Barely one year old, L.A. Buns at center of downtown revival

For many restaurants, their location can be just as crucial to their success as the food they're dishing out. When the gourmet burger shop L.A. Buns first emerged in February of 2012 promising the "best buns in L.A.," it was unknown whether the tiny restaurant's stellar, made-to-order food would be enough to overcome what at that point was still considered a "cursed" location.

The hole-in-the-wall located at 8237 2nd St. had previously been a hamburger stand and Lebanese restaurant, both of which closed without much notice.

L.A. Buns owner, Mike Gavica, has proven that if you make great food, it doesn't even matter if you're eclipsed by Porto's two-story parking lot: the people will come. February 12 marks the restaurant's one-year anniversary and Gavica plans to thank his many loyal patrons, some of which drop in daily for one of the restaurant's indulgent dishes, by offering the first 50 customers a free menu item.

In the scheme of things a one-year anniversary is a small milestone, but it feels big for Gavica, who opened the family business without any prior restaurant experience around the same time he and his wife had their first child.

"It's been harder than I thought it would be," Gavica said. "There was so much I didn't know; so much I had to learn. Add to that dealing with family members and young employees, having 14-hour days, and trying to spend time with your wife and one-year-old, it all gets compounded."

Gavica contends that he's still "figuring it all out", but he's having fun while doing it and it appears as if his customers are more than happy to come along for the ride, especially if the restaurant's evolution continues to result in delicious food and increased attention for Downtown Downey's revitalization efforts.

Channel 7 News will be at L.A. Buns on Friday, February 8 between 2 and 3 p.m. to film a segment.

"It's shocking to me, but people are coming here from Santa Ana, Anaheim, L.A. - from all over just to try the food and a lot of time it opens them up to what's going on around town, stuff they wouldn't have found out about otherwise," the 29-year-old said.

The young restaurant owner is of course referring to the downtown area's increased efforts to build an arts scene and create some semblance of a nightlife in Downey, which is considered by many to be a sleepy suburb offering little to do past 10 p.m.

Gavica's introduction to the downtown arts scene began in an unusual way: when street artist Bumblebee created a piece outside the restaurant literally as tall as the building itself featuring a young girl cutting her own hair. Slowly but surely, at first just by virtue of being located downtown, Gavica's restaurant became ingrained in the effort to revitalize downtown.

When comedy nights began to get sponsored by The Avenue Press at the Epic Lounge hookah bar next to L.A. Buns, the crowd eventually made its way over to Gavica's restaurant for a late-night bite. When the Downey Arts Coalition began hosting a monthly movie night at the Lounge, Gavica gladly offered his services to the hungry masses. At first it was accidental, but during his second year of business, the restaurant owner wants to be more intentional about his efforts to give back to the community.

"I really had no idea the arts scene in Downey was this strong," Gavica said. "My first year was really spent figuring out the business and getting used to running it, but I want my second year to be about becoming a bigger part of the scene and helping to fundraise for some of the local arts organizations because once you're helping one, you're going to be helping all of them."

A few months back Gavica mentioned to his brother Marcus, who works at L.A. Buns, that he was interested in partnering up with Stay Gallery for a fundraiser. Before long Stay Gallery executive director and Downey Art Vibe (DAV) co-founder Valentin Flores caught wind of Gavica's interest and gave the restaurant owner a call. In a matter of weeks the gallery and the restaurant decided to collaborate on the creation of a menu item, with 30 percent of the proceeds being donated to the gallery.

This is how the Stay Gallery Chicken Sandwich was born, featuring grilled chicken, slow-roasted tomatoes, avocado, L.A. Buns' spicy slaw, white American cheese, and "Stay Secret Sauce," a blend of aioli and pureed California peppers all piled onto high onto one of Gavica's signature brioche buns. The sandwich was offered at a fundraising event January 31, but Gavica will continue to sell the sandwich until he's run out of the ingredients that comprise it. As of the first week of February, Gavica sold over 70 of the sandwiches to benefit Stay Gallery, which will be hosting a photography exhibit on Friday, February 8 from 6 to 10 p.m. featuring the work of local photographer & philanthropist J. Arthur Morris.

The next year will be a new chapter for L.A. Buns and by extension, for downtown. Gavica plans to focus on social media this year, hoping to create more buzz around downtown events and new menu items, including the Watts Tower Burger, a massive BBQ bacon cheeseburger topped with onion rings. L.A. Buns already features artwork by local artist and DAV member Don Lamkin, but moving forward Gavica would like to feature the Los Angeles-centric photography of Stay Gallery creative director Gabe Enamorado.

L.A. Buns is also in talks with Downey High School and Warren High School for future fundraising opportunities and is discussing the possibility of a Stay Burger with Flores. Given the popularity of the restaurant's buffalo chicken fries, Gavica's brother Marcus is also kicking around the idea of launching an L.A. Buns food truck that will solely offer French fries with interesting toppings, like chorizo and queso fresco.

"I can't help but feel this is a really great time to live in Downey," Gavica said. "I grew up here, went to school here, but I can feel things changing. I'm excited to see the Lock & Key Social Drinkery open up. I want to check out the sports bar that's opening where Granata's & Tapas was. I want to keep seeing this art scene growing. You know you're in the right spot when there are so many exciting things going on around you."

Story by Tina Vasquez.

Tina Vasquez