Growing up in the small city of Baldwin Park, CA, we didn't have the mainstream gangs one would have seen portrayed in media, but you could still have your day ruined by wearing the wrong colors, or simply being a young Mexican boy walking home from school.
Every city like this has its own gang etiquette. You know where you shouldn't walk through, you know what you shouldn't wear, and you know what spots are generally safer to eat in than others.
In 2001, after middle school basketball practice, my teammates decided to walk down to a local burger shop for a bite. My broke ass sheepishly decided to just go home, so I told them I was going to work on some homework — much to my own benefit.
I was lucky that day, as one of my buddies frantically called me that night, letting me know that a drive-by had just occurred while they were sitting and just trying to enjoy their post-basketball meal. It was of no fault of their own, just a product of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, with a gang member haphazardly sitting on the other side of the restaurant, essentially with a tattooed target on the back of his head. Thankfully no one was hurt.
While gangs aren't just running around shooting up the whole city 24/7, growing up in these types of neighborhoods creates a certain sense of hyper-awareness.
Which brings us to a particular neighborhood within Los Angeles, with its own unique set of gang etiquette.
There was a time when the average Los Angeles consumer wouldn't even give second thought to entering the city of Watts for its food. Back then, the prevalent gangs around there alone would be a big enough deterrent, as the idea of walking down Crip or Blood territory was a big no-no.
No, the gangs haven't disappeared. Hawkin's Burgers still sits in what is recognized as Blood territory, and when All Flavor No Grease was famously set up on 108th street, many might not have known they were biting through gooey quesadillas in an active Crip territory.
Despite being on gang grounds, there seems to be a level of respect for these home-grown Watts establishments, a respect that has managed to keep trouble away from the restaurants and its customers.
On the Katchup podcast, Watts legend Keith Garrett, owner of All Flavor No Grease, spoke candidly about his relationship with the neighborhood's gang culture. Among the surprising revelations, Garrett spoke about actually bringing the Bloods and Crips together for a cease fire agreement, in support of his sidewalk food popup.
"There was a meeting held at Markham Middle School, with both rival gangs," Garrett said. "It was like, 'If Keith said it was cool, it gotta be cool. He come in peace, so we know he wouldn't put our lives in danger to come get a plate.'"
Garrett said that from that point, both gangs saw his food stand as neutral ground. There'd be rival members walking by each other, and while the tension between them still existed, they respected Garrett enough to eat there, support, and not cause any malice that would affect his business.
"When I came on the scene, I came on the scene with my arms open, and said I love everybody," Garrett continued. "There's no color line. No Blood, no Crip, wherever you're from, you could come over and come get food."
All Flavor No Grease started in a front yard, in a less than savory neighborhood, yet there were people from all over Los Angeles coming to try this new style of quesadilla.
Suddenly, foodies, news stations, Yelpers, and those hearing the hype by word of mouth, could walk into a once feared neighborhood and eat together.
That same sense of community and respect exists with Hawkins House of Burgers, often recognized as one of the best burgers in Los Angeles.
Owner Cynthia Hawkins explained to NPR, that theirs was the only building on the street left untouched during the Watts Riots in 1965. It was no accident, as Hawkins hospitality and reputation of feeding the community easily gave them a pass during the madness that nearly burned down the whole city.
It is restaurants like these that have made it safe for the common foodie to enjoy 'hood eating spots, to the point that chef Roy Choi opened his Locol restaurant in Watts. With name-power alone, Choi had New York Times and L.A. Times columnists and foodies across the nation fearlessly strolling into Watts.
When such a wide range of eaters can get behind these restaurants, it's something special, regardless of location.
The gangs in Watts are what they are, but thankfully there is a sense of respect through food, which has helped these businesses thrive and given the world a chance to enjoy the city's unique flavors without fear.