The MasterChef Latino competitor is betting on Boyle Heights
Chef Mario Cristerna
Credit: NotedMedia

Known well around Los Angeles for its significance to Mexican-American life and heritage, Boyle Heights, a working-class section of the city lying directly across the Los Angeles River from some of the most sought-after real estate in the country right now, stands at a crossroads.

For years somewhat out of the spotlight, Boyle Heights, adjacent to the red-hot Arts District and nearly walking distance from a resurgent Downtown Los Angeles, now finds itself directly in the path of what we used to casually refer to as progress, back before housing became a luxury on the West Coast. This is a predicament thrust upon countless neighborhoods before it, but looking around Los Angeles, where so much has changed in recent years, it is difficult to think of a neighborhood that has come out swinging quite so furiously against the inevitable. Boyle Heights is evolving, and will continue to do so. The question is, exactly how?

Mario Christerna, who grew up in Boyle Heights, has some ideas. The MasterChef Latino competitor, who made a name for himself recently at The Briks, a downtown restaurant with an eclectic menu of North African-influenced Mexican-American cooking, sees the neighborhood in a slightly different way than some of the younger generation, a group that only ever knew Boyle Heights for what it is today, as one of the most famous barrios in Los Angeles.

Reflecting that same affinity for crossing cultures on his menus, Christerna tends to embrace the entirety of the Boyle Heights story, which goes back farther than many tend to remember, back to when Cesar E. Chavez Avenue was Brooklyn Avenue, when Boyle Heights had it all, from Mexican panaderias to Chinese restaurants, a Japanese hospital, the Breed Street Shul (still standing, after 96 years), and every other necessity you can think of, all serving one of the most diverse neighborhoods in a city where restrictive covenants, exclusionary zoning laws and redlining kept Blacks, Jews, Mexicans, Japanese and just about any other group that wasn't white from moving in, all the way into the 1960’s.

Standing in front of the old Paramount Ballroom on Cesar Chavez near the corner of Mott Street, which is about to become his new playground, Christerna passionately rattles off a list of the many things that make the 1920’s brick structure relevant to the neighborhood, to Los Angeles history. “This building was where the Jewish Baker’s Union met, and where the ACLU was formed in the 30’s—Rita Hayworth, Cab Calloway, and Little Stevie Wonder played here,” he says. “In the 80’s, Black Flag and Social Distortion—in the 90’s the first EDC show took place here.”

The ground floor of the building is already home to the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory, a non-profit catch-all for the arts and arts education in the neighborhood, but Christerna is hoping to turn the address into a full-blown destination. Upstairs, renovations to the ballroom are nearly complete—besides a state of the art sound and lighting system, which will be run by students from the Conservatory, there will be cocktails, and a bar menu that Christerna will be overseeing, including tacos de discada (northern Mexican stir fry), empanadas, and a variety of other things you can eat with your hands, plus a weekend Mariachi brunch.

Next door, Cristerna will open a sit-down restaurant, Poblador, a tribute to the roots of Alta California cuisine, and inspired by the native ingredients used by the founding cultures of Los Angeles. Menu items will include the Mestizx Garden, made with okra, corn, squash blossoms, tomatoes, yucca, and nettles; it’s a tribute on one plate to the pobladores, or founders of Los Angeles, the group of 44 settlers who arrived here in 1781, a group that included Mexicans, indigenous people and afromexicanos.

Zanja Madre, named after the aqueduct that originally supplied the pueblo, will be the name of a seafood dish, recalling the original foragers of the region, with mackerel, blood clams paired with gooseberries, fennel and amaranth. The final piece of the puzzle is a casual, family-friendly pizzeria, the Brooklyn Avenue Pizza Company—Christerna will be making his own dough and cheese, and cooking in a wood fired oven. (Besides the standard offerings, there will be a red and green chorizo pizza.)

“I grew up on King Cole’s and Shakey’s—those are the places we’d go with our families after events,” says Christerna. Pizza and wings might seem an odd choice for somebody at his level of experience, but despite the ambitious scale of the three-pronged project, Christerna is mostly uninterested in the trappings of celebrity chefdom; at the core of his mission is this wistful journey to the neighborhood of his youth.

“I want to create a space that’s for everyone, like Boyle Heights, when it was for all people,” he says.