In preparation for Cinco De Mayo, we decided to see what was what down at Olvera Street, Los Angeles these days. As one of a very rare breed (a true blooded born and bred Angeleno!) I grew up visiting Olvera Street often. In my hazy childhood brain I understood it to be a fun weekend excursion to the place with yummy tacos, colorful piggy banks and a glass artist who could create any animal you asked for out of thin glass rods over a hot torch. My sister and I always begged for glass animals and then immediately (accidentally) broke them. One year for Christmas my father bought my mom a teeny baby grand piano made out of glass by the Olvera Street glass man as a promise towards someday acquiring the real thing. Like the truest incarnations of dream-killers that children often are, we immediately broke that too. He was not pleased.
The glass man isn’t there any more but I wanted to go to Olvera Street with Renee and Val to relive some childhood memories, taste a few taquitos and delve a little deeper into the history behind the colorful facade. I had a foggy notion that Olvera Street might be important to the story of the inception of this town, but I didn’t fully realize in my adult brain that it is literally in the spot where the pueblo of Los Angeles was founded. Turns out even Val who hails from Scotland knows this, so I guess I am a bad local.
In Researching this post, I have gone down a long and winding Wikipedia fueled rabbit hole trying to hash out the origins of Olvera Street. This led me to the founding of Los Angeles which led me to the founding of the Spanish Missions, which led me to Spanish Colonization of Mexico and the subjugation of every indigenous culture in these parts, which led me back to Jr. High School and Mr. Merten’s seventh grade history class which is a very very dark place indeed. Suffice it to say that Los Angeles is Mexico. That’s the long and the short of it.
Not too long after the United States had officially claimed all of California for itself (including our fair city) the residents began to feel a little nostalgic for it's Mexican roots. A lady named Christine Sterling started a campaign to save some of the oldest adobe houses and structures of the original settlement of The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels and The Plaza at the heart of them. This proposition to renovate these structures evolved into a plan to remake Olvera Street (a small street branching off the main plaza) into a Mexican style market place.
Olvera Street was an instant hit as a tourist attraction and it remains a popular tourist destination to this day. It’s as if the city created in miniature a slightly better version of itself, the colorized happier version. In the current climate of rampant photoshopping you could say not much has changed. We are always aesthetically improving upon reality and moments captured in time. Giving them a little spit shine and setting them out for all to admire.
Many of the vendors at Olvera Street are descendants of the original folks who set up the stalls and restaurants. This fact itself makes Olvera Street a special place in this city that often feels like it’s only residents are recently transplanted attractive young couples who got tired of bashing LA from their teeny apartments in Brooklyn, and folks fleeing weather in all it's forms from Ohio.
We ate at Cielito Lindo one of two southern California eateries duking it out for the title of birthplace of the Taquito. Fresh out of the hot fat, the Taquito and Chile Relleno were everything that is good about fried food.
We wandered around taking in the tchotchkes and huarache sandals. I felt compelled to buy every type of Mexican candy and have Renee photograph it. I can’t help it. After styling food for 15 years I must immediately acquire anything edible that is novel to me and start arranging it in little stacks in front of a camera.
Val and Renee both purchased fabulous embroidered shirts because they are earthy and cultured and can pull off that look effortlessly.
I was tempted by the grab bags, another thing I found almost painfully alluring as a child but was always disappointed by. I resisted somehow and settled for a mediocre margarita. At least you know what you’re getting with a margie: a sugary buzz followed almost immediately by the need for a nap.
After being serenaded by some really great mariaches and a questionable harp player, we called it quits. Another tourist destination conquered. The Olvera Street of my childhood memories survives to this day. It’s still a great time on a weekend afternoon.
For your own Cinco De Mayo celebration, Val has theis Fab Frozen Peach Margarita Recipe from her book Salt. Try it and let us know what you think!
Frozen Peach Margarita
Courtesy of Valerie Aikman-Smith
Makes 1 large serving.
¼ teaspoon of chipotle chili powder
1 tablespoon of Pink Salt
¼ cup of tequila
1 fl. Oz peach schnapps
1 large fresh peach, pitted and quartered
or 8 oz frozen peaches
2 cups of crushed ice
Grated zest and juice of 1 lime (reserve the squeezed fruit)
Mix together the chili powder and pink salt and set aside. Run the reserved lime skin around the rim of the glass and then dip in to the chili salt. Set aside.
Put the remaining ingredients in to a blender and blend until smooth. Pour in to the salted glass and serve.