Diane Scalia launched Los Angeles food tour company Melting Pot Tours with her sister Lisa in 2007, starting out with a tour of L.A.’s historic Farmers’ Market in Fairfax before adding more options—a Flavors of Thai Town excursion, an Old Pasadena walking tasting tour, and the East LA Latin Flavors Tour.
The Latin Flavors tour is centered in Boyle Heights, “one of the oldest neighborhoods in L.A.,” Scalia says. “It was originally the center of Jewish culture in L.A. The original Canter’s Deli was here. Over time it became largely Hispanic. It’s always been diverse, with immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador.” The diverse region has also been home to Romanian, Armenian, and Russian communities, she adds.
“We’re so lucky that these immigrants from all over the world landed in L.A. and brought their food with them,” she adds, “or we’d be stuck eating peanut butter and jelly.” These are some of Scalia’s favorite Latinx food experiences—everything from a century-old recipe for traditional birria (goat stew) to a shop with 12 kinds of mole—in Boyle Heights.
For excellent birria: Birrieria De Don Boni
“[Birrieria De Don Boni] has been there going on 50 years. It’s run by a family from Guadalajara and the recipe is well over 100 years old—a time-honored tradition. You can choose between shank of the goat, or leg meat, or ribs, different variations of the goat stew. That’s all they serve, but all they need to serve; the place is so crowded, often with Latin celebrities. I met Oscar De La Hoya there. They do offer some of their grandma’s desserts and their own hibiscus punch.”
Visit: Birrieria De Don Boni is open for pickup and outside dining at 1845 E. First Street.
For burritos: Al & Bea’s
“[Al & Bea’s] has been there since the ’60s. They promise you that the burrito you have today will taste the same as it tasted then. It’s a mom-and-pop and I think their children run it now. The bean and cheese burrito is our favorite. We don’t go there on the tour as it’s a longer walk [from the other stops] but it’s on our brochure. All of our hosts have been there and know how great it is.”
Visit: Al & Beas is open for pickup at 2025 E. First Street.
For salsas and sauces to take home: El Mercardito
The four-story shopping center’s name means “little market, and relative to the markets in Mexico it’s like a little sister,” says Scalia. “There’s a store called International Deli that sells about 12 mole pastes. Mole is made with up to 40 ingredients. It has everything from cheeses to candied membrillo [quince paste]—lots of specialities you won’t find elsewhere.”
Across the marketplace you can find “sauces, fresh salsas, big jars of agua frescas. There’s a travel agent, acupuncture, leather goods, restaurants often booked for big parties or quinceañeras; music’s playing, mariachis rehearse in the mornings. The people are friendly and smile and encourage you to come in. . . . If you don’t find what you’re looking for, you probably don’t need it.”
Visit: Much of the market has reopened and moved outdoors. It’s at 3425 E. First Street.
For tamales you won’t forget in a hurry: Tamales Liliana’s
“[Tamales Lilianas] is named for the founder’s daughter, because he’d originally sold tamales at a bakery when he first came to America with his cousin. They opened a little stand and wanted to sell them on weekends but the demand outgrew that within no time. By the time he had enough capital to open his own store, he had two children. It was probably more romantic to name it Tamales Liliana’s than Tamales Carlos [his son’s name]. His daughter told me this story, and she has a two-year-old daughter also named Liliana.
“I love the tamales with champurrado, a Mexican hot chocolate with corn starch. These two things go together well. . . . I always eat breakfast there and when he comes in, he brings supplies and gives me a great big hug.”
Visit: Tamales Liliana’s is open at 3448 E. First Street.
For a broad Latin experience: Un Solo Sol
“This is a Latin accents restaurant, with food from India, a Greek salad. It’s called ‘Under one sun.’ The owner’s from El Salvador, and originally opened with pupusas. One lady, Maria, makes them. On the days that she’s not there, there’s no pupusas. It’s all about family and simplicity with its own elegance.”
Visit: The restaurant is open for takeout, delivery, and dining at 1818 E. First Street.
Melting Pot Tours plans to restart operations when COVID-19 restrictions have loosened. In the meantime, Scalia urges visitors to get out, eat, and share their discoveries on social media to keep these places alive.