Javier Cabral was hunting for pan dulce when I finally got him on the phone. A longtime food journalist and an associate editor at LA Taco, Cabral was looking for something specific: conchas, Mexican sweet breads you can find all around Los Angeles. Specifically, Cabral was looking for vegan conchas, the kind that can only be found at Delicia’s Bakery in Highland Park. Delicia’s, a neighborhood staple, is rooted in an older city but is also symptomatic of a gentrifying LA; it began selling vegan pan dulce to stay economically viable in a city altered by new development, an influx of new residents, and an increasingly unaffordable housing market.
“When talking about Highland Park, you can’t beat around the bush with how much it’s changing,” Cabral says.
The same should be said for LA’s journalism. In a year’s time, The Los Angeles Times found a new owner and a new editor; its newsroom unionized, and moved 17 miles south of the city to El Segundo. Independent news website LAist vanished in an instant, only to resurface last month after being purchased by local NPR affiliate KPCC. The Los Angeles Daily News let go of a significant portion of its staff. And LA Weekly, the longstanding bulwark of progressive alt-weekly journalism and the creative birthplace of famed food critic Jonathan Gold (who died of pancreatic cancer on Saturday) fired most of its staff.
“We all knew that this was our time to be there for LA to write about the kind of stories you wouldn’t read about anywhere else,” says Cabral.
LA Taco, originally founded as a website to cover food and street art in 2006, didn’t start publishing news until late last year, when the news media ecosystem around LA looked like it might collapse. Alex Blazedale, the website’s founder and publisher, decided to try and fill the growing news void in the most populated county in the US. While Blazedale has kept a low profile, his website’s recent coverage has not. A quick search raises stories that weren’t prioritized by other local media, from outing white supremacists for meeting at the Highland Park Brewery in Chinatown to the last days touring the LA Times’ historic headquarters.
The website itself runs on occasional sponsored content and events from companies such as Ramona’s, Silencio, and Tecate. “It’s really the story of the little blog that could,” Cabral told CJR shortly before LA Taco was covered by The New York Times. “Slowly but surely, we’re getting more readership, but it’s definitely an uphill battle because of money.”
What the site lacks in a traditional-sounding news name, it makes up for with credibility and the news chops of executive director Daniel Hernandez, who Blazedale approached after LA Weekly fired staff and LAist vanished. A former staffer for the Weekly as well as the LA Times, Hernandez also helped launch international coverage for VICE News, serving as their Mexico bureau chief.
Gustavo Arellano, the former OC Weekly editor and current LA Times columnist who authored Taco USA, gave an interview to LA Taco years ago but otherwise paid the site little thought until Hernandez became executive director. “The bizarre thing about LA Taco is that the website has existed for like 12 years or whatever,” he tells CJR.
Hernandez, who grew up in San Diego and worked as a reporter in Mexico City for eight years before he returned to Los Angeles, says he “started missing California stories” while he was away. LA desperately needs more hyperlocal coverage—whether that takes the form of hard-hitting investigations or food reporting that is conscious of the sociopolitical issues that surround the city. The same need has propelled LA Taco, and helped draw Hernandez back to cover an increasingly complicated city and region. “I came here with the urgency, wanting to cover it again,” Hernandez says. “And I was just looking for a home to do that.”
There’s a certain kind of person that, regardless of their race, or ethnicity, or identity, has a certain connection to the texture of the city and can engage in it in many different ways.
HERNANDEZ WORKS WITH a small group of staff reporters and freelancers who, taken together, completely buck national newsroom demographic trends. A majority of LA Taco contributors are Latinx—something Jennifer Velez, a freelancer who previously worked for both KPCC and NPR, says is critical to how she sees her work with the site.
“It’s refreshing to work not just in a team of Latinx journalists, but with journalists that know and understand this city well,” Velez says. “Los Angeles is huge and it’s complex. You think you know one side of it, but once you really start looking you see there’s been so much more going on.”
Hernandez wants to ensure a rich and diverse range of experiences in the LA Taco newsroom. “There’s a certain kind of person that, regardless of their race, or ethnicity, or identity, has a certain connection to the texture of the city and can engage in it in many different ways,” Hernandez says. “I think that includes older writers. I think that includes working-class writers. And I think that includes writers who didn’t finish college.”
Several LA Taco contributors came as former contributors from LA Weekly, and LA Taco appears to be competing with the Weekly‘s seriousness when it comes to food writing—and diverging when it comes to how political food writing should be.. Earlier this year, newly-hired LA Weekly food critic Michele Stueven wrote that her beat “isn’t border walls, gang wars, hit-and-run drivers or rents in Los Angeles. I cover food culture and the restaurant scene in LA.” (Stueven clarified her point for CJR: “My point was I don’t write about politics. Of course food is multicultural and that is reflected in my stories.” She added, in reference to LA Taco: “And be sure to make the distinction that we are a newspaper and they are a blog.”)
Hours after Stueven posted her comment, Katherine Spiers, the Weekly’s former food editor and now an occasional contributor to LA Taco, posted about her intersectional approach to food coverage, a rebuke to Stueven’s post:
Memo to any aspiring food writers following me: if you’re not writing about immigration, local and national politics, race, workers’ rights, gender issues, and every other sociopolitical topic, you’re not doing a good job covering food.
— Katherine Spiers (@katherinespiers) April 3, 2018
Spiers still has hope for the journalism and food writing that raised neighborhood profiles along with vibrant mosaic dishes—the conchas from Highland Park, strawberry whipped cream cake from Chinatown, or Cuban papas rellenas from Burbank. The market for food writing that focuses exclusively on the meal itself is “ever-shrinking,” says Spiers. She says such coverage has “never been the focus of LA Weekly, but adds, “I don’t think the new owners know there’s a distinction.”
“LA Taco is not anywhere near fully staffed,” she told CJR in a direct message, “but I know they understand the kind of coverage (food and otherwise) that LA wants right now.”