally? If we typically ask whether a food is healthy or tastes good, perhaps we will now start taking into account its ability to help us get new Twitter and Instagram followers. Do we need to rebuild the food pyramid with social media in mind? It appears that food is starting to please us and nourish us in new, essentially digital ways.

Pondering these admittedly abstract questions changed my feelings about all the photographing going on. In the context of an increasingly digitalized, post-industrial economy, maybe this was not as indulgent as I first thought. If data and ideas—not things—drive the economy now, then it makes sense that we would frantically generate data for social media companies and try to find clever ways to position ourselves in the digital world. Perhaps we were all working at Little Damage or at least preparing to work. Certainly the ice cream flavor pointed to the new economic context and the shop itself is highly attuned to today’s links between information technology and food.

I admit that I wanted to like-but-not-like Little Damage. I knew that the ice cream would be unusual and I assumed that I would enjoy it, but I expected to leave feeling annoyed by the shop’s boutiquey quality. That would be a comfortable posture for me: sure, I might be a little fatter for the experience, but I wouldn’t feel implicated in its quaint, preciousness, which seems to be spreading all over LA. Instead I felt engaged and drawn into its commentary on industrialism and illustration of our changing approach to food. And that is the genius of this genuinely challenging soft-serve ice cream shop.

~ Chuck Morse

Eating at The Perennial: Climate Change and Capitalism

This piece first appeared on CounterPunch on March 25, 2016.

– – –

Food critics raved about The Perennial when it opened in San Francisco in January. The SF Eater called it a “palace of modern sustainability;” the Chronicle described it as the “restaurant of the future.” Even Wired Magazine sang its praises. They all celebrated its commitment to reducing its carbon footprint, which sits at the center of its identity and impacts everything that it does, from food prep, to food acquisition, to interior design. Considering that we are facing an epochal climate crisis, and that the city is sinking into the ocean, it makes an important and timely statement.

What statement does it make exactly? Curious to check this out, I had a meal there with a friend last week and discovered that its message is significantly more complicated than food writers suggested. It is both more laudable and more objectionable than they indicated.

First, though, it is in the avant-garde of sustainability. While it composts food waste, recycles linens, and distributes water sparingly, this is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. For instance, it created a closed-loop permaculture system with its “aquaponic” greenhouse in West Oakland: the restaurant composts food scraps, which it feeds to the sturgeon and carp in the warehouse; the fish help to nourish the vegetables and lettuce growing there; and then the fish and plants become restaurant food and scraps once again. They have also integrated kernza grains into their menu. Developed by the Land Institute in Kansas, this unique grain grows year-round (unlike most of the grains we eat) and its deep-reaching roots can reduce soil-erosion and even take CO2 out of the atmosphere. Finally, they buy their meat from Marin’s Stemple Creek Ranch, which embraces what is known as “carbon farming”—an approach to harvesting livestock that mitigates climate change. These are their most novel interventions, which they detail on their website, but there are others as well.

Eating at The Perennial is remarkable because little on the surface reveals how different it is from any other high-end eatery. Sitting in a cavernous hall in San Francisco’s mid-Market area, its low-lights and vaulted ceilings evoke a loungy chic typical of expensive restaurants worldwide. It was already busy when we arrived at 6:00 PM and most of the clientele looked like extras from America’s Top Model. The host delivered us to the long wooden “chef’s table,” which sits in front of their well-lit kitchen. We watched Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz, two of the owner-chefs, do their magic while waiting for our food (it was like being on the set of a cooking show). But there was no literature rack by the door, no posters promoting agricultural collectives in Nicaragua; Blondie not Manu Chao played over the speakers. Although the wait staff discreetly handed us a few postcards describing their environmental methods—one with the menu and another with the bill—that was it. Continue reading

Book Review: Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism and Rebellion in the Garden

This first appeared on the Civil Eats blog on November 2, 2011.

*  *  *

The notion that politics only takes place in the voting booth or halls of state basically evaporated in the 1960s. We now know that political acts occur in a range of settings: in our neighborhoods, bedrooms, kitchens, and, yes, even in our gardens.

The use of gardens as a means of social engagement and a forum in which to articulate oppositional ideas is the subject of George McKay’s Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism, and Rebellion in the Garden. In the work, he chronicles the history of politicized gardens and documents some of the various ways that activists have utilized them to express their views. He hopes that his book will provide “a small corrective to the parochial or suburban or landed versions of garden understanding [by tracing] the strands of idealism, rebellion, political action and social criticism in the garden historically and presently.” His book leaves no doubt that radical gardens have, as he puts it, a “rich and challenging tradition, a significance, as well as a trajectory of energy and import that makes them matter for our future.” Continue reading

The Mission Heirloom Café: Hippies, Cavemen, and Capitalism

IMG_0334Berkeley’s food culture is notoriously overwrought and politicized, but some of this is an echo of the hippie food movements that shook the city in the 1960s. The hippies transformed how we eat when they advocated for a diet of natural foods and an activist approach to cuisine. For them, eating was a relational activity and could be a tool for social change. They forged what historians now call a “counter-cuisine.”

Their legacy made last year’s opening of the Mission Heirloom Café particularly interesting to me. As the area’s only “paleo” restaurant, it relies on the hippie food outlook but breaks with it in pivotal ways. I went to check it out last week with a friend.

The hippie food movement still lives in Berkeley’s “Gourmet Ghetto.” As we walked toward the restaurant, we first passed Alice Walker’s luminous Chez Panisse. Though its prices now put it beyond the reach of ordinary mortals, it pioneered the application of countercultural values to food, with an emphasis on seasonal cooking and local, organic ingredients. We then navigated the crowds waiting for pizza outside of the Cheese Board Collective, a worker-owned business in its forty-fifth year.

The tone changed when we reached the Mission Heirloom Café. Its façade is a wall of plate glass windows framed by steel and painted stucco. The entrance leads you to the main counter, where there is more glass, and then to the central eating area in the back patio. Organized around a long table set underneath an enormous steel and glass pergola, its landscaping has a minimalist, quasi-Asian feel. I noted clubby world music pulsing in the background as I browsed paleo-friendly books and packaged goods for sale throughout the establishment. I felt like I could have been in an Apple Store, although there were gestures to offset the chilly corporate aesthetic. The wait staff greeted us with big smiles, as if we were friends, and old wooden crates lay around the business, suggesting that we had entered a warehouse or some site in which commodities magically travel from “farm to table” (sidestepping the capitalist market). Mexican-style wool blankets rested on the wire chairs—lacking price tags, we could borrow these should we need them. An entire wall had been made into a chalk board and bore traces of half-erased scribbles—there was no chalk, but this conveyed a spirt of informality and flexibility. Continue reading

Gentrification, colonialism, and bugs? The Calavera restaurant in Oakland

Photo credit: Calavera

It was a big deal when Calavera opened last August. It is Oakland’s only high-end Mexican restaurant and one of the few in the region to specialize in Oaxacan cuisine, which is world famous for its complexity and pre-Hispanic elements.

Also, as an anchor tenant of The Hive, Signature Development’s new live-work complex in “Uptown,” its launch was a vote of confidence in the gentrification of the area—signaling that people with money expect it to remain a place for people with money. Even more interestingly, the restaurant engages major traumas in the city’s history: although it is often considered a Black city, its lands were once Mexican and Indigenous before that. To serve Oaxacan food in Oakland is to evoke these chapters in its past as well as the brutal colonization that closed them.

I had these issues in mind when a friend and I visited Calavera last Saturday. How did it navigate them? Did it do so while tasting good?

The Scene
The restaurant was nearly full when we arrived at 6:00 PM. The hostess whisked us to our table and our waitress greeted us immediately thereafter. Both had the hip, casual-cool style typical of Bay Area food service workers, who are expected to perform physically demanding labor and also to be cosmopolitan. The staff looked mostly white to me; the bus boys being the only obvious Latin Americans among them. The clientele seemed like well-paid professionals, largely but not exclusively white. I did not hear any Spanish spoken. Continue reading