Highland Park has been called LA’s greatest neighborhood, the U.S.’s hottest up-and-coming market, and “the Brooklyn of the West Coast” (not sure if that’s a good thing…). These days, receiving those types of accolades seems to mean that a neighborhood sits at the intersection of historic preservation, cheap housing, and burgeoning gentrification. Regardless of your feelings on the increasing gentrification of diverse, historic neighborhoods, Highland Park right now is a delightful mix of trendy little shops and family businesses. There’s even street parking!
My friends and I hit two places, both on York Boulevard: El Huarache Azteca and Donut Friend. Together, these establishments present a perfect microcosm of the hipster-invasion-meets-old-L.A that characterizes Highland Park.
We were primarily on the hunt for cheap, delicious Mexican food, and found it at El Huarache, which Jonathan Gold has repeatedly named one of LA’s 99 essential restaurants. Just walking in, you know this place is great, from the raw radishes at the salsa bar, to the paper plates and no-frills service, to the cabeza on the menu. This is the stuff I can’t find in Cambridge.
First we ordered fresh-squeezed juices. Each was named for a different ailment, and claimed to remedy one of a staggering variety of possible complaints including impotence, epilepsy, leg pain, anxiety, and [perhaps least probable] diabetes. Feeling in fairly good health, we selected for taste, and ended up with: 1) Stress juice, a blend of raspberry, yogurt, and honey; 2) Healthy heart juice with mango, and 3) Hydrating juice, a refreshing kiwi, watermelon, and orange concoction. All of them were delicious, fresh, and generously sized.
Next up, tacos. For better or worse, tacos tend to serve as a benchmark for Mexican places. Between the three of us, we sampled lengua (tongue), carne asada, and chicken. All fit the bill – not the best I’ve ever had, but flavorful and satisfying, especially for just a buck apiece.
Lastly, we tried a huarache, El Huarache Azteca’s signature dish. Unsurprisingly, this is where it’s at. An oblong disc of fried masa, which resembles the leather sandal it’s named after, topped with beans, cheese, cilantro, onions, and the meat of your choice, which in our case was al pastor (pork). We got a Super Huarache Mojado (wet), which meant it came with two salsas to pour on top. I highly recommend this, as both the mild, tomatoey rojo and the spicier, more herbaceous verde lent a nice tart flavor to the rich meat and masa.
Together, the three large juices, seven tacos, and a super huarache only set us back $30! Can’t beat that price. We decided we could still afford dessert, so we walked a couple blocks down York Boulevard to a bastion of Highland Park Hipsterdom, Donut Friend.
It’s smallish, and on the same street, but otherwise, Donut Friend couldn’t be more different than El Huarache. Opened in 2013 by a former music producer. Cutesy graphic designer fonts and slightly creepy anthropomorphic murals. A barrage of artisan donuts with DIY options, plus signature creations with try-hard names that I have since learned are music references, but which still confuse me (Coconut of Conformity? Hüsker Blü? Poppygandhi?).
We eschewed the DIY option and went for three signature donuts. The first was Mint Town, a chocolate cake donut filled with mint cream and topped with chocolate glaze and crumbled oreos. Next, Fudgegazi, a yeast donut with chocolate cream, chocolate glaze, and chocolate curls. Lastly, Caramel Assault, a yeast donut with salted caramel, which they overstate “a flavor combination as old as time itself.” Time itself? I guess “a flavor combination as old as some elementary schoolers you know” was not as catchy.
Here’s the twist: Although the bakery lets this fly under the radar, almost everything in the place is vegan. They even have vegan bacon (made of…coconut?). Even I, obsessive reader of all things posted and printed, did not catch this until after eating. It speaks to Donut Friend’s quality that we still enjoyed the donuts before we knew they were vegan.
The only place where it suffered was the “cream,” which on first bite is pretty decent but then starts to go downhill. Definitely not as good as dairy in my mind. Usually I’m all about cream and frosting, but here, the simpler (and non-vegan) glaze on the Caramel Assault was my surprise favorite, even when I didn’t know about the vegan-ness. I think I would also have enjoyed the Fudgegazi more without the filling; when I peeled off the top layer and ate just the donut with vegan glaze and chocolate curls, it was quite good.
Get thee to Highland Park for a splendid evening. Perfect Southern California weather, good food, great conversation.
El Huarache Azteca
5225 York Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90042
5107 York Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90042