Three new restaurants bring tastes of home to NELA

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The front entrance of Pocha LA on York Boulevard in Los Angeles, CA. Photo courtesy of Claire Risoli

Pocha LA, a modern Mexican restaurant on York Boulevard, opened its white and pink doors for takeout and delivery April 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. Its indoor and outdoor seating options sat unused until it was finally able to welcome customers for in-person dining.

Since March 2020, the pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges for NELA restaurants. While some have closed for good, others have opened their doors. Despite any challenges they faced along the way, restaurant owners continue to share their food and special stories with the community.

According to Claire Risoli, the owner of Pocha LA, opening her first restaurant in April 2020 was frightening because they did not have their operations completely in place due to the pandemic.

“Takeout and delivery were all that we could handle, so we did that for many months,” Risoli said. “Looking back, it gave us an opportunity to really get everything settled, so it was actually a blessing in disguise.”

Risoli said while her business has grown under unique circumstances, its mission has remained the same. Pocha LA serves food rooted in Mexican tradition with a modern twist and offers plant-based options.

“We make everything from scratch, and we do not use any cans or jars,” Risoli said. “Even our margaritas are made with fresh-pressed juices.”

Risoli said the NELA community has been welcoming since the start of Pocha LA.

“A highlight since opening up for in-person dining has been getting to know our neighbors and faithful customers who in a pandemic have been incredibly supportive,” Risoli said.

According to Yonnie Hagos, co-owner of Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen, community is an integral part of their business model.

The front entrance of Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen on Eagle Rock Boulevard in Los Angeles, CA. Photo courtesy of Colin Baugh

“What makes Hilltop so magical is our community engagement and programming, which is meant to welcome the neighborhood into our space the same way we hope the neighborhood will welcome us,” Hagos said via email. “For obvious reasons, that was off the table for the Eagle Rock location at the very beginning, and that was a tremendous challenge.”

Hagos said although social distancing guidelines made it hard to interact with the NELA community at first, their team persisted.

“Hilltop is about the climb, looking forward, and focusing on the wonderful things we can do together,” Hagos said via email.

According to Hagos, Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen has two other locations in Inglewood and Slauson which helped prepare them for their Oct. 2020 opening in Eagle Rock, but local health and safety protocols made opening during the pandemic a complex process.

“We were lucky to learn a lot of lessons through the other openings that put us in a position to anticipate a number of challenges,” Hagos said via email. “But there are very few things in life that can prepare you for what we have all gone through these past two years, so we made a decision early on to make sure our guests and our team members were safe.”

Hagos said upholding these priorities allowed them to make decisions efficiently while COVID-19 cases declined.

“While there have been times of real challenge, things are getting better, and the future for Hilltop in Northeast LA is incredibly bright,” Hagos said via email.

According to Ricardina “Rica” Leon, the chief executive officer of Chifa, a Chinese and Peruvian restaurant on Eagle Rock Boulevard, the restaurant’s journey began right before the pandemic. Leon said they did not receive permits from LA City until January 2020, and were able to build the restaurant during the pandemic as construction was considered an essential service.

The front entrance of Chifa on Eagle Rock Boulevard in Los Angeles, CA. Photo courtesy of Rica Leon

Once Chifa finally opened its doors in November 2020, Leon said business was going well until outdoor dining in LA was shut down again right after Thanksgiving. They switched to takeout service for a few months, then slowly transitioned back to outdoor, socially distanced dining. According to Leon, since reopening, her team has enjoyed welcoming new customers, many of whom return to Chifa with their relatives.

“When someone likes our food and wants to share it with their family, that tells me they really enjoy it,” Leon said.

While the interior design is contemporary, Leon said, the food served at Chifa is deeply rooted in her family history. Leon was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Lima, Peru, where her parents owned a Chinese restaurant. Leon said because of Peru’s civil unrest in the 1970s, her uncle sponsored her family to immigrate to the U.S., and they settled in Highland Park.

“We really wanted to stick to our roots and where we started from as an immigrant family,” Leon said.

According to Leon, staying in Highland Park has allowed her family to give back by hiring local community members to join their team. In addition, Leon said Chifa is family run: she manages the operations, her husband and mother are chefs and her brother does the design and marketing.

“I think with each of our strengths, we have really relied on each other and made us work great together,” Leon said.

Leon said the idea for Chifa came from her husband’s interest in cooking her mother’s recipes, as he would modernize them while maintaining their traditional essence. Leon’s family hopes to redefine what an immigrant meal can be.

“My family is trying to share that you can have high-quality Chinese and Peruvian food in a very nice environment where you can come and celebrate,” Leon said. “We want you to feel like you’re coming to our house to eat.”

This article was revised Oct. 27 at 12:20 p.m. to clarify that Pocha LA is located on York Boulevard, not Colorado Boulevard.