When Salvadoran restaurant and pupuseria Las Cazuelas opened on Highland Park’s North Figueroa Street in 1985, the neighborhood was strikingly different from how it looks today. The string of coffee shops and cocktail bars that now decorate the strip had not yet arrived. Highland Park Bowl, a trendy bowling alley that was refurbished in 2016, was the punk rock music venue Mr. T’s. Since then, the cost to live in the neighborhood has soared to a median listing home price of more than $1.1 million. One thing however, has remained constant: Las Cazuelas still holds down the block, slinging pupusas that make for one of the most satisfying, affordable meals on Figueroa.
Like most restaurant kids, owner Carlos Lopez got his start by bussing tables. After immigrating to Los Angeles from El Salvador at age 8, Lopez and his two siblings urged their parents to follow their dream of opening a restaurant. “It was kind of a family decision,” says Lopez. “If you do this, we got you.”
At the time, LA’s Salvadoran population was just starting to grow. Highland Park, where the Lopezes set up shop, was still a predominantly Mexican neighborhood, so the family started offering Mexican food along with Salvadoran staples.
Lopez took over the family business in 2003, though his mother’s Salvadoran recipes, which have been passed down matrilineally for decades, remain on the menu today. In the back of the house, one of Las Cazuelas’ longest-standing employees, Santos Rios, works quickly to make the pupusas. As a one-woman pit crew, she pinches the masa, stuffs it with fillings like beans and cheese, and smacks the disc of dough on the griddle, tending to each one as it transforms into a golden, glimmering orb.
The pupusa revuelta, stuffed with crisped chicharron and a mix of Monterrey, cotija, and ranch cheese, is the most popular item and comes with a generous helping of salsa and curtido, a fermented cabbage slaw that gives the rich dish a bright, acidic punch. For Lopez, the revuelta is only his second-favorite. “My absolute favorite is the loroco,” he says, referencing a type of edible flower that grows throughout Central America. Loroco lends the cheesy pupusa a delicate, herbal aroma, which Lopez enjoys simply, filled with beans and topped with salsa.
Salvadoran food is more than its national dish, though, and the restaurant’s menu is a testament to that. Pan con gallina, a sandwich Lopez likens to a Salvadoran banh mi, is a sleeper hit, as are the plantains, fried to a deep golden brown and served alongside the restaurant’s seasoned beans and thick sour cream.
Customers enjoy these offerings from the restaurant’s well-loved dining room, which is chock-full of aesthetic charms. Photos of Lopez’s two cocker spaniels greet customers upon entry. Televisions play a kitschy commercial that shows the Pupusa Man himself delivering pupusas to Angelenos in need. And the restroom, of all things, is accessible only by dispensing a token into the lock, which customers must request at the register. It’s old-school, sure, but Las Cazuelas customers wouldn’t have it any other way.
“People are happy when they’re there,” says longtime customer Josh Shaw, who has been going to Las Cazuelas for more than 10 years. Of all the restaurants in the neighborhood, Shaw feels the most comfortable at Las Cazuelas, which he chalks up to its casual, homey feel.
Delicious as it is, the food is only part of what has made Las Cazuelas a mainstay of the neighborhood. “We are the watering hole of Highland Park,” Lopez says. Over the years, Las Cazuelas has attracted a dedicated customer base. When a longtime regular passed away unexpectedly, the family turned to Las Cazuelas for support. Lopez placed a box at the front of the restaurant to raise money for the family. “Sure enough, the Cazuelas clientele came through,” he says.
Lopez also gives back to the community in other ways, donating to the sports programs at nearby high schools Benjamin Franklin and Sacred Heart. Greg Nakashima, the former athletic director for Sacred Heart and another regular at Las Cazuelas, notes that the level of support Lopez has given to the school’s sports program goes beyond what he could have expected. “His intention on setting [aside] time to create community and nourish community is like no other,” Nakashima says.
Though Lopez’s love of the community runs deep, staying in Highland Park has brought with it its own pain points. Like many small business owners in now-gentrified neighborhoods of Los Angeles, Lopez has seen dramatic increases to his rent in recent years. In January 2020, just months before the pandemic forced restaurants to shutter their doors, his rent went up 100 percent. The increase squeezes them, but for the most part, Lopez accepts it with grace. “If Cafe Birdie, if Greyhound, if ETA, if Civil Coffee, if Otoño are coming in and paying primo rent, why shouldn’t [our landlord] be entitled to higher rent from Las Cazuelas?” he says.
Still, it’s not easy being the old kid on the block, especially when incoming bars and restaurants represent a threat to the livelihoods of mom-and-pop business owners. Though Lopez makes an effort to get to know his new neighbors, he takes issue with menu prices that alienate local diners in the community.
Given Lopez’s commitment to offering customers a fairly priced meal, in order for Las Cazuelas to survive, he has had to find new ways to bring in money for the business. During the pandemic, he set up a spacious back patio, decked out in string lights and picnic tables he built himself. He’s also expanded his delivery options, setting up several ghost kitchens across Los Angeles to reach a wider audience. Even with these changes, survival in Highland Park is a struggle. “We should have 100 locations by now,” Lopez says. “But it’s so, so tough.”
Las Cazuelas isn’t the only restaurant that has been impacted by rising rents and increased competition. La Estrella, a taqueria down the street, closed this January after 25 years in business. Coco’s, one of a small chain of California diners, abruptly closed its York Boulevard location in December. If gentrification comes in waves, then the tide in Highland Park is high. Lopez, though, remains unruffled. “We will be here [as long as] our landlord and until our precious clientele allows us to be here,” he says.
That community is, after all, what makes this place special. Walk into Las Cazuelas during its weekend dinner service and there will be Spanish-speaking families squeezed into red vinyl booths, friends gathered around picnic tables out back nursing Pacificos, and pupusas stacked on plates like pancakes, swimming in red salsa. There’s also Lopez, milling about the restaurant and talking with regulars, holding it all together. “This is what Highland Park used to be, and they’re still here,” Nakashima says. “They carry the past into the present.”
Through the neighborhood’s many transformations, Las Cazuelas has remained at the heart of Highland Park. For those that love this place, they hope it always will be. “I hope they stay forever,” says Shaw. Countless Las Cazuelas customers feel the same way.
Few have catered to the people of this place like Lopez has. Even fewer can truly call it home. “I consider myself a Highland Parkeño,” he says proudly. “Do you know what that is? A person who is from Highland Park.”