Editor’s note: With the opening of the Expo Line’s extension to Santa Monica, locals have a new way to explore neighboring areas. The Daily Press will publish a weekly travelogue about what to eat, see and do near each of the stations along the Expo Line, continuing this week at the La Cienega/Jefferson stop.
When you live in a region as sprawling and massive as Greater Los Angeles, you need a place to call your own.
Maybe it’s a neighborhood cafe where servers know you by name. Maybe it’s a lesser-known hiking trail that serves as your temporary getaway. Wherever it is, it’s your comfort zone in this seemingly endless metropolis, a space that many others surely frequent but that feels personal when you’re there.
So often the City of Angels gets boiled down to a slurry of “it” places — the restaurants with the latest celebrity chefs, the bars with the swankiest interiors, the clubs with the hottest DJs. But there’s another L.A. that’s refreshingly unassuming and even more enjoyable. It’s the L.A. of the local taco stand or donut shop that doesn’t always have a line out the door, the one with the barbershop or salon that isn’t the most highly rated on Yelp but maintains a cast of regulars who wouldn’t want it any other way.
It’s the L.A. that most Angelenos know and love.
That’s the city you’ll find near the La Cienega/Jefferson station on the Expo Line, where the pressures of future development haven’t yet washed away longstanding neighborhood gems. Indeed, the prospect of a 30-story apartment complex going up near the transit stop seems to make the value of places like Westside Neighborhood Park and JNJ Burger Shack even more pronounced.
The pocket park is a small and secluded solace, a slice of open space that doesn’t feel like it’s so close to where La Cienega Boulevard meets Fairfax Avenue. It’s tucked so delicately into the surrounding neighborhood that it could easily go unnoticed. And, to many, it probably does.
There isn’t much to it other than a few grassy areas and a small playground featuring swings and a slide, but that’s all it needs to be. Westside Neighborhood Park wasn’t designed for kickball and large parties; it was created for small picnics, short outings with children and moments of outdoor tranquility in a city where that’s often lacking.
Standing a few blocks north of the park is a corner West Adams Boulevard eatery named for late owner Jay Nelson Jr., and it’s a challenge to figure out whether it’s a burger shack or barbecue joint. (Hint: It’s both.) It’s full name is JNJ Burger Shack, but its website is jnj-bbq.com. The burger ordering area is closer to the front, but the separate barbecue counter is arguably more inviting.
That’s the section that impressed Jonathan Gold on his visit nearly a decade ago. “In an era when even some of the best-known barbecue joints make do with a measly gas flame and a handful or two of wood chips,” the famed food critic wrote in a 2007 review for LA Weekly magazine, “it is nice to know that somebody is still passionate about marrying the flavors of wood smoke and meat.”
JNJ isn’t perfect. It doesn’t always stick to its summer schedule, closing a bit early on a recent evening, and its beef brisket could pull an Otis Redding and try a little more tenderness.
But this place is worth trying. The chicken is delicious, and the mixture of hot and mild barbecue sauces provides the perfect amount of heat. The baked beans are skillfully cooked and slightly sweet. The cornbread, a tad crumbly but tasty and big enough to share, pairs well with all the staples: collard greens, cole slaw, potato salad and more. And don’t forget about sweet potato pie for dessert.
Now, if only there were a hidden gem of a park within walking distance to enjoy some barbecue and sunshine in peace …
The Expo Line now has 19 stations covering 15.2 miles between Downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica. A regular one-way fare is $1.75 and includes two hours of free transfers for riders using a TAP card. A daily pass good for unlimited rides on Metro is $7 and monthly passes are $100. Visit taptogo.net for more information.