How the beloved Highland Park spot went from grocery store to neighborhood gem

By Torii MacAdams
February 26, 2018
Photo by Natalie B. Compton

In the 1950s, Los Angeles was predominantly white and conservative and active in de jure and de facto oppression of people of color. But Rogelio Fonseca was lucky.

“Did you experience segregation at all?” I ask while sitting with him at his restaurant, La Abeja.       

“Me?” he says, pointing at a complexion more indebted to fair-skinned Spanish conquistadores than Mexico’s indigenous peoples. “Nah. Never. I don’t look Hispanic, do I? It never bothered me.”

Back in 1955, bar owner and restaurateur Jose Fonseca brought his wife, Gloria, and their baby, Rogelio, north from Mexico City to Los Angeles. The family settled in Highland Park, then a mostly white and elderly neighborhood a half-century or so removed from its period as a rustic, gurgling getaway for the city’s intellectuals.

Fourteen years after their arrival in the United States, with Los Angeles becoming increasingly Latino, the Fonseca family took a financial risk: They took over the Ameca Bakery, a rundown pharmacy-turned-grocery on the corner of Avenue 37 and Figueroa, Highland Park’s arterial thoroughfare. It would prove to be a fortuitous location.

 

Rogelio Fonseca, the owner of La Abeja
Photo by Natalie B. Compton

“After a couple months, since we couldn’t go back home and eat, my mom started using the kitchen to cook for me and my dad here,” Rogelio says. “The same time, there used to be Barbara Ann Bakery, a construction company, and a cabinet factory. Sometimes they would come over here to buy cigarettes or sodas. Some guys would walk in and we’d be eating and they’d say ‘Hey, Gloria, did you cook something?’ ‘Hey, do you think if we bring our own bread you can make us a sandwich?’ My mom said ‘Sure, why not?’”

As word of Gloria Fonseca’s cooking began spreading among the flour- and dust-caked laborers, the family added tables inside the store to meet demand. She’d chosen La Abeja (the bee) for the animal’s industriousness, and because there weren’t other insect-related business names in the Yellow Pages. The Fonseca family’s work ethic matched that of the restaurant’s namesake. They worked 15-hour days for more than two years straight and, by 1971 or 1972, La Abeja—which Rogelio pronounces not as two words like I, a pureblood gringo, do but as a single “L’abeja”—was a restaurant. Only then did Gloria decide to take a Tuesday off.

The tradition, like so much of the original La Abeja, remains: The restaurant is closed on Tuesdays. Though the exterior of “The Bee” has changed to include portraits of The Three Stooges and a colorful wraparound mural of Mexican history and iconography (as rendered by Leo Limon, best known for painting the Los Angeles River’s storm drain covers to look like cats), the interior has undergone precious few alterations. The poured concrete floors scored into three-by-three squares, the wood laminate tables, the wood panelling, the light brown chairs and dark brown leather booths—all retain the same smooth, aged gloss. Any change, like the menudo to-go sign no longer being hand drawn, or a new painting on the wall, seems noticeable. (It felt cataclysmic when La Abeja began accepting credit and debit cards.) Jose and Gloria have passed, but Rogelio is still there six days per week with help from wife Julia—his middle school sweetheart—and son Rogelio Jr. Importantly, the food remains consistently delicious and served in generous portions.

 

Huevos Rancheros at La Abeja
Photo by Natalie B. Compton

When I ask what he’d recommend to a first-time visitor—and he can pick out first-timers—he answers with half a menu’s worth of items: chile relleno, the marinated-for-a-week carne adobada, menudo (Saturdays or Sundays), and short rib soup (Thursdays), enchiladas verde or mole (or one of each on the same plate), and, their most popular dish of all, huevos rancheros with fresh salsa.

And, with Highland Park in the midst of a deracinating spate of gentrification, there are more first-timers than ever. While the neighborhood was never entirely without white residents (Jackson Browne is likely Highland Park’s most famous native), and census data is eight years out of date, the median price for a home has more than doubled in the past five years. Because La Abeja sits opposite a park named for a downed World War I pilot, and because the surrounding buildings are mostly single-family homes, the southerly stretch of Figueroa feels more static than the area north of Avenue 50 with its record shops, Pop Physique, and hysterically overpriced vegan restaurant. Still, it’s likely just a matter of time until La Abeja is within a mumbled yoga mantra’s distance from a shop selling healing crystals.

Rogelio seems sanguine about the sudden desirability of the neighborhood. He’s lived through—and served—numerous iterations of Northeast LA.. When I ask about the changes, he says, “People are jogging with their dogs and baby carriages. It’s quieter, more peaceful. The people are more active, which I never saw before.” Eventually, there will have to be another iteration of La Abeja, too.

Don't ask about credit
Photo by Natalie B. Compton

“Do you think your kids will take over the restaurant after you?” I ask.

“That’s up to them. That you can’t force on anybody. It takes a different type of personality to live with it, work with it, give up a lot of time. It’s a rough business–not the work itself, but the time you have to give up to make it work.”

“I assume you’re here at least 12 hours per day,” I say.

“It’s been 49 years. I don’t think about it anymore. I just do my job. If you start thinking about it, it weighs you down pretty bad.”

“It must be instinct at this point.”

“I enjoy the clientele, like this guy here,” he says, pointing at a man reading an issue of Hot Rod with grey-streaked hair flowing freely from a Panama hat. “They all become like family. It makes it easy. I never have a bad day here.”

           

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