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The State of Central American Food in Los Angeles

Plus a map of where to eat the best dishes in the city

Farley Elliott

In addition to claiming the title of best Mexican food city in the U.S., Los Angeles is also the top destination for Central American cuisine, with strong representation from five of seven countries along the isthmian strip at the southernmost end of North America. Refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and other countries arrived in L.A. during the 1970s and 80s due to a century and a half of Monroe Doctrines, the Roosevelt Corollary and our Cold War policies that led the U.S. to support military dictatorships in Guatemala, El Salvador and right wing contras in Nicaragua.

Mass deportations of MS-13 and other Central-American gang members that began in the 1990s until today have forced another wave of Central-Americans fleeing for their lives to the calmer settings of South Central Los Angeles, Koreatown, Jefferson, the San Fernando Valley and in and around Huntington Park. They brought with them nothing but the shirts on their backs, along with their rich culinary traditions.

There are as many Belizeans living there in South Central Los Angeles as there are in Belize City, making for a solid restaurant scene along Western Ave., from below the 10 freeway to just past the 105. The only Latin-American country colonized by the British, Belize, (formerly British Honduras), has a unique blend of Mayan, Kriol, and Garifuna cuisine. In nearby Guatemala, the Maya dominate the country’s culture and cuisine. Our Guatemalan restaurants have evolved from popular and pre-Hispanic dishes to a recent addition of mainstream concepts, and perhaps one of the best food trucks in the U.S., serving Guatemalan hot dogs.

Still, Salvadoran restaurants serving antojitos, delicious soups, and stews and the breakout Central-American dish, the pupusa, dominate our Central-American restaurant culture. Our Central American menu begins to diminish the father south you go; we’ve a strong number of good Honduran restaurants, and a few Nicaraguan where it ends. Costa Rican and Panamanian cuisines are nowhere to be found, but Central American food is on the rise.

Many restaurants that opened in the 1980s and 90s have never seen a remodel, and others are dingy, tacky halls of ear-ripping loud karaoke sung by tone-deaf troubadours running enough reverb on the mic to trigger an anxiety attack. But in the last three years, a new generation of Central-American restaurateurs are opening cool concepts, cafes, and strip mall locations with more contemporary décor. It’s a great time to move beyond the pupusa and explore the distinct flavors of Central American food in Los Angeles at our best spots representing El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

MAP: Where to Find Central American Food in Los Angeles [ELA]