Hunger to Be Known

Alta Journal contributing editor Gustavo Arellano sits down at a restaurant that serves as an “urban anchor” with author Natalia Molina to talk about A Place at the Nayarit, the October California Book Club selection.

natalia molina, a place at the nayarit
Dustin Snipes

Natalia Molina is the kind of Macarthur “genius” grant winner who doesn’t think twice about taking her mom, aunt, and brother to an interview. That’s how I found myself gabbing and grubbing with them on a recent weekday morning at Philippe the Original, the 114-year-old downtown Los Angeles restaurant that claims to have invented the French dip sandwich.

I had asked to meet at a restaurant that the University of Southern California professor felt exemplified the thesis of her recent book, A Place at the Nayarit: How a Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community. It uses the story of her grandmother Doña Natalia Barraza and her legendary Echo Park eatery, the Nayarit, to unspool a master class in history, memory, ritual, and gustatory exposition. The tome’s primary takeaway: the best restaurants serve as “urban anchors” that offer more than just a place to eat for patrons and workers alike.

So I thought the profe would suggest a Boyle Heights diner with great chilaquiles, or maybe a nighttime taco stand. I didn’t think we’d be deliberating whether to add a pickled egg to our breakfast order.

“It’s the same as the Pantry, Mom!” Molina yells across Philippe’s as we wait in line. “Ask Tía what she wants!”

She turns to me. “There’s certain things that Mom does that are very old-school American. She likes rhubarb.”

“You know,” she suddenly blurts out, “it took me until college to realize it [Philippe’s] wasn’t pronounced ‘Felipe’s.’”

Molina is the it scholar in Southern California letters right now. A Place at the Nayarit, the rare academic book that crosses over into the mainstream, has drawn rave reviews. She’s currently interim director of research at the Huntington Library, the world-renowned institution whose Latino workforce is the subject of her next book.

Her brilliant mind is matched only by a kind demeanor and boundless generosity. She’s like that prima who made it who nevertheless shows up to more family carne asadas than not.

Molina has lectured all across Southern California this summer, from bookstores to bars, restaurants to Zoom. And because of her current status, she’s bringing audiences to locations that they never thought they belonged in.

“There was a young man who came to a reading I did at the Autry Museum,” she says. “Afterward, he approached me. ‘I’d never been here,’ he said, ‘but I’ve worked here.’”

We try to conduct a formal interview but…that’s impossible.

David, her brother, regales me with tales of bartending at West Covina Elks Lodge. Maria Perea Molina, 89 years old, tells us stories about the Zoot Suit Riots era. Evelia Díaz Barraza, 83 years old and Molina’s tía, chimes in with family updates. Molina tries to shush everyone, but I tell her that it’s OK—they’re just like my clan.

“I can never get in a word edgewise with them,” she cracks as she digs into her breakfast of eggs over easy with hash browns and decaffeinated coffee. “No other place I’d rather be!”

The idea for A Place at the Nayarit sprang up when she and David one day decided to meet up at a Cal-Mex restaurant for old times’ sake but realized that many of their favorites were no more.

“Conquistador? Closed. Barragan’s? Closed,” Molina recalls as she knifes off the corner of her mother’s ham steak. “El Compadre in Echo Park? Well, at least that one was still around.”

Her neighborhood was rapidly gentrifying. The Nayarit—which drew Hollywood stars and Latino ballplayers alike for decades, until it closed, in 2001—was becoming a distant memory.

“It’s not just the history and what it tells about its era,” Molina points out, “but how its erasure will make people who move to gentrifying areas think they’ve brought life there, when there’s always been life.”

A lecture on the Nayarit turned into a paper turned into her fourth book. Molina visited archives in Mexico, interviewed dozens of former workers and their children. At community events, strangers let her know how her grandmother had changed their lives.

“We know we have stories, but what do we do now?” she says. “There’s a hunger to be known and seen, but there are so few outlets.”

With food, she says, there’s a chance to democratize how communities cover themselves.

I ask Profe Molina who some of her favorite food writers are right now. She name-checks L.A. Taco, a local website whose coverage of food vendors and pop-up restaurants “reflects the streets,” and praises Eater Los Angeles for its “great job of talking to the people.”

But the most obvious choice also remains the most vital choice even three years after his passing.

“I still look up Jonathan Gold,” Molina admits. “I don’t care how much the menu has changed, or if the restaurant is even there. His reviews are still a mini-history. In that way, Jonathan’s work never gets old, and he’s always with us.”

Our breakfast is almost over. I ask Molina’s mom and aunt what they think of her book.

Pos, es importante que la gente sepa,” Tía Evelia replies. It’s important that people know. She maintains the beauty-queen looks that inspired Nayarit regular Marlon Brando to one night declare that he wanted to take her home and “make love,” an anecdote that Molina delightfully recounts in her book.

“Some people might think we’re overtalking about it, but it’s never been talked about,” Molina notes as her mom launches into a vivid anecdote about seeing Mexican singing legend Lola Beltrán at a banquet at the Biltmore Hotel in honor of LBJ after he entered office, dressed in a brilliant Huichol outfit.

For the first time all morning, Profe Molina is truly crestfallen. She looks at her mom in disbelief. Then she sighs the kind of sigh only a loving daughter can.

“Well,” she concludes, “this would’ve been great for the book.”•

Join us on Zoom on October 20 at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Molina will join CBC host John Freeman and a special guest to discuss A Place at the Nayarit. Please stop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know what you think of this work of restaurant and racial history in Echo Park. Register here for the event.

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