How much do we really know about the history of our hometowns? If you are like me – or like most people, I’d imagine – the answer is: not much. I am a native Angeleno (Los Angeles resident), and have lived here all but about a decade of my life, and my knowledge of where my city began, when, and how, is limited. And so I decided to embark to one of LA’s most famous streets to learn about that history, and to celebrate the people who made my city possible.
Growing up here in Los Angeles, I thought of Olvera Street as a place with Mexican food and crafts, with vibrant colors reminiscent of our southern neighbor and Mariachi bands adding a soundtrack. And indeed, Olvera Street is all of those things, woven together in just a few short blocks as what appears to an outside observer as a Disneyland-esque celebration of all things Mexico. But upon a deeper inspection, one I was incapable of as a child – or simply ignorant to – this festival of Mexicana is also an ode to the roots of LA.
Blue skies and Mexican crafts… could a day be better?
Los Angeles was officially founded here, at one end of this historic street, in 1781 by 44 Mexican settlers. Spanish colonial rule would last forty years, until 1821, with Los Angeles being the capital of the California colony (it was moved here from Monterey). After being taken over in the Mexican-American War, Los Angeles, still a foundling town, grew fairly rapidly. In 1877, Vine Street was renamed for Agustin Olvera, the first LA County Superior Court Judge.
For those interested in these early days of Los Angeles, the Avila Adobe is a worthwhile stop. Built by Francisco Avila in 1818, it is the oldest surviving building in Los Angeles, and exhibits the adobe life that would have existed here during the period. LA locals, be sure to read the signage, as namesakes of many well-known streets and neighborhoods in the city are mentioned from the period.
The courtyard of the Avila Adobe
The Adobe was scheduled for demolition in 1926, but efforts by Christine Sterling and Harry Chandler – editor of the LA Times – saved both the building and the historic street, and in 1930, the Mexican marketplace opened, forever changing the ethnic landscape of Los Angeles tourism.
Olvera Street in all its glory
Today, visitors flock to Olvera Street for handcrafted Mexican goods, authentic food, and a sense of Los Angeles’ history. For me, food is the top draw. While there is no shortage of good Mexican food here, I choose to scan for the longest line. I find it at one end of the street, at a small stand called Cielito Lindo. Here I treat myself to their specialty: beef taquitos (rolled tacos) in a luscious avocado sauce. Add a tamale, rice and beans, and make it a plate, all for less than $10.
That avocado sauce is pure joy!
The longest food line at Olvera Street, though, belongs to Mr. Churro, a shop featuring – shockingly – churros. I opt for one filled with guava, but you can have yours with chocolate or cream. It is sweet, very sweet, but incredible!
The guava filled churro is sweet, but amazing.
Getting to Olvera Street is simple. Los Angeles’ expanded public transportation system hubs just across the street, at Union Station. For those intent on driving, there is plenty of parking, though it will set you back much more than a Metro ticket.
Los Angeles’ Olvera Street is a delightful diversion from the modern metropolis, harkening back into the history of the city and its Mexican roots. And with some incredible food to boot, it makes a lovely day in the City of Angels.
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