Former sidewalk pop-up Gumbo Boys are back in Downtown LA, and hopefully, they’re here to stay this time. The family-run operation opened its first permanent location about a month ago inside the former Meatzilla building at 646 S. Main Street, after first making its mark on the Downtown scene back in early 2018.
Back then, Paul Harris and his two older brothers (Quintin Harris and Buckner Harris IV) and their younger sister Elizabeth Harris all worked together at Gumbo Boys, operating in the evening as a street stand on the corner of Sixth and Spring. The gang prepared its namesake classic Creole-Cajun dish in batches, serving it from warmed pots to people passing by. The Harrises, who hail from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, moved to Los Angeles to bring their homegrown flavor of Cajun food that they learned at home from their mother.
Hawking free samples and engendering loyalty from Downtown food fans, the clan expanded to red beans and rice, jambalaya, and other Cajun dishes over time. They also worked together in various tenures at the Little Easy, a New Orleans-themed restaurant in Downtown from Vee Delgadillo, where the Harrises took on different roles, from back-of-house and front-of-house to bartending. They gained valuable experience in professional restaurant operations, such as learning to fire gumbos to order instead of preparing larger batches and controlling food costs.
Eventually, the family got together enough money to launch a food truck in January 2020, which they ran for a year. After the food truck, Gumbo Boys navigated the ongoing pandemic with pop-ups at dive bars and other venues before landing at the current Meatzilla space, which itself had closed in 2021. Located next to the spooky Hotel Cecil (now called Stay on Main) Gumbo Boys has developed a full Cajun menu of gumbos, red beans, po’ boys, and fried seafood platters. The Sweep the Kitchen Sink gumbo is a particular hit, as it includes shrimp, lump crab, andouille sausage, chicken, and okra, in addition to the Holy Trinity of onion, bell pepper, and celery.
The group’s menu now even includes a range of Southern desserts from Elizabeth. Dubbed Sissy’s Sweets, Harris’s desserts include fresh beignets, bread pudding, and pecan praline. “I just try to stick with classic, Southern recipes,” said the youngest Harris, who joined her three brothers in LA about five years ago. “I’d make beignets as a kid from the Cafe du Monde pre-mix. But now I make them from scratch, so it’s quite a process.”
When asked where they developed their love of cooking, Paul Harris said they learned from their mother. “Food is the glue of our family,” says Harris. “We come from humble beginnings, but food has always been the staple of our family. My mother cooked every night, with a protein, rice, and gravy. We’ve always just tried to emulate what mom does.” The Gumbo Boys menu features classic Cajun dishes but also some of their innovations, from an eggroll inspired by LA’s diverse cooking and love of tacos (Paul Harris says that he likes to think of the fried eggroll as a kind of chimichanga). Filled with three kinds of cheese, red beans, rice, and andouille sausage, the whole thing is deep-fried and then covered with remoulade. Another creative preparation is boudin balls, deep-fried nuggets of housemade boudin using pork and chicken liver sporting a crisp, salty crust and served with more of the creamy remoulade.
Paul Harris says that the family is happy to be cooking in Downtown again, despite the potentially challenging location, because it’s a return to the beginning of Gumbo Boys. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he says. “We’re trying to be a positive light. We’ve helped brighten up the area since we’ve been here, and have been embraced by the community.” To reflect that, the Harrises have kept pricing approachable, with most dishes well under $15, and occasional giveaways, such as a free crawfish boil, available to anyone who walked by this past weekend. “Our goal is to be uplifting and shine a light with positivity, love, unity, and teamwork,” says Harris, who knows that the hard work of building community is so much easier with a hot bowl of hearty gumbo and a plate of freshly sugared beignets.
Gumbo Boys is located at 646 S. Main Street, Los Angeles, CA, and serves Monday to Saturday, noon to 9 p.m.