[dropcap size=big]W[/dropcap]ho opens a nice taqueria in Skid Row?
Jesse Gomez did it. And tonight, February 26, 2019, against all the odds, his taqueria on the intersection of Central Avenue and 6th street in downtown L.A. is turning ten years old. Hitting the decade mark in the extremely competitive and saturated restaurant business in Los Angeles is in itself a badge of honor.
It means that you’ve survived minimum wage hikes, the ebb and flow of weird Angeleno eating habits, and hypebeast restaurant openings from out-of-town big named chefs with fat wallets. Most importantly, surviving a decade means that you’ve gained the respect and loyalty of patrons who keep returning. The latter of which being the most respectable feat and hardest to achieve in an increasingly saturated restaurant market.
“I was naive and a first-time restaurateur, but I was hungry,” Gomez shares with me over the phone as he prepares to celebrate with specials, a guest DJ, and everything until 1:30 AM on Tuesday.
He borrowed money from his mom, who owned El Arco Iris in Highland Park, and refinanced his house in Silver Lake to make it all happen in 2009. He recounts the changes in downtown since he’s opened.
“Ten years ago, there wasn’t that Friday and Saturday night crowd walking the bars and clubs on Spring and Main streets.” He remembers feeling like the underdog against Rivera restaurant, which opened in a much more ideal location a block away from the Staples Center about a month before Yxta.
“They were a very modern, hip, Latin restaurant and doing way more innovative and cutting-edge things than me,” Gomez recalls. Yet, Rivera called it quits in 2014, and Yxta is still going strong. What Yxta has always had is approachability.
“We’ve always been a place where you can eat three times a week,” Gomez says.
It’s the first carne asada plate at a Mexican restaurant that I remember being mesmerized with in Los Angeles, probably due the fact that Gomez chooses to use prime-quality skirt steak, and not “chancla” meat like many other taquerias try to pass as carne asada.
“They still squeeze every single lime,” says Pablo Cardoso. He’s a regular who works in downtown and wandered into Yxta the first year it was open. Cardoso lives in Hacienda Heights, a typical Yxta regular.
“From Day One that I sat at the bar, it became a two-to-three-time-a-week stop for me,” he says proudly. He’s worked his way through every single thing on both the drink and food menu, he admits. “They even brought back their shrimp taquitos for me when they took them off the menu because I loved them so much.”
However, besides Yxta’s high-quality botanas and tequila cocktails, what makes the low-key Mexican restaurant Cardoso’s favorite in the city is the genuine and welcoming staff there. “I’m very high on service, and it’s the family-like feeling of the servers there that keeps me coming back.”
[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]f you haven’t stepped inside Yxta, it’s the kind of rare L.A. Mexican restaurant that is nice enough to step in and share a pescado sarandeado (a marinated, whole grilled fish) and cocktails with a date, but also comfy enough to get a little buzz going with $4 beers and tacos de papa at happy hour after work.
Despite the fast-paced development of nearby buzzy neighborhoods like the Fashion District, Arts District, and Historic Core with ambitious new restaurants, the gateway to Skid Row where Yxta is located has gone the opposite direction. Yxta still stands alone on a deserted island in Skid Row, since no other restaurants have opened around them.
Gomez has stories for days about the many awkward situations the restaurant staff has dealt with throughout the years. “I’ve been socked by an entitled homeless person, I’ve had a pregnant homeless lady taking a shower in my bathroom, people shooting up in the bathroom, you name it,” he said.
But the fact that all of these obstacles haven’t scared away customers or Gomez himself is a testament to his stubborn work ethic and dedication to the neighborhood, for better or for worse. Since Yxta’s opening, Gomez has opened seven more restaurants around Los Angeles that are still operating. Though, definitely not as hard off the ground as Yxta.
And according to Gomez, Skid Row has only gotten worse. “I’m counting the days until I have a tent in front of the restaurant,” Gomez says. He tells me that he knows another year has gone by when a new block becomes occupied with tents, in the ever-present homelessness crisis of Los Angeles.
“It’s one thing to see homeless people as you drive down Sixth Street, but to park your car next next to them turns off some people,” he says. That’s when the loyalty thing comes in with Gomez’s customers. “Our customers keep coming back. It is what it is.”
Perhaps this is why Gomez and his regulars have called Yxta a “Skid Row oasis.” “Had I opened it in an easier location and become successful right away, I wouldn’t have been the motivated restaurant owner that I am now.”
Editor for James Beard Award-winning L.A. TACO. Associate Producer for JBA-winning Las Crónicas Del Taco. Former restaurant scout for Jonathan Gold. Co-Author of "Oaxaca: Home Cooking From the Heart of Mexico (2019, Abrams) and "Asada: The Art of Mexican-Style Grilling" (2023, Abrams).
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