Each time I visit Little India, I love feeling that I’ve skipped an achingly long flight to an entirely different world.
Down near Disneyland, this bustling neighborhood is beige on the outside, the full Crayola 64 on the inside — and the best place in Southern California to find Southern Indian cuisine, Bollywood movies, sparkly bangles, eyebrow threading, ornate saris, spicy chai and much more.
Right on the border of Los Angeles County and Orange County, spread out along 4 blocks of Pioneer Boulevard in the town of Artesia, Little India is (after New York City) home to the second largest ethnic Indian community in the United States.
Generally quiet on weekdays, the area really comes alive on weekends. You’ll see multi-generation families strolling together, children holding hands with small, wizened grandmothers, all going out to eat (and eat and eat) and shopping for everything from fresh okra to phone cards to ayurvedic medicine. Men sometimes wear turbans and women often wear saris or pants/tunic outfits called shalwar kamiz, but you’re just as likely to see Indian-American teenagers wearing the latest kicks and streetwear.
Come hungry, wear comfortable walking shoes and be prepared to bargain.
You can eat a little bit at several restaurants, crawling your way along Pioneer to sample a wide variety, or stay put and gorge yourself through dessert at a single spot. Branch out and try something new: a frankie, an Indian street-food version of a burrito wrapped up in a rice-flour crepe; a thali, a multi-dish meal served with several condiments on a round metal tray; a sweet mango lassi, which is a little like a fruity milkshake; or any of a dozen varieties of (unfortunately-named yet delicious) barfi, diamond-shaped sweets with a texture somewhere between pie crust and marzipan.
Blocks here are long and many businesses are contained in mini-malls; in true SoCal style, you can move your car several times as you go, or in keeping with the local culture you can simply hoof it. You’ll find lots of stores selling high-end jewelry, couture saris and handcrafted housewares, so if this is what you seek, don’t be afraid to haggle a little — it’s both customary and expected.
In fact, half the joy of the neighborhood is in the wandering. Poke in and out of shops, strolling along cases and aisles of things you quite possibly never knew you needed. If you’re so inclined, you can get your nose pierced with a tiny diamond, have your eyebrows painlessly plucked with simple sewing thread, or wander through grocery aisles looking for exotic spices and unusual flours. Comb through stacks of highly addictive Bollywood DVDs, experiment with some new music, or try several dozen different products made with henna.
Be sure not to miss:
Cottage Art for clothing, shawls, homewares, gifts, fabrics and accessories
Udupi Palace and/or Jay Bharat for traditional vegetarian cuisine from Southern India
Bombay Sweets & Snacks for the best barfi on the boulevard
Frontier Heritage for truly elegant saris
Bangle Bazaar for 3 gajillion different kinds of costume-jewelry bracelets, as well as music
Beauty Palace for eyebrow threading and henna, or mehndi, painting
Saffron Spot for exotic ice cream flavors
Naz 8 Cinemas for an in-theater Bollywood movie experience
LOGISTICS: Little India is about an hour’s drive from L.A.’s westside and about a half-hour from Downtown. Take the 5 South (Santa Ana Freeway) to the 91 West (Artesia Freeway), then take the Pioneer Boulevard exit and head south on Pioneer towards 185th Street. You’ll find plentiful metered parking on Pioneer (bring quarters and other change) and free 2-hour parking on side streets. To avoid traffic on your journey, the best weekday times to be here are between 11am and 3pm.