This year is one of rebuilding. After a year that left businesses struggling, neighbors are helping others bring LA back to life.
In this fashion, LA-based nonprofit Regarding Her is giving back to trailblazing women in Downtown LA as part of its inaugural grant program. Out of the 15 restaurants awarded grants in Los Angeles County, five are located in the heart of DTLA.
Women supporting women is the name of the game for the new DoorDash-supported grant, which awards recipients $10,000 in addition to providing mentorship from specialists in restaurant finance, human resources and marketing.
Uli Nasibova, founder and owner of Gelateria Uli, otherwise known as Uli’s Gelato, has a passion she wants to share with her community. In 2012, after having worked in the finance industry for several years, she opened a gelato shop using her own recipes that she developed in her free time.
“I most recently had worked for an investment management firm as an analyst, but I was kind of burnt out from that life, and I knew my heart wasn’t in it,” Nasibova said. “Right before I started my company, I discovered my love for recipe making, and especially gelato. I think it was part experience and part a little bit of magic, but I decided to just go for it and open a gelato store.”
When Nasibova opened her doors in 2012, she needed a new take on gelato to stand out. Using seasonal ingredients, Gelateria Uli has a daily rotating menu, meaning customers can enjoy gelato made from ripe, fresh fruits and vegetables.
“I wanted to use California’s abundance of fruit and produce. That was my inspiration,” Nasibova said. “I really love eating seasonally, so the idea was to reflect ingredients that are seasonal and prepared at peak ripeness and do a rotating menu based on that.”
In addition to classic flavors like strawberry, chocolate or lemon, Nasibova creates more eccentric and unheard of gelatos as well. This can mean anything from a gelato based on Jamaican hibiscus to one created to taste like horchata.
“I am an immigrant, so I wanted to reflect different immigrant cultures of LA,” Nasibova said. “Usually, gelato stores are very traditional, having classic flavors only, but we have the addition of using unique gelato techniques to create flavors that are a little bit more adventurous and also reflective of the population of LA.”
Nasibova said she feels humbled to have been awarded the grant and recognized by the committee that created it.
“I am honored by it, not only because we have received a monetary grant which will help our business a lot, but because of the incredible jury of the award committee. A lot of those people are my personal heroes, and I have looked up to them and their professional trajectories throughout my career.”
Monica May and Kris Trattner have a mission to serve their community. When they opened Nickel Diner in 2008, the idea was to create a place where people of all income levels could enjoy a delicious, home-cooked meal.
“We saw a need in the neighborhood to have a great place that made affordable food — so we opened one, much to our own surprise,” May said. “We run the place with respect to that, as a neighborhood community restaurant where you can get handcrafted, affordable food through hands that care.”
Nickel Diner is a relic from the ’40s, something that was discovered when May and Trattner bought an abandoned restaurant in a nearby neighborhood to where May had worked.
“When we were doing the construction, we started uncovering this plywood panel and these dropped ceilings. There were old menus on the wall, dating back to the ’40s, and old signage as well. The universe had given us this gift of a real 1940s diner.”
May and Trattner created a business that is different from many DTLA restaurants in that they do not focus on being the most exclusive destination in town. Instead, the goal is quite the opposite.
“The emphasis to us is on inclusion as opposed to exclusion, and it was really important to make sure that everyone felt welcome, whether they lived in one of the high rises or in the tents.”
The two owners go above and beyond to care for the community they are a part of. In addition to serving 300 meals each week to the Union Rescue Mission and the John Wesley Health Care Center, during the pandemic, May and Trattner turned the diner into a soup kitchen.
“It’s not easy out there, and there’s a lot of people living on the edge in tents. Who is going to care for those people? That’s why we turned ourselves into a soup kitchen during the pandemic. There was a need, and we felt we needed to rise to that occasion.”
Receiving the Regarding Her grant and being a part of the community, the program has been one of the most rewarding experiences since opening the restaurant, May said.
“The Regarding Her awards is one of the most fantastic things that has happened to us in such a long time. We have been open as a restaurant for 13 years and have always talked about networking with other women,” May said. “When the Regarding Her program started as this coalition of incredible women, all the sudden a sisterhood came together, and I couldn’t be more thankful for that.”
Nayomie Mendoza comes from a family of food industry professionals. Her Mexican heritage has inspired the food around her for most of her life. She has had an interest in creating food experiences since she can remember. In 2018, she opened Cuernavaca’s Grill, an authentic Mexican restaurant in the LA Fashion District.
“My parents and I have been in the food industry for over a decade, so when the opportunity presented itself for me to start a restaurant, I just went for it,” Mendoza said. “I was a senior in college working towards my business management degree, and it felt like the perfect opportunity. I visited the location and fell in love with the community, and I’ve been here to this day.
Cuernavaca’s Grill has some of the tastiest and most genuine Mexican food in Los Angeles. With everything made from scratch, the food is always fresh.
“I think our authenticity makes us unique. We make everything from scratch, from the tortillas to the sauces, and that’s allowed us to really persevere and why we have been so successful,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza has a fondness for celebrating the culture she has been a part of throughout her life and sharing home-cooked meals with customers inspires her.
“People come here from far, and a lot of people in our culture migrate out here for the American dream, so there’s a lot of people who have gone decades upon decades without a home-cooked meal,” Mendoza said. “When they come to our restaurant, they say it’s the closest thing they have gotten to their mom’s kitchen. That’s why we do what we do.”
While Cuernavaca’s Grill struggled due to the pandemic, falling behind on bills, it was recently featured on the Food Network, which Mendoza said brought in new traffic. This new traffic is one of the reasons that the Regarding Her award grant is so crucial.
“I’m really proud to have received this award, especially because there were so many amazing people who were also granted it,” Mendoza said. “The money is absolutely going to help us now that we’ve gotten busier to make sure we have more, better equipment that helps employees. Not only will it help us operate better for our customers, but it will save our employees from being as exhausted after work as they are right now. We are all really thankful.”
La Parrilla’s two Los Angeles locations are among the most historic businesses in the city. With the first location opened in August 1978 by María del Carmen Salas, the restaurant has been serving some of the best Mexican food in the country for 43 years. The Downtown location is historic, having opened over 20 years ago. The restaurants are a testament to Salas’ determination to honor her mother, who owned a restaurant in Salas’ hometown in Sinaloa, Mexico.
“I immigrated here to California in 1968 at the age of 24. My mother owned a small restaurant in my hometown in Mexico, and she was my inspiration,” Salas said through a translator. “I started doing small jobs. I ironed for $3 a day. I worked at a restaurant on the same street that we opened our first location and saved my tips until I was able to open La Parrilla.”
La Parrilla offers traditional Mexican food, as well as seafood dishes, using the same recipes that Salas has been using for nearly five decades. Salas wanted to emulate different Mexican states in her dishes, especially those reflective of Sinaloa.
“We have had the same traditional dishes for almost 50 years,” she said. “We really want to continue the traditional flavors of different parts of Mexico, especially my hometown, which had a unique mixture of traditional dishes and seafood dishes. We try to keep things unique, and we have secret recipes that have stood the test of time.”
When Salas started the restaurant, she did it alongside chef Juanita Pano, who has been training all of the chefs at both La Parrilla locations since 1978. Several other chefs at the restaurant have been with La Parrilla for decades. Tradition, above all, is what makes La Parrilla a comforting and unforgettable destination.
During the pandemic, Salas laid off 20 employees, which she said is one of the hardest decisions she has made. As she gradually begins to bring them back, the Regarding HER award grant has completely upped the whole team’s morale.
“The $10,000 really does help financially, but it’s the support and recognition that has brought a lot of light back into our lives and lifted our spirits,” Salas said through a translator. “They have done more than support us economically. They have given us inspiration and hope.”
La Huesuda Tacos
What started as a vision between two best friends became a very successful reality over the last five years at La Huesuda Tacos. Denice Mendez had a dream of becoming a successful entrepreneur. She, with chef Pablo Ricardo Vega, opened La Huesuda Tacos, a pop-up shop now operating full time in Los Angeles and, later, Moderno Cocina, a full-service catering company offering mouthwatering Mexican food.
“About four and a half years ago, my best friend and I made a crazy decision to open a restaurant,” Mendez said. “He had a background in cooking, and I had a hunger to be an entrepreneur as well as to get better food out there. I was always amazed by his talent, and when the restaurant he worked at closed, we started envisioning our own company and restaurant.”
It took several years for La Huesuda Tacos to find a permanent location, and Mendez says this came with highs and lows. However, she’s extremely grateful for the community that let her in.
“It was quite the adventure at the beginning. We would go to some places where we would sell really well, but then we’d go to other places and sell two tacos throughout the whole day. But we learned a lot during that time, and now we’ve found a home in a community that has been so welcoming and excited to have us.”
Mendez said that her favorite part about running La Huesuda and Moderno Cocina is seeing customers enjoy the food she serves.
“When I see a satisfied customer, I know that I’ve done my job. That’s why I get up to work in the morning, why we cook through the night and don’t sleep sometimes. It’s to see those smiles on people’s faces when they taste our food.”
The grant means much more to Mendez than financial support.
“When I received the grant, I was blown away,” she said.
“To me, it meant so much. I’m so happy there are organizations focused on women helping women like this, and being shoulder to shoulder with these other women who I absolutely look up to means the world to me.”