The city’s fast-food and immigrant cultures combine to form some of Los Angeles’s most democratic dining rooms
Los Angeles is a city where even prosaic food can be gilded. Breakfast eggs and bacon land on top of inventive rice bowls made with high-end ingredients, ordered from a counter with a line snaking out the door. A tostada of high-quality, perfectly spiced mariscos from a truck might be ordered not for the joy of it, but for the likes. The city’s iconic burger stands are dying, but a classic burger, sold for the price of a Coachella weekend pass, is everywhere.
Many of LA’s best chefs make their mark by slathering loving, creative attention on classic dishes — and the city’s media culture celebrates the “best” of every type of affordable meal. But remaking the city’s fuel with upscale ingredients, and turning mom-and-pops into destinations, has fostered a new kind of elitism. The stylishly unkempt cafe interlopers standing in line broadcast their freedom — financial, social, existential — to linger in the ever-present heat, driving up the price of quality food, maybe not in money, but in time. Standing among them, you might hear a rave about a new Thai strip-mall restaurant, or a spectacularly elusive truck, flashed as a badge of cultural cache.
Meanwhile, a genuinely affordable type of restaurant fueling the city attracts no lines and little attention, despite its roots in 20th-century culture and the city’s endlessly overlapping immigrant communities. Most LA residents pass them on the way to work, or home, or to stand in line. Few have been certified as “authentic,” even though they serve food beloved by people from far-flung places, with the prices and consistency to satisfy homesickness at scale. Modern Los Angeles thrives in outposts of international fast-food chains.
Southern California was the incubator of America’s fast-food revolution, not just the heavy hitters like McDonald’s and Taco Bell, but In-N-Out, Baskin-Robbins, and Panda Express, among many others. The city’s kaleidoscope of fast-food restaurants captures, yes, the rampant inequality and class disparity funded on the backs of the poor and marginalized. But these are also some of the most democratic restaurant spaces in Los Angeles, safe havens for those without homes, for the widowed elder who relies on dinner at the local Jollibee or for the commuter driving an hour and a half into the city for work, looking for a getaway at Ono Hawaiian BBQ, or the trans person employed and treated with respect at their local El Pollo Loco.
In our splintered democracy, as our dining culture becomes ever more elaborate and, often, inaccessible, the chain is where everyone is welcomed, even if you only have $5 in your pocket.
Founded in 1975 in Quezon City, in the Philippines, Jollibee now has more than 750 locations in the Philippines and 26 in the U.S., where their openings are often greeted with great fanfare. Jollibee began as a family-owned ice cream parlor and now serves fusion items like sweet-style spaghetti alongside homey, comforting Filipino food like palabok(sauce-heavy noodles with seafood) and halo-halo, while creating a community space where Filipinos can connect with each other over a meal and catch up in Tagalog.
Sheng Jara has been restaurant manager at the Beverly branch of Jollibee for almost a decade. Sheng, who is from the Philippines, knew no one except for her husband and a few family members when she migrated to the U.S. “Filipinos are known for our hospitality and we love family, so Jollibee feels like home because you’re interacting with other Filipinos. You can speak Tagalog or speak English here, and nobody cares!”
Allen M., 16, loves the chicken at Jollibee. After some prodding from his excited mother — she shoved Allen in front of my lens after she noticed my camera — he shares why he loves the chicken so much. “I’m from the Philippines and it is ubiquitous there. Jollibee is different from the other fast-food places: You can have a full meal here with rice and stuff.” Allen is referring to the rice meals, one protein served with steamed white rice and gravy; rice can also be added to any Jollibee meal as a side in much the way you’d order curly fries with a burger.
Bryan P., 19, and Edwin M., 25, grew up in Los Angeles. It’s Bryan’s first meal at Jollibee, thanks to Edwin, who recommended he try the chicken and the pineapple juice. Edwin first started coming with his parents.
Unlike other fast-food restaurants, Jollibee is rarely occupied by solo diners. The dining room is filled with families of all sizes — parent and child; parents, children, and grandparents; aunts and cousins — the room buzzing with conversation.
El Pollo Loco
El Pollo Loco was founded in the Mexican state of Sinaloa in the mid-1970s and made its American debut a decade later, opening a location on Alvarado Street in the MacArthur Park neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles. El Pollo Loco is really two distinct restaurant chains: The original Sinaloa-based El Pollo Loco is still owned by the Ochoa family, while the U.S. locations are independently run. El Pollo Loco meals are built around grilled marinated chicken, often served with tortillas and fresh pico de gallo.
Claudia Valenzuela, general manager of the Silver Lake location, moved from Mexico to Los Angeles a decade ago. “My coworkers are Latinx people, mostly from Mexico so it’s like being in Mexico,” she tells me with a laugh.
The chicken avocado burrito isn’t just Lauren E.’s favorite dish — she is a super fan. “I was totally surprised the first time I came here. The people who work here seem to enjoy their jobs, the food is legit — I come to this El Pollo Loco all the time.”
Lauren then goes on to tell me about a short documentary she watched recently about the Pollo West franchise that works with TransCanWork to employ trans womxn within the franchise.
While watching the doc, Lauren learned that because the unemployment rate for transgender Americans is twice that of the general population, LA-based transgender activist Michaela Mendelsohn founded TransCanWork, creating the first large-scale program to help get trans folx employed in the fast food industry. This alone made Lauren a forever fan of El Pollo Loco.
The location seems to be popular with 50-somethings, at least on this particular day, but Claudia assures me the joint sees a diverse group of diners. For a while, the primary customers were hipsters, but lately her location seems especially popular with single men and college students.
Ono Hawaiian BBQ
Hawai‘i is part of the U.S., but food from the islands can be difficult to find on the mainland, so Ono Hawaiian serves a function more like an “international” chain in California than a domestic one, by offering a mass-produced version of classic foods unfamiliar to the local population and the promise to transport diners somewhere else. A minority-majority state, despite what travel magazines may illustrate, Hawai‘i’s unique cuisine is a blend of native Hawaiian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Filipino, and other food traditions brought by waves of plantation workers and immigrants.
The menu at Ono Hawaiian BBQ is inspired by the Hawai‘i plate lunch, which likely has its origins in the bento, thanks to the influence of Japanese immigrants. Plate lunches at Ono comprise two scoops of steamed white rice, one scoop of macaroni salad, and a choice of protein over a bed of steamed cabbage. The pulled kālua pork is slow-cooked and tossed in a teriyaki sauce while the katsu plate — a ubiquitous Japanese meal of fried, breaded chicken or pork cutlet — is served with a savory puree almost reminiscent of American barbecue sauce.
Two sisters, Star J. and Tonisha J., make lunch at Ono Hawaiian BBQ their ritual, complete with regular orders: grilled chicken breast with lemon or Hawaiian BBQ chicken, both with two scoops of rice, one scoop of mac salad. “Ono feels like a vacation, so we can kind of have that feeling of Hawai‘i here in Los Angeles,” Tonisha tells me. Star interjects, “The food is really, really good.”
Generations before the recent boom of Israeli-, Middle Eastern-, and North African-influenced restaurants, immigrants from Iran, Armenia, and Palestine were serving shawarma, falafel, tabbouleh, and couscous salads here in Los Angeles. Glendale is home to a huge Armenian diaspora, so it’s no surprise that a 56-year-old, family-run Armenian business, with humble beginnings on a street corner in Beirut, thrives here. The Los Angeles Times has called the chain one of the city’s “most revered restaurants.”
An LA transplant from Atlanta, Martha K. always gets the No. 13, the shish kebab plate. “[Atlanta] is full of culture, but I never had Mediterranean food until I moved to LA,” she said.
Tina Ovsepyan, an executive assistant at Zankou, grew up on the chain. Her family went to Zankou for lunches and dinner often, and her favorite dish, the Chicken Tarna plate, is one she remembers enjoying as a child.
The dining room is packed during the lunch rush, primarily with young professionals running to the counter to grab a wrap or a plate meal, only to dash right back out, but a smattering of diners linger. An older Iranian mother and her middle-aged daughter dine together, sharing a whole chicken meal as they catch up, laughing and speaking in Farsi; a solo middle-aged white dude carefully tends to his crossword puzzle while dipping bites of pita in the famous garlic sauce; a trio of friends, visiting Los Angeles on vacation, Instas the neon-pink pickled turnip on their glossy white disposable plates. The dining room is a stage for the diversity of Los Angeles, with no prize beyond community and a great meal.