Can an outdoor food hall made out of repurposed containers revitalize a sleepy neighborhood in East Los Angeles? Barney Santos, the creative force and founder of Blvd Mrkt in Montebello, is willing to bet it can.
This weekend was the highly anticipated grand opening. A DJ was playing oldies while families from the east of east communities came out for a bite and a drink.
But it’s a little deeper than just having a take-out restaurant in Montebello for the brave venture’s vendors who are also willing to bet on this container yard food hall.
Lucy Thompson-Ramirez, co-owner of Pez Cantina in downtown L.A. was talking the other day about the hotspot of her youth. “I’m from East L.A.,” she said. “Growing up in the 80s, the Montebello Town Center was the place to be.”
Imagine a John Hughes film, but with Chicanos on screen and Debbie Deb on the soundtrack instead of OMD. The eastern L.A. County city was in the middle of turning from a majority white and Armenian town into one where Latinos were finding their suburban dream. Chicanos from across the Eastside haunted the Town Center to flirt, to eat, to walk around—but, most importantly, to shop. “But, that eventually died out.”
Nearly 35 years later, Thompson is ready to make Montebello a hip spot again. She’s one of the eight tenants setting up food stalls at Blvd Market on the corner of Whittier Boulevard and Sixth Street. With six repurposed shipping containers a la similar setups as Steelcraft in Long Beach, Bellflower, and Garden Grove, the containers are situated along the outskirts of a large outdoor dining area.
This is a chance for many of the tenants to see what a stand-alone kitchen would feel like, as most come from either catering or popup kitchen backgrounds before moving into the shipping containers. But this is more than just another hall. The goal, according to Santos, is to transition them out after two years into a spot within the city or the surrounding community. This kind of concept is also known as a Restaurant Incubator in the restaurant industry.
Blvd Mrkt hopes to keep some of Montebello’s dollars in their community instead of having their younger residents and wallets find their way west.
“I jumped at the opportunity to come back home and bring quality food to my neighborhood,” says Thompson. I feel like Blvd is going to revitalize the neighborhood.”
“We want to work with entrepreneurs and popups,” says Santos. “Our goal is to help them build up a reputation, some cash, and spin out into the community for a permanent location.”
“I’m the first out of my three siblings to start their own business,” smiles Miguel Garcia of Los Taqueros Mucho. “Now, I get to be the one to provide.”
There are three phases to the incubation program, which totals 24-28 months: A four-month pre-incubation phase that takes care of the behind-the-scenes requirements, such as training, development, and becoming industry compliant; an 18-month incubation phase, and a three to six-month exit phase.
For Santos, this is a dream that has taken years to develop. “My wife and I grew up here,” he added. “We wanted to bring something here that people can take pride in.” After working with and being inspired by Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Container Park in Las Vegas, a similarly constructed operation to Blvd near the Fremont Street Experience, Santos wanted to bring something similar to East L.A.
Santos and the tenants fully believe in the project, and with most spaces, Black and Brown-operated, Santos’ sentiments of empowering residents, as well as the business owners, are ringing through.
Meet the Tenants
Vchos Modern Pupusería has been serving up pupusas and Salvadoran-inspired food for about ten years now. Chef Wendy Morales was born in El Salvador, and after learning Central American cooking techniques, she also cut her teeth working in various Las Vegas restaurants. It was there where she was finally convinced that the Los Angeles area would be most conducive to combining traditional Central American cooking with a modern twist.
When the opportunity arose to have a permanent location, Wendy and Danny Morales jumped at the opportunity. Their best-sellers are the revuelta, which is a pork, bean, and cheese pupusa. The key to any good pupusa is the curtido, and Vchos’ version compliments the pupusa well and doesn’t overpower it. Other menu hits include their satisfying yuca fries and their crunchy chicken pastelitos, a Salvadoran maiz-based empanada that is savory, crunchy, and flaky. On the sweeter side, the platano empanadas are an especially delectable after-dinner snack.
Cafe Santo is L.A.’s first Oaxacan-focused modern coffee concept. A key element is using actual chocolate from Oaxaca, so the most popular drink is unsurprisingly the Oaxacan mocha. The chocolate was evident throughout as bits of chocolate and almonds slurped up into the straw. If you really want to indulge and taste what truly makes Cafe Santo special, you need to order the Oaxacan chocolate drinks. Either in drinking chocolate form or the “Xoco:” Two ounces of 100%-pure Oaxacan chocolate. The cacao is sourced from Oaxaca via Reina Grande, a woman-owned shop making chocolate for three generations. Another favorite is the Nuez, made with 80% cacao, cane sugar, and pecans.
After years of doing catering and popups, Miguel Garcia, Sylvia Garcia, and Alex Ramirez of Los Taqueros Mucho are happy to finally have a spot they can call their own for a short while.
“It’s been surreal,” says Miguel. “We are so grateful for the opportunity.”
For Miguel’s wife, this was an opportunity to bring their talents in the kitchen back to the community that she grew up in. Offering up a Guatemalan-Mexican-inspired menu and using Kernel of Truth Organics hand-pressed tortillas, they aren’t skimping on the quality of ingredients. Their best-sellers are the cochinita pibil tacos, which feature a tortilla-length piece of tender, braised pork belly, and the El Cremita, with grilled pollo, pomegranate arils, grilled jalapeño, melted cheese, and topped with a secret cream sauce.
Keivan Cross used to work at his family’s Cajun-style restaurant, NOLA in Hermosa Beach. When that closed about six years ago, he did an internship at LAX in culinary then, followed by managing the kitchen at the USC Keck School of Medicine. Now, he’s looking to revive NOLA and bring Cajun eats to the real Eastside. With his tagline, “quality outside its origin.” His menu will include fried oyster po’boys and shrimp etouffee.
“It’s an unsaturated market so definitely excited,” says Cross.
The common sentiment behind all the tenants is clear: excitement. Opening later in the year at Blvd will be La Crosta, a wood-fired pizza Neapolitan-New Haven-style pizza concept helmed by Chef Jason Raiola, who has spent the past couple of years towing his brick oven to breweries and, more recently, setting up at Bailey’s Liquor Beverage in Whittier.
The notion of gentrification or “gentefication” is bound to come up with a project like this. In a 2018 article on PopSugar, Natalie Rivera explains that “gentefiers aren’t strangers to their community—they’re actually from the community they’re helping gentrify.”
Santos feels he is staying true to his company’s mission, Gentefy Inc., and answering the demand of a multicultural community by investing in the people. “This is responsible economic intervention and investment by local stakeholders and community members,” says Santos. “We are helping revitalize and evolve Black and Brown communities responsibly and with the intent to make sure the culture and the fabric of the community stay intact.”
Blvd Mrkt is situated inside the abandoned Rite Loom Carpet building, a space that the company left in 1995 when they moved to Anaheim—the marquee still looming over Whittier Boulevard as a reminder of what came before Blvd Mrkt.
For Thompson-Ramirez, she understands what critics might say about the idea behind the market: The food is too overpriced for Montebello. People are just going to stick with what they know. This is only for hipsters, and once it isn’t cool anymore, it will die out.
“I feel like Blvd will revitalize the neighborhood,” she says again. “Just because something comes wrapped in a tortilla doesn’t mean it needs to be cheapened.”
Los Angeles’ food scene is one of the best in the world right now, and for these tenants, they want to show what they can offer.
For Santos, it’s a noble mission to revitalize the corner of Whittier and Sixth. However, the long-term potential of community partnerships excites Santos the most, like partnering and providing internships with Pasadena City College students and working with local high schools.
Is it a big ask and a big risk to bring pork belly cochinita pibil and sushi-grade ceviche to Montebello? Yes. But the hope is that the younger crowd will bring the energy and more adventurous palate to Blvd and become a hangout spot for years to come. Blvd Market has a sense of pride that feels different from other food halls that cherry-pick trendy spots because they looked cool on social media.
“I’m the first out of my three siblings to start their own business,” smiles Miguel of Los Taqueros Mucho. “Now, I get to be the one to provide.”
Disclosure: Vchos Modern Pupusería is an L.A. Taco partner restaurant and offers L.A. TACO members who support our independent street-level journalism with free chicken pastelitos with every order.