It’s still dark in Chinatown when Mariana Henriquez pushes open the heavy kitchen doors at Homegirl Café where she starts her day as sous chef and kitchen manager at 5 a.m. The staff and trainees, who like Mariana herself have left behind a life of drugs and crime to acquire marketable job skills, strive for a new life as part of Homeboy Industries’ program.
In the meantime they’re turning out pretty great food.
I’ve been wanting to try breakfast or lunch at Homegirl after all the good things I’ve heard about the food at its original 1st Street location. This newer space, a few steps from the Chinatown Gold Line stop, is centered around a bright sunny cafe and bakeshop where goodies and breads from the Homeboy Bakery are sold.
When you enter the impressive sculpturesque building, warm delicious aromas engulf you. Industrial-style shelves are stacked with Pullman-style bread loaves such as muliti-grain, double cinnamon pan bread and country Italian Kalamata olive. Baguettes and jalapeno sweet rolls plus all manner of petit fours, butter cookies, luscious-looking bars and my favorite almond butter croissants are lined up in the cases like precious jewels.
I waited just a few minutes for a table to clear around 9:30 a.m.—the café serves many government employees and other downtown business people who are regulars– and I can see why. I ate one of the most delicious breakfasts I’ve had in a long time. Although Mexican at its core, the café’s food tilts Californiaesque with its lightness, freshness and sophisticated flavors.
“This is like my mom used to make it,” I heard a woman at a table near me proclaim. She was talking about the café’s chilaquiles with green morita salsa (it also comes with red salsa). The quick-to-make homey dish—originally the way moms would use leftover tortillas—has become famous around town from Homeboy’s foodtruck which makes about six varieties. Here at the café chilaquiles comes topped with crema fresca, cotija cheese, sliced sweet onion and cilantro. Traditionally eggless, it’s available topped with sunny-side-up eggs and served with black beans and Homegirl potatoes or green salad.
Another popular dish, Migas (spelled M’jas con papas on the menu), is a steaming mound of scrambled eggs laced with tortilla strips, lots of seasonal veggies and either chorizo, salmon or nopales (cactus paddles strips). You may not be hungry for days after polishing it off–especially if you manage to consume the potatoes and black beans or salad that come alongside.
Not all that hungry? Homegirls cranberry-orange laced granola –which, by the way, is sold in the bakery and at various farmers’ markets around town, is a major crowd pleaser. Their unique Mango upside-down cornbread, slightly sweet and served with a pitcher of creamy steamed milk to pour over is something different and quite wonderful. Blueberry-multi grain and quinoa pancakes with real maple syrup or a beautiful bowl of fresh fruit are options, too.
Cappuccinos here are strong and dark and the specialty, coffee, laced with cinnamon and dried orange peel is not to be missed. The must-have wake-up drink, Angela’s green potion, is limeade spiked with mint and spinach— a tu salud !
Next on my agenda, is lunch at the café or Homeboy Diner at Los Angeles City Hall for which Homegirls’ kitchen prepares the food.
The café now has a lunch following, especially for its braised shredded beef sandwich with pickled cabbage called Manoy’s. It’s rumored to be a favorite of former L.A. mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa. The taco plates (choose three varieties for $10) look gorgeous. Fillings include achiote-roasted chicken with habanero-pickled onions and white fish drizzled with rich crema.
The Martha’s salad (vegan and gluten free) is composed of about a dozen different vegetables, splashed with nutty pumpkin seeds and a roasted poblano-avocado dressing. I’m curious to try the grilled cheese sandwich filled with chile relleno– two of my favorite foodstuffs packaged together.
When I had a chance to talk with Mariana—the sous chef and kitchen manager I mentioned—she said her past life helped her to deal successfully with her Homegirl crew—she understands where they’re coming from, their insecurities and how easy it is to backslide. Even after getting a job at Homegirl, which would help her support her young son, she went back to drugs and had to leave.
So when one of her crew fails to show up, first Mariana calls to ask “what’s going on, do you need help? “You never know the cause, maybe they need support rather than criticism,” she says.
Although Homeboy’s 18 month training program must maintain strict rules, the philosophy is “we are always there for you when you are ready to try,” Mariana explains.
“It was that attitude that saved me, helped me get serious about providing for my little boy and made me stick to the program the second time. I’ve worked here for seven years and become a manager. I feel like Homeboy is my home.”
Thanks to Homegirl’s fine reputation it now has a new branch at Culver City Studios (but alas, service is for the lucky few working at the facility).
Homegirl café, (Near Chinatown), 130 W. BRUNO ST.
LOS ANGELES, CA 90012, TEL: (323) 526-1254
Find out about donating or volunteering at Homeboy here: Homeboy Industries