I love to eat food for many different reasons, beyond the obvious one of enjoying a variety of unique tastes. I've indulged in meals to support the local farmer. I've gone to restaurants or pop-ups to support a chef launching a new concept. I've broken bread with strangers over friendly, communal dinners. Most recently, I enjoyed a meal to help gang members start a new life. If you live in LA, you might have helped as well, just by eating some chips and salsa from Homeboy Industries, an innovative company helping ex-convicts get back on their feet.
Chief Homeboy is Father Gregory Boyle, aka G Dog, Father G, or just G. He's credited with creating the most successful gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the country. Father G has done this through offering a variety of programs to gang members and those recently released from jail, to give them a new lease on life and path for the the future. What makes it so easy to help is that one of the cornerstones for the company involves food.
Homeboy Industries began at Dolores Mission when Father Boyle became parish priest in what was once the most heavily populated area for gang activity in the U.S. He listened, welcomed and tried to help each gang member he came across. He was Boyle Heights' own caped crusader, cruising the violent streets late at night to try and stop fights and give an ear to unheard kids.
His rehabilitation program started with giving out a few bucks to troubled teens who would do odds and ends around the church. In 1992, Boyle found a benefactor to acquire a nearby building to house the first Homeboy Bakery, and Homeboy Industries was truly born after the addition of a tortilla stand in Grand Central Market.
Homeboy is now celebrating its 25 year anniversary and is currently based on the edge of Chinatown, sandwiched between two county jails. I hadn't been to the 6 year old headquarters, but figured it was finally time to visit the cafe and tour the facility.
The building has expansive windows along one entire wall, allowing bright sunlight to enter and lighten the large rooms. Everything takes place here from cooking, eating and applying to get one of the coveted opportunities with the company, which usually accepts about 250 people per year from the thousands of applicants.
If you are accepted, you are enrolled in an 18 month training program and benefit from therapists on staff, education and job assistance and tattoo removal, which is a big problem for many since the ink covering a lot of people's bodies can be a major deterrent to finding meaningful work.
Also housed in this location is the bakery where they work 24/7 to make all of their bread that's sold at farmer's markets around town, as well as in their diner in City Hall and their soon to be opening LAX location.
Separating the Homeboy services area from the cafe is a tiny shop that does a big business with another revenue stream for Homeboy - T-shirts and printed gear. You can buy T-shirts with inspirational phrases, or a cookbook from Pati Zarate, the founding chef of Homegirl Cafe, where I was about to eat.
The Homegirl Cafe is just on the other side of the shop, next to the Homeboy Bakery, which might just be the freshest place you can buy their bread since it's steps from where it's produced.
Homegirl, as the name suggests, helps women who have also been involved with gangs or in prison with a job that will ideally lead to a better future.
This is where Pati Zarate's bold, Mexican recipes are on display Monday - Friday during breakfast and lunch, as well as during Saturday brunch. The homies are also able to learn farming skills since they grow some of their own food in local gardens which you can see highlighted in some of the salads and grilled cheese combinations which include options like roasted poblano peppers and freshly grown, seasonal veggies.
The interesting taco combinations is where I focused my energy, but not before njoying the spicy guacamole with grilled pineapple, and a refreshing, homemade spinach and mint limeade.
I couldn't decide which taco to get so I ordered 3 different ones: pork carnitas with apple-tomatillo slow, arne asada with a peanut chipotle sauce, and a spicy red mole chicken with habanero pickled onions.
I substituted the tortilla for a cactus leaf in two of them, to produce a healthier, but equally satisfying taste, sans stickers. There were no subtle flavors here. Each bite packed bold, robust flavor, which seems completely on mission with what Father Boyle is trying to achieve. He's been swinging big for 25 years, offering people hope, inspiration, and a chance at redemption. I don't think most of us can pretend to come close to touching as many lives as Father G has, but if helping can be as easy as eating some Homeboy chips and salsa, then I say bring on the margaritas and let's dig in.