When Kamasi Washington was called in to the studio to play saxophone and oversee string arrangements on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, there weren’t enough hours in the work day to sit down and break bread with the Compton rapper as he had hoped. “When I got in with Kendrick, it was crunch time,” says the Inglewood native. You can hear the payoff, however, on tracks like Lamar’s “u,” where Washington’s tenor sax provides an unsettling, cathartic backdrop for the emcee’s open battle with depression. “We were pressin’. It was work, work, work.”
It’s a scenario Washington is probably not unfamiliar with, as his horn guides him to the inner-circles of some of L.A.’s most respected beat-makers, jazz musicians, and hip-hop heads. That’s a blessing for his career in light of his triple album, The Epic, but admittedly a strain on his eating ambitions. “I end up eating way later than I should, so finding good stuff at night [is a challenge].” A brief conversation about his usual game-plan reveals his bonafides are in check, though: he name drops the 24-hour steakhouse Pacific Dining Car in Santa Monica, the stoner standby Cactus Taqueria in Hollywood, and El Atacor in Cypress Park—”Number 11, though. That’s the fresher one”—which, before it recently closed, was open until 4am.
Finding those late-night options aren’t as easy on his home turf, says Washington, but it doesn’t take away from the vibrancy of South L.A.—especially Leimert Park, which he calls the “creative center” of Los Angeles. For Washington, spending time there was a transformative experience. “There’s a strong connection to jazz there,” he says. “I’d see legends like Billy Higgins, the most recorded jazz drummer of all time, at the World Stage [venue] on a Thursday. Pharoah Sanders would show up too. They were giants among us. Leimert is a space for people to be creative. There’s no separation between the arts and the people.”
Aside from its musical heritage, there is also a legacy of great food in and around the area, stretching from Leimert to other adjoining neighborhoods. Drop by Harold and Belle’s, for instance, the 40-plus-year-old New Orleanian restaurant, and you might find Kendrick Lamar’s producer Terrace Martin at the bar with a bowl of gumbo. Washington insists that what makes South L.A. special is the diversity of cuisines at play—featuring some of most pristine Mexican seafood SoCal has to offer, and unrivaled jerk chicken, to name a few.
Here we follow Kamasi Washington’s culinary map, stretching from Inglewood to Leimert Park, for eating well in South L.A.
Stuff I Eat
Address and phone: 114 N Market St, Inglewood, CA 90301 (310-671-0115)
Washington says: “This is the best vegan restaurant in Los Angeles, period. Not just South L.A. I’m not a vegan, but their food is so good that I eat there all the time. At one point I tried to be a vegetarian, but I’m a foodie so it’s hard for me to let go completely. It’s not just soul food either—they make a good enchilada platter, but I always order the mixed tacos with wild rice and tofu. They also have a nut burger. I’m not so into the name [laughs] but it’s super good. (Photo: Yelp/Anna T.)
Washington says: “For seafood, I head to Coni’ on Imperial. It’s a Mexican spot that serves exceptional tilapia, fish tacos, and langoustines. In terms of flavor profile, it’s some of the best out there.” (Photo: Bill Esparza)
Address and phone: 5844 W Manchester Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90045 (310-645-6666)
Washington says: “It’s a Mediterranean spot on Manchester. All the kebabs are unbelievable, including the steak. Be on the lookout for the lamb chops too.” (Photo: Yelp/Marcia S.)
Orleans & York Deli
Address and phone: 4454 W Slauson Ave, Windsor Hills, CA (323-291-8800)
Washington says: “It’s a sandwich place on Slauson and they specialize in po’ boys and pastrami, but my go-to is the gumbo mumbo. Imagine making gumbo that was thick enough to put in a sandwich! [laughs].” (Photo: Yelp/Paul V.)
Ackee Bamboo Jamaican Cuisine
Washington says: “It’s in the Crenshaw district in the middle of South Central, and arguably has the best Jamaican food. You gotta get brown-stewed chicken or the jerk chicken.” (Photo: Yelp/Maisha R.)
Art and Music in Leimert Park
Washington says: “The artistic center of Los Angeles is really Leimert park. In terms of venues, you have the World Stage, Barbara Morrison’s, Project Blowed—all these clubs in a concentrated area. And on weekends they have a drum circle in the park. Leimert was one of the last places where the music was happening just for the sake of the music. It was never the popular center of arts and culture, but it was a place for people trying to be true to their art. There’s a freedom still here that’s hard to find anywhere else, and a community of people who appreciate that. People are making jewelry and clothes; you can go to a jam session, or sit at an open mic. There’s a festival every year, which is a good time to visit. If you’re looking to experience the voice that people are now hearing in L.A., this is where it came from.” (Photo courtesy Mike Park)