It’s Thursday night and the drunk college kids are out in droves. I had gotten the munchies about fifteen minutes ago, and decided to make the trek deep into USC territory just for my favorite nachos. They are to be found at Chano’s – wonderfully, authentically Mexican and around since 2003.
I get on the 110 South and exit Adams, turning right onto Figueroa. At Figueroa and Adams I can see the Automobile Club of Southern California, which is Triple A’s main office, a building that was constructed in 1923. To my right is the St. Vincent de Paul Church, also built in the 1920’s. This area is officially known as the Figueroa Corridor, but I call it Fast Food Row. El Pollo Loco. Del Taco. McDonald’s. Carl’s Jr. Fatburger. Yoshinoya. Jack in the Box. And, of course, Chano’s at the corner of 30th and Figueroa. 3000 Figueroa Blvd. I park in front of the building on the street because their three parking spaces (one handicapped) are all taken.
Chano’s isn’t so much a restaurant as a stand. A stand with a take-out window. There is no indoor seating, and dining accommodations are provided by rickety plastic picnic tables with matching red plastic umbrellas. There are a few tables in the back under a make-shift wooden shelter, and people are scattered and eating here and there.
I get in line behind a rather inebriated fellow in a blue and white checkered shirt, untucked above some khakis and brown loafers. He can’t stand straight, softly swaying forwards and backwards, sometimes catching himself with a quick step forward or a hand on his friend’s shoulder. The friend, decked out in a black SC sweatshirt with cardinal and gold lettering, has decided to slur his order to the cook in Spanish. I can see the man behind the counter playing along with him, joking over his shoulder in English to the other cooks about the guy’s condition.
As they stumble through the transaction, I check out the rest of the area. On the west side of Figueroa, in addition to the Yoshinoya, is a Cal Mart and Spudnuts Donuts. A block up in “The Row Center” I see a Pasta Roma and Goodwill. South on Figueroa stands the historic Felix the Cat Chevrolet dealership. Winslow B. Felix opened this showroom in 1921, and sought to capture the “lucky” and smiling visage of the cartoon character as his mascot. Today it is one of the most well-known LA landmarks, and can be seen from the 110 Harbor Freeway.
At 29th and Fig is the 9-0 or the 901 Club. I reminisce about the days when I frequented that place, way back when it was still a dive bar. The smell of vomit and booze and cigarette smoke all accosted your nose as you entered. The bathrooms were unbearable, and oftentimes we went next door to the Panda Express to use theirs instead. Now, though, the joint has undergone a hefty transformation, complete with plasma tv’s and hot bartenders, the smells now only of body heat and beer. The line to get in is around the corner, also a new thing.
The 9-0 is like a beacon for the gaggles of students. They emerge from their dorms and apartments and overpriced fraternities and sororities arm-in-arm (buddy system everyone!) with one another. The girls screech and laugh and click-click their way to the bar, already unsteady in their sparkly heels. They stream past me from every direction, oblivious to traffic signals or crosswalks. One reveler, halfway down the block, actually does a complete 180 and turns back toward Chano’s, entranced by the smells. He gets behind us in line.
I return back to my observation of our comrades at the window. They are still attempting to place their order, nearly five minutes having passed, but at least they have finally switched back to English. The second of the two guys says okay, I only want four things on the nachos. Beans, cheese, onion, guacamole, and cilantro. He ticks them off on his fingers as he talks. He blinks. Oh shit. I guess that’s five things. The Chano’s guy smirks, apparently used to the motley ensemble of late night patrons.
It’s finally our turn. My friend and I decide to split the chicken nachos and a coke. Portions are enormous here and this especially holds true for the nachos. A huge plate of chips covered in beans, cheese, chicken, guacamole, onion, cilantro, salsa and sour cream are stuffed into a square styrofoam container. There is no way to eat them in any kind of civilized manner. You just lay aside the utensils, and dig in, praying that you don’t get anything on your blouse. All this for only about six bucks.
Chano’s is also known for their carne asada burritos and the menudo they serve on Saturdays and Sundays. They didn’t use to accept credit cards, so there was an ATM. It sits there, chained to the wall, the inscription REFTA carved below the screen. As I’m pondering these letters, a siren wails past, LAPD hard at work in the wee hours of the morning. Five minutes later, another cop car speeds past. They’re not an unfamiliar sight in these parts.
The random assortment of people now in and around the line is normal for a Thursday night. The students, fully taking advantage of their newfound 21-and-over status, mix in with the locals, laughing, joking, talking about sports. The air around us is jovial and familiar, social echelons transgressed, people brought together by the common bond of SC football and Chano’s nachos. As we sit and chow down, another chap in an SC rugby shirt serenades us with Besame, Besame mucho! I won’t kiss him, no matter how much he begs, and neither will my friend. The singer is soon joined by his companion and the two of them combine vocals in a very drunken and toxic manner. This is our cue to leave, laughing uproariously. Sometimes it can be a pain to head so far into enemy territory, but trust me, the food and entertainment are well worth it.