We Angelenos are constantly stuck in our cars but seldom give any thought to the history of the streets we drive on. What’s the story behind Mulholland Drive? Why does Eagle Rock have a neighborhood of streets named after major universities? Why do we bother navigating through the Alvarado/Glendale street junction when we know it’s going to be in total gridlock? Okay, that last one is more of a personal complaint.
Los Angeles freeways are landmarks and I have an appreciation for them. But our freeways have also created separation between us and the city. In order to reconnect, we must explore the city streets to find great food, parks, trails, and other hidden gems Los Angeles has to offer.
One street tied to my upbringing is Pico Boulevard. As a kid, “la Pico” was a common destination. We would drive to always-crowded Best Buy Foods weekly for groceries. There were several lunches at King Taco or the pupuseria on Pico and Alvarado. El Payasito was the spot for party supplies. But of course, everything began with los callejones, “the alleys.” This is where we would go for back-to-school backpacks and clothes, presents, toys, and L.A. hot dogs.
Pico boulevard runs through Los Angeles almost parallel to the 10 freeway. On any given weekend while many sit on that freeway inching toward their destination, one can breeze through Pico all the way to Santa Monica Beach. It’s a fantastic way to get to know the city and its history. And what better way to begin the history lesson than by learning about the man behind the street.
Who Was Pico?
Pio Pico served as California governor only from 1845 to 1846. He is remembered as the last governor of California under Mexico rule. Many Angelenos have come to know the name. After all, his name is used all around the city on businesses, buildings, and parks.
When he was no longer mayor and California was officially part of the United States, he remained a prominent member of Los Angeles and moved to other ventures. He made several land investments in the 1860’s and 70’s. In 1870, he opened the Pico House Hotel, the first three-story building in Los Angeles. The landmark still stands today by El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument.
As a man of mixed race, Pio Pico took a strong stance against racial discrimination in the early days of a divided California that could have been persuaded to even support slavery. He welcomed an influx of African-Americans coming from the Confederate South. He staunchly opposed hostility toward any people of color in Los Angeles.
Pio Pico passed away on September 11, 1894. His days as an elite member of the city were long behind him by that time. Long legal battles stripped most of his property by the 1880’s. Despite this, Pio Pico’s impact on the city was firmly cemented.
Go For a Drive
The drive through Pico Boulevard begins in downtown by the old Coca-Cola bottling plant on Central Avenue. It runs the entire stretch of the Fashion District and divides the Los Angeles Convention Center in two parts. At the Alvarado intersection, the street breaks from its initial trajectory and into an East-West path.
Spend some time in the Pico-Union area and you are bound to swing by Dino’s for chicken and fries. This messy plate of chicken is smothered with so much of their signature sauce that it takes on a bright red tinge. The bed of seasoned fries absorbs the sauce and chicken flavor for a starchy, spicy, sweat-inducing meal.
After Dino’s, nothing hits the spot like a cool treat. Stop by either of the two Mateo’s Ice Cream & Fruit Bars on Pico to get a popsicle from their palette of colorful bars. Choose from strawberry and milk, mango and chile, pistachio, arroz con leche, and many more.
At Arlington Avenue, we find Pio Pico Middle School. It’s nearly impossible to question the street’s history when you come across the Pio Pico Panthers mural.
We soon reach the intersection of Pico and San Vicente. Here, you will find the Midtown Shopping Center and the extended shopping area that grew from it. You’ll see a PetSmart, Lowe’s, Ross, Living Spaces, and several fast food spots. In the middle of this chain store retail pit lies the real heart of Mid City: World on Wheels. This skating rink is an icon of Los Angeles, one that was almost forever lost when the new retail spaces opened. The rink was closed in 2013 and its future was bleak. In 2017, the rink opened once again thanks in large part to the investment made by slain rapper Nipsey Hussle. The rink that always meant so much to the city now also stands as a symbol of the various ways the rapper helped the community that raised him.
Just after La Brea, another city staple beckons: Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles. Roscoe’s has long been the place of choice to get sweet and savory on one plate. If you’ve never allowed syrup to touch your chicken, you need to stop by to see what you’ve been missing.
This is where Pico Boulevard witnesses another neighborhood transformation. Through the Carthay Square and Pico-Robertson neighborhoods, Pico Boulevard businesses cater to the city’s Jewish population. You will find several delis along with more experimental fusion surprises but for me, this area brings us arguably the best Cuban food in the city. Swing a left at La Cienega Boulevard and find Versailles. Sit down and enjoy a delicious plate of ropa vieja, fall-off-the-bone chicken, juicy plantains, and lots of other genuine Cuban dishes.
When you regain enough energy to get in the car, jump back onto Pico and follow it all the way through to the end.
Destination: Pacific Ocean
You’ve been on Pico most of the day with the goal of reaching water. As you pass Santa Monica College, the air chills and the ocean scent is palpable. The street comes to an end as the asphalt turns to sand. You may get lucky and find street parking but the best bet is the large outdoor parking lot at beach level.
Finally, you’ve made it. Your feet are in the sand and Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier is just off in the distance and close enough for a visit. Play some games and ride the coaster before you head back. As the day comes to a close, dip your feet in the water as the sun sets in the horizon.