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A Taste of Home

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By Camille Massey

“I moved to Los Angeles from Mexico about 45 years ago to work and have been doing so ever since. It’s all I know,” said Josephina Lugo la Doña, the owner of La Doña restaurant in South Central Los Angeles.

About 25 years ago, la Doña discovered her passion for cooking and decided to make a career out of it. She moved to Los Angeles from the state of Sinaloa in Mexico and started out as a street vendor selling food from a cart. Deciding it was time to move on and expand her business, la Doña rented out a space in a plaza on San Pedro Street.

“When I first moved to this neighborhood, there were no seafood restaurants in the area,” said la Doña. “It was the perfect place to open up my own business and this building that I’m currently in said they were renting spaces, so here I am.”

Combining her last name and place of origin, she named the restaurant La Doña de Sinaloa, which quickly became a neighborhood favorite for its delectable dishes.

“I live in the area and stumbled upon La Doña about a year or so ago,” said local handyman Hector Garcia. “I was born and raised in Mexico so trust me, I know good mariscos. La Doña definitely has the best I’ve ever tasted in this city. You can’t beat em!”

Surely, a ton of work goes into not only keeping customers begging for more mariscos, but also in managing and maintaining a restaurant on a daily basis.

“I do everything,” said la Doña. “I manage, I cook, I watch over my staff and tell them what to do. I’m in charge of the whole enchilada and then some!”

In addition to the stress of handling countless daily responsibilities at the restaurant, la Doña must also deal with the reality of the stagnant economy slowing down her once booming business.

“We’re suffering big time,” said manager and la Doña’s daughter, Grace Cerlantez. “We’re just hanging in here by a thread. We have no customers, not even on the weekends anymore. It’s really slow.”

And as if the harsh effects of the struggling economy are not enough, La Doña also has to deal with competitor restaurants that have sprung up in the area over the years.

“Although it was just me here when I first opened the restaurant, it’s not that way anymore,” said la Doña. There are so many other seafood restaurants in this area, even on this street. Chon Mariscos is just up the block.”

Regardless of the long days and nights, grueling economic blows, and community competition, la Doña admits that the rewards of owning her own restaurant are just as vast. In addition to fulfilling her passion for cooking almost everyday, she is also able to get in touch with her creative side in terms of devising unique items for the menu.

“Camarones a la Doña is my favorite dish on the menu,” said la Doña. “It’s a shrimp dish that I created myself and I cook it with tequila. Other popular dishes among customers are Caldo de Siete Mares, the Dish of the Seven Seas, and Filete Rieno, which has fish inside.”

In addition to dreaming up new menu items, la Doña also had the pleasure of designing and decorating her restaurant space when it first opened. The walls are filled with brightly-colored, detailed scenes of forests and beaches, as well as the paraphernalia of friends, family members, and famous people.

“The murals were painted by a friend of mine named Richard who passed away just two years ago,” said la Doña. “He was a very talented artist. Take this wall for example. Twenty-two years ago, I asked him to paint me a beach scene and he did it without help or using any stencils or anything.”

Just 25 years ago, la Doña built her restaurant from the ground up and has remained in the same place ever since. Aside from owning a food truck that sells her restaurant’s food up and down 22nd Street, la Doña does not have any other plans for the future of her business.

“I love my restaurant,” said la Doña. "I don't want to do anything else except be here with my family until the day I die."

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