By Olivia Fishman
If launching a restaurant is a leap of faith, launching a restaurant during a pandemic is a gravity-defying vault.
And yet, the owners of the three restaurants profiled below pulled it off. Here’s how they did it and how they’re doing now:
Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen: “The future for Hilltop in Northeast L.A. is incredibly bright.”
At Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen, located on the ground floor of the Perch apartment building on Eagle Rock Boulevard in Eagle Rock, building community is part of the business model. In addition to quality ingredients and friendly service, the focus is on shaping an environment that fosters creativity and connection.
But Hilltop opened in NELA in October 2020, a pre-vaccine, socially distanced time. That created a “tremendous challenge,” said Hilltop co-owner Yonnie Hagos via email. Hilltop’s community engagement is “meant to welcome the neighborhood into our space the same way we hope the neighborhood will welcome us,” wrote Hagos. “For obvious reasons, that was off the table for the Eagle Rock location at the very beginning.”
Hagos and his team persisted by setting priorities, the first of which was the safety of staff and customers. Takeout and delivery were mainstays initially while in-person service was confined to the outdoor patio. In July, Hilltop began indoor dining. The interior is spacious and light filled with seating for talking or working on a laptop. Walk-in and regular customers choose from a menu of standard and specialty coffees and teas and comfort-food-with-a-flair, including the Soul Bowl with poached egg, creamy grits, braised collard greens and charred corn.
There are two other Hilltop locations, in Inglewood and Slauson, which have earned high praise, a good omen for the Eagle Rock location.
“While there have been times of real challenge, things are getting better, and the future for Hilltop in Northeast L.A. is incredibly bright,” wrote Hagos.
Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen | 4247 Eagle Rock Blvd. | Open daily 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Pocha L.A.: Takeout-and-delivery-only was “a blessing in disguise.”
A modern Mexican restaurant on York Boulevard in Highland Park, Pocha L.A. opened its white and pink doors in April 2020, about a month into the lockdown. Service was limited to takeout and delivery, not exactly a grand opening, though Pocha L.A.’s good location and great press promoted the launch.
As it turned out, the months of takeout and delivery were “a blessing in disguise,” said Pocha L.A. owner Claire Risoli. The restaurant was not fully operational at the time of the April opening due to pandemic-related delays, she said, so “takeout and delivery were all that we could handle. Looking back, it gave us an opportunity to get everything settled.”
In-person dining at Pocha L.A. is now in full swing, including indoor seating and outdoor seating on the back patio and at a few tables in front of the restaurant.
“A highlight since opening up for in-person dining has been getting to know our neighbors and faithful customers who in a pandemic have been incredibly supportive,” Risoli says.
Risoli said that despite unusual circumstances of Pocha L.A.’s launch and growth, its mission has been the same from the start. The restaurant serves food rooted in Mexican tradition with a modern twist, including plant-based options like vegan chili relleno.
“We make everything from scratch and we do not use any cans or jars,” Risoli said. “Even our margaritas are made with fresh-pressed juices.”
Pocha L.A. | 6101 York Blvd. | Open Tues-Thurs noon to 8 p.m.; Fri noon to 9 p.m.; Sat 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. | Sun 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Chifa: Redefining what an immigrant meal can be
At first, the pandemic did not disrupt plans for Chifa, the Chinese and Peruvian restaurant on Eagle Rock Boulevard in Eagle Rock. Permits to convert the building into a restaurant came through in January 2020 and the renovations took place as scheduled in the months that followed because construction was deemed an essential service.
But shortly after Chifa opened to rave reviews in November 2020, outdoor dining in L.A. was shut down again. The owners switched to online pickup orders, transitioning to outdoor dining and then indoor dining as circumstances allowed in 2021.
For Chifa Chief Executive Ricardina “Rica” Leon — who runs the restaurant with her husband, mother and brother — the mark of success is the many new customers who return with their relatives.
“When someone likes our food and wants to share it with their family, that tells me they really enjoy it,” Leon said. “We want you to feel like you’re coming to our house to eat.”
The colorful interior at Chifa is contemporary, but the food is rooted in family history, said Leon, who was born in Hong Kong and raised in Lima, Peru, where her parents owned a Chinese restaurant. The family immigrated to the United States in the 1970s to escape Peru’s civil unrest, settling in Highland Park.
“We really wanted to stick to our roots and where we started from as an immigrant family,” Leon said. In addition to being a family-run business, the restaurant hires local residents to work at Chifa.
Leon said the idea for Chifa grew from her husband’s interest in her mother’s recipes, which he would modernize while maintaining their traditional essence. The results are creations that redefine what an immigrant meal can be. To give just one example, there’s a mouthwatering traditional zongzi– a Cantonese rice dish stuffed with pork belly and mushrooms and wrapped in bamboo leaf – and an ingenious vegan zongzi stuffed with squash, nut, bean and mushroom.
“My family is trying to share that you can have high-quality Chinese and Peruvian food in a very nice environment,” said Leon. “Come and celebrate.”
Chifa | 4374 Eagle Rock Blvd. | Open Friday to Sunday 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Olivia Fishman, a sophomore at Occidental College, is a participant in the NELA Neighborhood Reporting Partnership, a collaboration of the Boulevard Sentinel and The Occidental campus newspaper.
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