Since its launch about one year ago, our East LA Latin Flavors Tour has blessed many lives with myriad of color, culture, and especially joy. One player who has touched not only our lives, but those of his entire neighborhood and beyond, is Carlos Ortez. His Un Solo Sol Kitchen is the most ethnically-eclectic restaurant along Boyle Heights’ First Street Corridor at Mariachi Plaza.
Having studied as a young man in El Salvador with Jesuit priests, Carlos is a naturopathic practitioner, an environmental engineer by day, a lifelong activist and modern-day peacemaker. His authentic passion for the unity of community, and the arts and culture that beautify his world, is truly inspiring.
Enjoy this story from my very enjoyable Saturday morning conversation with Carlos!
To begin, let’s talk some food. You claim not to make pupusas as perfectly as (Un Solo Sol’s) Maria does. What dishes are your own specialty?
It’s not that I don’t try to make pupusas well (laugh)! Salads are actually what I love to make, especially my Greek Salad. In naturopathic medicine, we believe that raw and semi-raw foods are most alive with the richness of the earth’s nutrients, and the easiest to digest. From a holistic approach, the ingredients of a Greek salad ~ tomatoes, cucumbers, green bell peppers, green leaf and Romaine lettuce ~ have a combination of colors and simplicity that are very important for good nutrition.
Un Solo Sol Kitchen offers one of the most delicious and healthy menus in town. Which items are quickly gaining popularity and fame?
Our signature dishes are Mushroom-Green Posole, Pupusas of all varieties, and Green Enchiladas. Our vegan enchiladas with tofu/spinach, and spinach/mushrooms are well-received, and a new vegetarian enchilada with zucchini was inspired by a customer! My vision is to eventually have a raw, seasonal menu.
You call yourself a “promoter of the underdog everywhere”, and that includes your passion for supporting children to express their creativity. The first art exhibit at Un Solo Sol Kitchen displayed schoolchildren’s interpretation of the textures in nature.
In my view of the world and from a naturopath’s focus, the aim is children; they become the future. It’s important to educate them from the inside out. They need opportunities to express what is inside of them, as well as learning words and letters. The art exhibit of their work was about their finding something in nature to illustrate in their own way. Their creations were very touching to visitors in the restaurant.
Children are also very responsive to new ways of eating, as I found when Un Solo Sol catered healthy school lunch programs, even though (laugh) they did sometimes ask for ketchup!
We’d love our readers to know about your Pro-Serenata Community Dinners, and Thursday Twilight Serenades (Noches de Serenata) by the Mariachis.
Wednesday night Community Dinners, which cost $5, are my challenge to the community. If 50 dinners are sold on two consecutive Wednesday nights, then Mariachis will play, along the sidewalk on First Street, on a Thursday night. Thursday, March 1, is the “third coming of the Mariachis”!
Important business opportunities for Un Solo Sol came about after “the second coming” in early February, and solidarity is now inspired within the community to support local businesses. Merchants are challenged to use Community Dinners for fundraisers. Councilman Jose Huizar and his people have had more of a presence, and ideas for developing this new Arts District are being supported by the City and non-profits like the East LA Community Corporation. Noches de Serenata is supported by a community collective, rather than by 1 or 2 people.
You are very confident that “the artists will come”, so are we! Please tell us what Un Solo Sol, and its fans, have to look forward to.
The gradual success of Noches di Serenata is symbolic. People will come little by little. Un Solo Sol was originally conceived as a center for art, culinary, and hospitality. Eventually, I envision centers all over the world, like those in the Cibao region of the Dominican Republic (the birthplace of Merengue). Artists will commune, with corridors for housing, kitchen, and spaces to create art. The artists will travel between these centers (i.e., from Mexico to Nigeria) to exchange their art, and share the stories that inspire their work. These core of these centers will be sustained by the community. What is going on right now in Boyle Heights, is already a microcosm of this vision.
(Awe-inspired sigh) Thank you for all of that, Carlos ... Now it’s time for Rapid Fire! 10 questions, quick answers, no thinking allowed:
Favorite food in the whole world? Pupusa with cheese and beans
Pupusa or tamale? Tamale De Elote (sweet corn tamale)
Art medium you are most passionate about right now? Art on canvas
Mariachi ~ by day or by night? By night
Mariachi or Flamenco music? Flamenco guitar
Dance ~ Flamenco or Salsa? Salsa
Poetry or prose? Prose
Film or live theater? Live theater
Favorite musical artist? Ruben Blades
Quick advice to aspiring artists? “In your art, have a commitment to the reality that surrounds you in an honest, progressive way; propose a change, a solution.”
I thoroughly loved spending this very special time with Carlos to learn more about the unique "field of dreams" he is weaving with such passion. Finally, I have only one thing to add ~ Never let it be said that one person can’t make a difference.
Read more about “Fabulous Art in Boyle Heights” in our August 2010 blog post.
Un Solo Sol Kitchen is open Tuesdays-Sundays 5-10pm (and later on Friday and Saturdays on occasion!) Morning and daytime space is available for private parties and classes for up to 25 persons.
Until next time, I remain ~
Your Chef and Tour Maestra,