Clifton’s cafeteria & paletería la michoacana

The first floor
The first floor of Clifton’s Cafeteria.

On a recent Saturday my friend Meg and I headed to the Fashion District in Downtown LA for lunch and fabric shopping. We were both hungry (Meg because she had swum probably two hundred laps that morning at the pool and me because I had slept in until 11 AM and hadn’t eaten breakfast — sad, that contrast), so we went to Clifton’s first to load up on hearty starches and gravies.

Clifton’s Cafeteria is one of the oldest remaining cafeterias in Los Angeles and undoubtedly the most bizarrely decorated. The first and second floors have a cabin-in-the-woods feeling as seen through a Disney lens, with a giant forest mural, faux caves and a moose head mounted on the wall. After shuttling through a narrow mirrored passageway, you step into the sort of bustling, bright cafeteria serving area loved by geriatrics and small children everywhere. There is Jell-O. There is three-bean salad. There is a man getting a medieval-looking, ginormous turkey leg smothered in gravy, with mashed potatoes on the side. Awesome. You pile your tray with the cold sides, breads and desserts of your choice, and then the nice ladies manning the entrees will plunk whatever hot dishes you want onto a plate. To drink, giant cups of fruit-adorned Olé are set out alongside the usual soda, coffee and tea. I always get the Olé.

Entering the cafeteria
The non-woodland area of Clifton’s.

The first floor has the forest mural and moose head and the second floor has low ceilings and giant light-box photos of idyllic outdoor scenes. But it’s the third floor that I always go for, with its red flocked wallpaper and crown molding that you know must have been so chic and elegant in 1935. It’s also usually the least crowded. People who frequent cafeterias generally don’t like to walk up stairs.

My meal
So much ham on my plate….

Too bad the food isn’t very good. On this day, the three-inch layer of ham slices paving my plate was far too salty. The biscuits were, as usual, fluffy and inoffensive. The bean salad tasted only of vinegar and had a funky smell. Meg’s turkey enchilada was decent, though, and we both finished at least half of our desserts. It’s hard to mess up strawberries and whipped cream.

After eating we walked around the third floor, looking at pictures of children’s meals at Clifton’s through the ages and marveling at the now-demolished South-Seas-themed Clifton’s, which had also been in Downtown LA and was notable for the giant waterfall tumbling down around its entrance.

Inside Paletería La Michoacana
Inside Paletería La Michoacana.

We left the cool dimness of Clifton’s and waded through the bustling heat of Broadway toward our next destination: Paletería La Michoacana. Paletas are Mexican ice pops, way better than, say, Rocket Pops because they come in flavors like cucumber-chile, peanut and soursop. I don’t even know what soursop is, but it’s really fun to say. The freezers in Paletería La Michoacana were stacked neatly with colorful bars, too many to choose from, and when I asked the adorable girl behind the counter what she recommended, she pointed out the mango-chile (“it’s so spicy”) and guava (“it’s so sour”). Meg got the mango-chile and I considered the guava, but wanted to go for something totally different — there’s a pico de gallo flavor on the menu, but I didn’t know if I could handle that. I asked about chamoy. “It’s so spicy.” It was red, studded with yellow chunks of fruit. I got it.

Mango-chile paleta
Meg’s mango-chile paleta.

Chamoy paleta
My chamoy paleta.

Outside we peeled away the plastic and started in quickly, the bars already starting to drip in the heat. Meg’s was full of mango chunks and chile flecks, sweet and spicy and sour. Mine was spicy and salty, the red chamoy frozen around pieces of pineapple. More than anything, it tasted like someone made a popsicle with Sriracha. Which isn’t surprising, since chamoy is the brine used to pickle fruit, concentrated and seasoned with chile. It’s basically spicy pickle juice. I like pickle juice, but this paleta was too salty for me and I sadly abandoned it halfway through. I might have been better off with the guava. I hear it’s so sour.

Paletas!
Paletas stacked, ready to be eaten.

I’ll definitely be back to try more paletas the next time I’m in the area; the nut-based flavors sound awesome. But no more pickle juice desserts for me.

Clifton’s Cafeteria
648 S Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90014

(213) 627-1673

Paletería La Michoacana
306 W 7th St.
Los Angeles, CA 90014

(213) 623-2650