Opening an Afro-Mexican restaurant was a longtime — and elusive — dream for Maria Elena Lorenzo. She wanted to serve pozole verde and banana-leaf-wrapped tamales, dishes from her birthplace in the Costa Chica region of Mexico.
Last year, her six children opened Tamales Elena y Antojitos, a bricks-and-mortar space in Bell Gardens, for her and her husband, Juan Irra.
“My daughters can show what they’ve learned from me about food, cooking, and my recipes,” Lorenzo, 58, said in Spanish. “I feel really accomplished and fulfilled.”
Their story of becoming restaurateurs, a path paved by their adult children, is echoed across Southern California. Other examples include Woon, a humble Shanghainese-Cantonese joint in Historic Filipinotown; ixlb DimSum Eats, a modern Hollywood takeout spot; and Sazón, a Huntington Park restaurant that combines Guerrerense fare with the spirit of placemaking.
These stories have a series of common themes: immigration, resilience and a second chance at starting something new with family.
Oliver Wang, a professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach who studies the ways in which food culture plays into Asian American lives, uses the word “intersection” when he talks about the phenomenon. “You have these American-raised children of immigrants who recognize the new landscape for food as a profession, and [you] bridge this to a more traditional form of filial piety,” he said.
What follows are the stories of four families that have blended funds, traditions and food.
Keegan Fong, the owner of Woon, likes to recall how his family home in San Marino was a popular hangout for his friends (and his sister’s friends) while they were growing up — all because of his mother’s cooking.
They’d host shabu shabu nights around a lazy Susan. “It was always fun, and we would do sake bomb contests that my mom participated in,” he said with his mother by his side. Friends affectionately referred his mother, Chen Fong, now 71, as “Mama Fong.”
When Keegan left for the University of San Diego, he found that he missed his mother’s homestyle comfort food. Whenever he’d come home, he’d ask her to make stir-fried beef noodles, fried soy veggie wraps, and chilled cucumber and tofu salads (items that are now on Woon’s menu).
Chen lived in Shanghai and Hong Kong before moving to L.A. with her family when she was in her teens. She said she had no choice but to teach herself to cook after eating too many of the chicken pot pies her mother (“a lousy cook”) stocked in the freezer.
“I told my mom maybe one day I should open a restaurant. She called me stupid,” she said, laughing.
After getting married and, later, divorcing, she worked as a language interpreter to support her young family, but her passion for experimenting in the kitchen (even taking classes at Le Cordon Bleu) and hosting guests remained.
After college graduation, Keegan worked in skateboard and surf marketing, but he couldn’t shake off the idea of opening a business based on his mother’s cooking.
In 2014, he was asked to host a pop-up cart at Parachute Market, a design fair in Los Angeles. It went well, and his family — his mother, sister and brother-in-law — continued to run pop-ups to much fanfare over the years.
That success inspired Fong, 34, to get serious about a restaurant, one where he could re-create his “experience growing up welcoming people.” But since no one in his family had ever worked in one, there was a steep learning curve.
He raised $400,000, which included money from investors, a small-business loan and his personal savings. He asked his mother to write down her recipes (she cooks by taste and feel) and hired wok cooks who specialized in Chinese stir-fry dishes.
Then he signed a lease on their spot in Historic Filipinotown, but a month later, Chen was diagnosed with breast cancer and went through surgery and radiation treatment. The Fongs finally opened Woon in March 2019.
Since the start of the pandemic, Chen, who is now cancer-free, has cut back on the time she spends at the restaurant. She serves as the executive chef and has a dedicated sous chef.
Her son is the general manager and hopes to eventually expand with another Woon location. In the meantime, he’s been growing Woon’s packaged goods business: sauces, seasonings and dried ingredients.
The Fongs acknowledge that working together as new restaurateurs has been a unique experience. “It has its ups and downs,” Chen said. “Sometimes we yell at each other, but not that much.” Then mother and son looked at each other and laughed.
2920 W. Temple St., Los Angeles, (213) 674-7434, woonkitchen.com
Growing up as the daughter of a street vendor in Boyle Heights wasn’t easy for Zacil Pech. She spent much of her free time helping her mother, Maria Del Socorro Vazquez, sell tacos and sopes from a cart.
“Kids can be kids, and sometimes very cruel, so they would make fun of me,” Pech recalled. “It wasn’t until later that I started to understand the beauty and resilience of street vendors.”
She credits those experiences for shaping who she is today — someone who has spent a lot of her adult life working in social justice organizing. She DJs and co-founded Cumbiatón, a dance party night for intergenerational Latinx immigrants. She’s also the co-owner, with her mother, of Sazón in Huntington Park, which specializes in Guerrerense and Yucatecán cuisine, with dishes like pozole verde and cochinita pibil.
Orphaned at an early age, Vazquez was raised by her older siblings. She started picking vegetables in the fields at age 6, living in Acapulco and later in Cancún, learning to perfect her recipes along the way.
In 1994, Vazquez and her daughter left Mexico to join her husband, who was already living in East L.A. They divorced soon after, and she turned to street vending and housekeeping to make ends meet.
All the while, her daughter was watching.
Pech, 32, said her worldview began to shift when she saw the way police treated her mother and other street vendors. She witnessed police writing fines, threatening deportation and confiscating vending equipment.
“I remember being like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going do it, but I’m going to get you your restaurant. We’re not going to be running away from the cops doing street vending,’” Pech recalled.
With the help of family friend and silent business partner John Longoria, Pech was able to find a location in Huntington Park that was perfect for Sazón, a restaurant with DJs, banda and mariachi performances. Using her savings and his investment, they opened Sazón with $20,000.
They got the keys on March 9, 2020, just a few days before L.A. shut down due to the pandemic. In limbo for more than a year, they finally opened Sazón in July. Vazquez, now 63, cooks, while Pech handles the marketing.
“It’s still hard for me to believe that we have this restaurant today,” Vazquez said. “It has taken so much to get us to this place.”
Pech dreams of opening other Sazón locations throughout California, even throughout the country. “I want to continue to build it out so that it also becomes a franchise and legacy of what immigrant women are capable of doing,” she said.
7127 Pacific Blvd., Huntington Park, (323) 484-9657, sazonhp.com
ixlb DimSum Eats
A few years ago, ixlb DimSum Eats owner Gloria Shi couldn’t help but notice a change in her father. Tony Ying, a second-generation restaurateur from Taiwan who once operated large Chinese restaurants and a buffet chain in New York, was attempting to enjoy retirement after nearly half a century of working in the industry.
Whenever Shi called her mother from L.A. for an update, she’d hear, “‘Daddy’s on his rocking chair.’ That was his life — and it was so different from before.”
Ying, 75, had always been surrounded by younger people at his restaurants. He kept up to date with the newest slang and pop songs. But when he retired, he says he lost the discipline and structure in his life that he was once accustomed to and gained 20 pounds. “[It was] terrible! I just watched TV, read newspapers, checked emails — that’s it.”
As a way to keep her father active, Shi pitched the idea of opening a fast-casual dim sum spot — a Din Tai Fung-meets-Starbucks concept — on the West Coast. It didn’t take long for Ying to fly to L.A. to scout potential locations.
“During the time he was looking, I could tell he was energized every day,” Shi, 37, said. “In the mornings, he would jump up and start walking around Hollywood.”
They found an office that could be converted into a storefront at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Bronson Avenue in 2016. It took a bit of convincing to get her mom on board (“she’s very East Coast,” Shi said), but she was eventually able to convince her parents to move to L.A, acknowledging her only-child status played a role.
Using her personal savings and credit cards, and with a little help from her parents, Shi opened ixlb with $500,000.
She was 5 when she started working at her father’s New York spots, showing people to their tables and eventually answering phones for takeout orders. As an adult, she worked as a business manager for a music teacher. During that time, the idea to open a restaurant was percolating in her mind.
“She did it for me,” Ying said.
While many dim sum restaurants rely on premade frozen dishes, one of the hallmarks of ixlb’s business is having a chef come in daily to hand-make each item — from har gow and siu mai to French-style cha siu bao. They also cook it to order.
Today, Ying manages the front of the house with his wife, while Shi handles catering. They’ve catered large parties for Netflix and Warner Bros.
Expansion has always been part of the plan, and the family just signed a lease to open a second location in Westwood, which they hope to launch sometime next year.
“Even though in any business there’s arguing, at the end of the day, it’s all family,” Shi said. “That’s the most important thing, at least for me. It’s literally my life.”
5900 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 848-4766, ixlbdimsumeats.com
Tamales Elena y Antojitos
When Maria Irra thinks back to her childhood, her memories often revolve around helping her mom and dad with street vending.
Her parents, Maria Elena Lorenzo and Juan Irra, would push a shopping cart up and down the residential streets of Watts to sell tamales, chicharrones and champurrado. When Maria and her sister Heidi Irra were very young, they would nap on blankets on the cart’s bottom rack during early-morning runs. When they were older, they made tamales and washed dishes after their homework was done.
Eventually, word of mouth about Lorenzo’s cooking spread around the neighborhood.
“I stopped [pushing my cart] on the streets,” Lorenzo said, “because people wanted me to be in one spot where they could find me in the morning.” So she parked the cart at the corner of Wilmington Avenue and 109th Street, and Juan Irra sold tamales from his car to factory workers who worked graveyard shifts.
One night, police arrested him for not having the proper vending permits, and he was sent to jail for a week. Teresa and Nayeli Irra, who were in high school at the time, took over his route permanently, assuming they wouldn’t get arrested because they were minors.
That’s when the family came up with the idea of getting a food truck. By 2005, Lorenzo and Juan Irra raised enough money to purchase one and moved it to “their” corner. Everyone came to know it as “the tamale truck,” Teresa, 37, said.
For Teresa and her sisters, ages 25 to 40, years of helping out prepared them for careers in the industry. As adults, they began cooking in the kitchens of L.A. restaurants like Petty Cash Taqueria, Chicas Tacos and Rivera.
“[I’m] thankful to my parents for showing us how to work really hard, not give up and keep working for what we need,” Judept Irra said.
In the meantime, Lorenzo and Juan Irra continued to nurture their dream of opening a bricks-and-mortar space. When a customer decided to close his restaurant in Bell Gardens, the family took it over. The sisters pooled their savings, much of it coming from Judept and Maria, with money from their parents to open Tamales Elena y Antojitos. It launched in July 2020 for takeout and drive-through.
Each sibling, including 21-year-old Ulises Irra, has a role in the kitchen, front-of-house or food truck. They’re in the midst of getting a new truck and hope to drive it to places like Venice and Santa Monica.
The family is still dealing with challenges. “Sales are not where we would like them to be, so it’s been tough, but we’re hanging in there,” Teresa said. But one thing the parents instilled in their children is that they all have to stick together.
“They taught us everything we know, so we really appreciate them for that,” Teresa said. “At this point, we’re trying to show them that we got this, and their job is done.”
8101 Garfield Ave., Bell Gardens, (562) 674-3043, ordertamaleselenayantojitos.com