Want to raise kids who grow up to appreciate a variety of cuisines, people and cultures? The best way to do so is to expose them to many different tastes, ethnicities and cultures as possible at an early age. Lucky for us, Los Angeles is filled with a worldwide buffet of opportunities to expand our horizons. Here are a few neighborhoods that provide a variety of cuisines for all ages, situations and budgets — and even some free, family-friendly activities to enjoy along the way.
In this phase of the pandemic, please call all locations to confirm specific details, as they are rapidly changing.
A romanticized tribute to L.A.’s Mexican heritage, Olvera Street in Downtown L.A. is a charming enclave that provides a peek into the kitschy side of old Mexico with plenty of food choices, free activities and architecture to explore. Some of L.A.’s oldest buildings are in this neighborhood, and the street has an Old Mexico ambience resonant of a theme park village. Stroll through the stall-laden pedestrian walkway to find Mexican style clothes, instruments and souvenirs (and a few things from China). On weekends, the cultural possibilities hit their peak with street performers, crafts for sale and the more-than-occasional mariachi band.
Try your main meal at El Paseo Inn, which sometimes boasts live mariachi bands on Sundays from 1 – 4 p.m. Enjoy handmade tortillas, delicious tableside guacamole and an outdoor patio. You can introduce the kids to the tastes of chile verde, sopes carnitas and chicken mole, as well as drinks such as horchata and tamarind. El Paseo Inn is open 11:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. Call for information on mariachi performances.
Head to Mr Churro for fresh churros and other tasty sweets and Cielito Lindo for piping hot taquitos paired with its famous avocado sauce. We also enjoyed fruit cups and fruit shakes from local street vendors.
Two free tours on Olvera Street not to be missed are a visit to the Avila Adobe, which was built in 1818 and is the oldest existing house in the city, in addition to the Plaza Firehouse, built in 1884, which is now a museum featuring 19th century tools and equipment for firefighting. For details, contact El Pueblo Visitor Center at 213-628-1274. At press time in late June, some museums had reopened but check for updates on the website.
As an added bonus for exploring this area of the city, take the train downtown. It drops you at Union Station just two blocks away from the center of where you want to be. Kids love trains and without the drive, Mom and Dad can enjoy that margarita!
Tucked between Silverlake and Echo Park, Historic Filipinotown is the only designated community rich with Filipino culture and heritage outside of the Philippines. It’s also home to some of the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten in Los Angeles. Local restaurants have been dedicated to helping front line workers and filling takeout orders and are slated to fully reopen to the public in August.
The Park’s Finest had a tall order to fill and it didn’t disappoint. I’m married to an Argentine man who some (OK, me) might consider a barbecue snob. Two bites into our meal, my husband declared, “This is fabulous. I might have to bring some more family here.” From an Argentine, that’s a five-star rating.
We tucked into Mama Leah’s Coconut Beef. I had my first spoonful and then wanted it all to myself; it is creamy, spicy and creative — one of the restaurant’s signature “don’t miss” dishes. Pulled pork and cornbread are easy crowd pleasers and simple dishes for kids to enjoy. We ate Timuay tri-tip and ordered the short ribs that were both fully appreciated and completely devoured. Noel’s smoked gouda mac is a warm bowl of goodness guaranteed to satisfy even the pickiest eater.
Once your bellies are full, explore the nearby Echo Park Recreation Center. Park your car and rent a swan boat from Wheel Fun Rentals. You can walk around the lake, feed a duck or two and take a swan boat out on the water for $11/hour from 9 a.m. to sunset. There’s also a café on site for snacks and public restrooms in the park.
Little Tokyo is home to several condensed mini shopping malls where you can find Japanese bakeries, bookshops, restaurants and stores, as well as the occasional Buddhist temple.
The Japanese American National Museum is here, as is the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, which regularly offers traditional Kabuki dramas and modern music concerts. They’re starting up again, but not everything is open. Look to the fall for the return of programming at the Aratani Theatre. Browse Blooming Art for gorgeous Japanese arts and crafts.
For Japanese cuisine try: sticky buns at Yamazaki Bread & Cake inside the Japanese Village Plaza, red bean cakes at Mitsuru Café and ice cream at HoneyMee. You can dine on sushi at Kura Revolving Sushi Bar (and pick your dishes up from a moving conveyor belt, treating your family to tastes of unagi, edamame, miso and entertaining food delivery). For sweet treats don’t miss Donatsu, which offers a wide variety of vegan donuts including creme brulee (these sell out every day, so arrive early); ube (a sweet purple yam) and matcha with pistachio and rose.
Various malls in Little Tokyo sell electronics, china, gadgets and toys — especially fun for kids who are into anime or Sanrio.
Chinatown in Los Angeles is an upbeat and engaging way to introduce your family to a variety of new foods and a new way of eating them — in a richly cultural setting. Chinese railroad workers settled in L.A. in the mid-19th century in a then-rural area less than a mile from here, but were relocated to make way for construction of Union Station in 1938. The center of the “new Chinatown” is Mandarin Plaza.
For a first foray, try dim sum, an introduction to small plate eating. The entrance of Golden Dragon Restaurant makes you feel as though you are walking into a movie. Many tiny dishes allow you to try a wider selection of items and reduce the risk of waste.
It doesn’t hurt to watch “Kung Fu Panda” the day before your trip and then top your visit with a great variety of dumpling tasting. In addition to seafood, you can sample a variety of different meats including duck and pork, as well as different types of noodles, hotpots, fish and vegetables. And if all else fails, hey, there’s always noodles. What kid doesn’t love noodles?
When you’re done eating, there are lots of little mom-and-pop shops to explore that sell everything from paper lanterns and umbrellas to colorful robes.
We finished our visit to the Thien Hau Temple with its bursting color and elaborately curved roofs on Yale Street, and spent time peering into food shops offering everything from full ducks to a fruit called “Buddha’s Hand.”
An area also known as East Hollywood has been dubbed “Little Armenia.” In this neighborhood you can explore Barnsdall Art Park, a historic cultural center and arts park that surrounds the Hollyhock House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. This famous dwelling was originally designed for the oil heiress Aline Barnsdall. The park grounds are currently open, but a lot of the usual offerings of children’s activities and free art workshops or classes were still online at press time. Check the website for a reopening schedule.
When finished, stop by Marouch restaurant for authentic kebabs, hummus and fresh pita bread. The food is a combination of Lebanese, Armenian and Middle Eastern cuisine. We explored tasty and unique varieties of sausages, cheeses and sweets.
Around the world in a month of Sundays
That summarizes five countries spanning the globe, all offering authentic culture, food, people, crafts, sights, sounds and smells. We’re lucky to live in the City of Angels offering such rich ethnic and culture diversity. All the recommendations above were curated to appeal to the budget-conscious family with room to splurge a bit if you have a big appetite or enjoy shopping native art, toys or other mementos of your cultural family day.
You and your family can explore an entire world of eating, no passport or packing necessary, and it’s all just around the corner.
Margot Black is an L.A.-based traveler, wife and mom.