Word and worry spread quickly among the customers of La Esquinta as soon as handwritten signs in English and Spanish went up announcing the upcoming closure of the Echo Park Mexican restaurant. “People have been calling–they can’t believe it,” said Maria Barajas. This coming Sunday, October 28, Barajas and her husband, Alberto, will ladle their last bowl of menudo and wrap up their final carne asade burrito after the landlord of the Sunset Boulevard building decided not to renew their lease. The Barajas family, who have operated La Esquinita for more than 20 years in two Echo Park locations, plan to take all their restaurant equipment, dining room tables and the statue of Jesus overlooking the parking lot with them once the close. But at this point they don’t know when and where La Esquinita will reopen.
“We lost the lease and don’t have anywhere else to go,” said daughter Vanessa Barajas. “We are going to keep going until the last day.”
La Esquinita, which originally operated at the corner of Sunset and Douglas Street, is a family affair, with 58-year-old Alberto, a familiar sight to passerby as he works the grill behind a large window facing the sidewalk, serving as the cook and wife Maria at the ready as his chief assistant. Their daughters, Vanessa and Irene, work the cash register and waited table. Restaurant work has been hard but “we are united” as a family, said Maria Barajas.
The family has focused on making food fresh daily while keeping their prices low, a strategy that has won over residents living nearby on the eastern edge of Echo Park along with firefighters, school and Department of Water & Power workers as well as tow truck drivers. Some of the customers have been coming since the restaurant opened 22 years ago, said Maria, who is proud of the restaurant’s 4-1/2 star rating on Yelp.
The Barajas said their landlord did not explain why they had to move out when he gave them notice on Oct. 12. Alberto Barajas said previous owners had tried and failed to develop the property, which rises up a steep hill on the north side of Sunset amid a strip of hillside bungalow courts and small commercial buildings.
Recently, this stretch of Sunset Boulevard between Echo Park and downtown has attracted new shops and art spaces. One nearby auto shop owner said he was recently asked if he would sell his building to a pizzeria. Guisados, a Boyle Heights restaurant that has won rave reviews, had also been looking at Sunset Boulevard near Dodger Stadium for a new Echo Park location, according to Grub Street.
Alberto Barjas, who plans to visit his father in Mexico for the first time in 30 years after his restaurant closes, said he is not angry at the landlord or any new tenant. “Other doors will open” for us, he said.