DOWNEY - Research has shown that a vibrant downtown enhances the economic health and quality of life in a community; it creates jobs, protects property values, promotes small businesses, reduces sprawl, and perhaps most importantly to citizens: it increases options for goods and services. Much attention has been given to Downey's emerging art scene and the efforts being made by groups like Downey Art Vibe to breathe new life into the city - and rightfully so. Art and culture are essential to our growth, but when it comes to bringing people together, nothing beats sharing a meal.
Lucky for us, a vibrant downtown dining scene is emerging in Downey and it's being led by young people who could have opened up their restaurants in any other city, but chose to come home (or in some instances, stay home) because they love their hometown and want their food to be part of its revitalization.
For three months now, 28-year-old Mike Gavica has been spending 12-hour days at his restaurant L.A. Buns, which is quickly becoming Downey's best kept secret. The upscale burger joint he co-owns with his brother Marcus is literally a hole in the wall on 2nd Street with the smallest, most basic restaurant kitchen you've ever seen, but behind the counter he's making magic.
Everything's made to order and the meat for the burgers is freshly ground everyday on-site. Gavica also has sweet, buttery brioche buns delivered each day and though they definitely make his burgers special, it's the toppings that really send them over the edge.
L.A. Buns has a specialized menu that took the restaurant's kitchen limitations into consideration. Gavica developed his recipes with the help of his friend, Le Cordon Bleu-trained Chef Josh Careaga, and together they came up with five burgers: the LA Burger, the LAX Burger, the Skid Burger, the Sunset Burger, and the East Los Burger, by far the most popular L.A. Buns offers. Topped with slow roasted green peppers, white American cheese, caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes, and a generous slathering of aioli (essentially a homemade garlic mayonnaise), it is everything you've ever wanted a burger to be, but nothing you would ever find in a chain-restaurant or fast food joint.
There's one important thing about Gavica that hasn't been mentioned yet: Prior to opening L.A. Buns three months ago, he had no restaurant experience to speak of. Zero. Nada. This is his first foray into the industry and sometimes, even he seems a little shocked that business is taking off.
"Within a month and a half I'd decided to open a restaurant, I developed the recipes, found the location, and opened up," Gavica said. "Friends and family thought I was crazy, but I knew I had to do it quickly or else I'd become discouraged and talk myself out of it. Everyone wants to tell you how hard this industry is and how so many restaurants fail and I didn't want to hear any of that. I just wanted to do it and I'm learning as I go."
"Learning as I go" is a bit of an understatement. There was so much for Gavica to learn, that it sometimes felt overwhelming, like the first time he tried to grind meat and it was coming out of the grinder like baby food.
"I had to call the guy I got the grinder from and tell him there was something wrong with it. He came all the way down to the restaurant just to figure out that I put a piece of the grinder on backwards," Gavica said.
Other than staffing family, Gavica relies on employees with restaurant experience to show him the ropes and despite his inexperience, business is booming.
"The owner of the building we're in owns the hookah lounge next door and even he seemed shocked that we were doing so well. I guess he didn't think gourmet burgers would sell in this city," Gavica said. "I told myself that if I could just sell 15 burger combos a day, I could make it through the first month. I grind enough meat for 80 burgers and we're selling out, but that doesn't even take into account the other menu items. What really blows my mind is that we haven't done any advertising. All of our customers come because of word of mouth and they turn into repeat customers. What sets us apart is the freshness of our food. It takes a little longer to get to you because it's made fresh, but you're not going to find anything like this at a fast food chain."
Just up the street from Gavica is the much-discussed Bastards, specializing in three things Americans love very much: BBQ, sports, and beer.
Nick Velez, the 25-year-old owner grew up in Downey and joined the Marines with friend, Downey native and Bastards co-owner, 24-year-old Calvin Spencer.
After serving four years and both doing a tour of Iraq, Velez went to business school and Spencer went to culinary school. While living in Seattle, Velez began to kick around the idea of opening a bar and when his real estate agent father told him of the availability of the former Downtown BBQ Company, he jumped at the chance, brining Spencer on as head chef and general manager.
The restaurant celebrated its official opening on Memorial Day.
Velez doesn't take the criticism of the Bastards name personally because the restaurant was named in honor of the "Magnificent Bastards," the official nickname of 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, his former infantry battalion at Camp Pendleton, California. Truth be told, those complaining of the name are probably not the sports bar's target audience, though they probably have more in common with Velez than they think.
"I'm a Christian and in no way is this name offensive," Velez said. "Those focusing on the name are losing sight of what we're trying to do here. We only honor veterans two times a year, but if we can do something every day that makes a vet feel good and honored, why wouldn't we? We served our country and now we want to serve the community and there's no better place to do that than the place where you grew up."
Not only is Bastards military-themed and outfitted with wartime photography, but Velez and Spencer will also offer a military discount on all menu items.
About the menu: it looks very promising. The bar will offer craft and draft beers and all food will be homemade and based on Spencer's recipes, including his ceviche, which is a family recipe. Bastards will have the usual bar foods like wings, nachos, and burgers, but they're also offering twists on old favorites, like pork belly tacos and a club sandwich that features even more smoked pork belly.
Their specialty, however, will be BBQ. Downey does have a few BBQ joints, but they're seriously lacking in the flavor department, so Spencer's smoked St. Louis-style ribs, hours-long smoked tri-tip, and homemade BBQ sauce and spice rubs are much anticipated.
If you're at all familiar with food or restaurant trends, chances are you've heard of the increasingly ubiquitous "gastropub," which is essentially a bar that places emphasis on food, which happens to be high-end but not pretentious or inaccessible. Think of truffled mac and cheese or a free-range roasted chicken dinner.
It appears as if Downey will be getting its own gastropub and it's being opened by another young person who grew up in the city and wants to contribute to its revitalization. In this case it's Marc Brandon Shelton, the 30-year-old manager of Hackers Bar & Grill who was born and raised in Downey and will be opening Lock & Key Social Drinkery in the fall.
Set to take the spot of the former women's clothing store D'arte Connection on Downey Avenue in the heart of downtown, Shelton's focus will be on craft beers, great cocktails, and high quality comfort food. He's keeping the menu under wraps for now, but is currently consulting with various chefs.
It seems like a risky move in a city that embraces its many run-of-the-mill chain restaurants, but Shelton's reasoning for opening his gastropub in Downey was simple.
"I was born in Downey. I live in Downey. I work in Downey. I know many of us in this situation and now we want to play in Downey, too," Shelton said. "There was a time when Downey was a player in the restaurant and bar game and as time passed we didn't change much, but I really think we're just a sleeping giant. I think the restaurant I'm opening in the downtown area is just helping to oil the gears. Young professionals who grew up here are coming back and some of us have never left. The goal is to revitalize the city and I want to be part of the transformation."
********** Published: May 31, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 07