Neigh­bor­hood fla­vors

Los Angeles Times - - FOOD & DINING - food@la­times.com BY JAVIER CABRAL

In a time when cold-press juiceries are re­lent­lessly on trend, and of­ten re­lent­lessly ex­pen­sive, Ju­gos Azteca in High­land Park is keep­ing juices old-school. For the last 21 years, the tiny juice shop on York Boule­vard has been mak­ing Mex­i­can-style fruit and veg­etable juices, smooth­ies, tor­tas, tostadas, Mex­i­can-style gelatin and other sim­ple Mex­i­can snacks for the Lati­nos who’ve lived in the neigh­bor­hood for decades, as well as some of the newer res­i­dents who ap­pre­ci­ate the value and the f la­vors of the fresh and col­or­ful drinks.

“We have cus­tomers who are wait­ing for us to open at 5:30 a.m. ev­ery day to get a green juice for break­fast and then a torta for lunch be­fore they go to work,” said the shop’s owner, Efrain Peña, 44, in Span­ish, as he took a break from record­ing his daily ses­sions on In­sta­gram.

The small, neon-green build­ing that houses Ju­gos Azteca stands out from the rest of the neigh­bor­hood’s newer style of muted col­ors. Signs ad­ver­tis­ing ev­ery­thing from “Ri­cas Tostadas” to “Di­abli­tos” and the red ta­bles and chairs out­side are as col­or­ful as the juices them­selves.

Re­cently, the shop has been get­ting a lot more cus­tomers, folks who are com­ing to meet the voice be­hind @ju­gos_azteca, on which Peña posts videos, lots of videos, some­times as many as 30 a day, some­times rack­ing up 5,000 views in a few hours. (Peña’s yearold ac­count has 14,000 fol­low­ers.)

“It’s got­ten to the point where he’s rec­og­nized by fans and stopped when we’re out eat­ing,” said Peña’s old­est son, 20-year-old Raul, who ini­tially taught his father how to use the app. “At first I was like, ‘Dad! That’s a lit­tle weird!’ But now, I see the growth in our sales and how far peo­ple come just to try our food. It’s amaz­ing.”

Most of the videos doc­u­ment the play­ful ban­ter in Span­ish be­tween the folks who work at Ju­gos Azteca, in­clud­ing Peña’s two sons — 14-year-old Randy helps out when he’s not in school — and wife Veron­ica. On one video, Peña calls out Randy for not hav­ing a girl­friend and cre­ates a hash­tag for him (#bus­can­donovias); an­other shows Peña slic­ing cu­cum­bers di­rectly into his green agua fresca for a daily spe­cial; in an­other he nar­rates each layer that goes into their pam­bazo, a Mex­ico City-style grilled torta that’s dunked in red chile.

Peña’s sig­na­ture greet­ing is al­ways “chaval­ones,” his good­bye “fierro,” and fol­low­ers can of­ten hear his cus­tomers re­peat­ing the words to him while or­der­ing juices and rais­ing their fists.

Peña said he be­gan mak­ing juices and tor­tas “out of ne­ces­sity,” as an im­mi­grant with only a mid­dle-school ed­u­ca­tion. Orig­i­nally from Ense­nada, Mex­ico, Peña moved to High­land Park in 1986. He met his wife, who im­mi­grated to Los An­ge­les from More­los, Mex­ico, with her fam­ily, while work­ing at a Ken­tucky Fried Chicken restau­rant. Be­fore open­ing Ju­gos Azteca, Peña worked in more than 20 dif­fer­ent res­tau­rants — in­clud­ing, from 1997 to 2000, the taco stand he owned on Sun­set

Boule­vard in Echo Park.

“I go into some of th­ese new places open­ing in the area and I can’t af­ford any­thing,” said Elvira Aguilar, who has known Efrain and Veron­ica Peña since they were all in high school down the street, and stopped by for a carne asada torta. She’s been a loyal cus­tomer since Veron­ica first started mak­ing freshly pressed juices at El Huarache Azteca, her mother’s restau­rant (beloved in the com­mu­nity for its huaraches, grilled and loaded san­dal-shaped disks of masa) a hun­dred feet away. That was 21 years ago, when Veron­ica and Efrain still shared El Huarache Azteca’s space to sell their juices. In 2008, their cur­rent space be­came avail­able and they moved their en­tire op­er­a­tion there. (You can still or­der a juice from Ju­gos Azteca from the menu at El Huarache Azteca and some­one will run it over for you.)

The recipes for the juices were cre­ated by Veron­ica’s grand­mother in More­los, who de­vel­oped the blends be­liev­ing that they help with com­mon ailments.

The medic­i­nal ap­pli­ca­tions for juices have been used in Mex­ico for decades, and thanks to the re­cent trend of juic­ing in Amer­i­can cul­ture, Peña and his fam­ily have seen an uptick in their sales. And that’s in ad­di­tion to the cus­tomers who come to the shop on the week­ends for the $1.25 tostada spe­cial.

“I never would have imag­ined to­day’s High­land Park,” Peña said, though he also noted that “the neigh­bor­hood is also a lot more tran­quil than it was in the past.” Smil­ing, his cell­phone in his hand, he said he’s not plan­ning on leav­ing any­time soon.

“My aguas fres­cas are $1 and they keep ev­ery­body happy,” he said, “no mat­ter where the cus­tomer is from.”

Pho­to­graphs by Kirk McKoy Los An­ge­les Times

EFRAIN PEÑA runs High­land Park juice shop Ju­gos Azteca with his fam­ily, serv­ing tor­tas and tostadas too.

THE SHOP’S neon-green build­ing stands out from the neigh­bor­hood’s newer, muted color style.

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