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CJ's - All that LA Can Be!

Westside restaurant a wonderful representation of the diversity that makes up The City of Angels

By Alejandro Diaz
Published on LatinoLA: December 5, 2005

CJ's - All that LA Can Be!

To an outsider, Los Angeles is a city filled with celebrities, movie producers, struggling actors, and gangs. But the reality is much more complex. The City of Angels is a thriving modern metropolis inhabited by people from all walks of life. There are Latinos, African-Americans, Anglos, Asians, and a host of other peoples who make this their home, and most of them have nothing to do at all with 'Hollywood' or with gangs. It is common to see gay, straight, singles, couples, and families all living together in the same neighborhood. There's something for everyone here.

And on any given weekend morning you can find this wonderful mix of folks at CJ's Cafe on Pico Blvd. You'll see African-Americans in their Sunday best coming in after church services, hipsters who are a bit disheveled after a night out on the town, and entire Latino families all sitting alongside one another enjoying a great meal. It is a wonderful representation of the diversity that makes up The City of Angels.

You are bound to enjoy anything you order from the menu. There are grits, collared greens, chicken wings, omellettes, hash browns, and your choice of Mexican breakfasts that includes huevos rancheros, chilaquiles, and machaca, Whatever you order make sure you also get the pancakes, they're the best in town and a stack of 3 will only cost you $1.99. Not only is the food delicious but the Latino crew is courteous and prompt and the owner is always personable and available. It's one of the truly great establishments in Los Angeles but what makes it even greater is the story of the woman behind it all.

In 1984, when she was barely seventeen, Jessica Padilla arrived in Los Angeles from Guadalajara, Mexico. She was alone, didn't have much, spoke little English, but was nonetheless determined to take her shot at the 'American Dream.' And in fact a few years later she embarked in the pursuit of becoming a successful entrepreneur.

Right off the bat she worked two, three and sometimes four jobs in order to save money. One of the first places she was employed was at a fast food joint called Lucy's. Jessica worked as a waitress and saw first hand how a restaurant is managed. She enjoyed interacting with the clientele and it is there where she decided that one day she would have her very own diner. During the day, Jessica worked at Lucy's and at night she was a cleaning woman at a local hospital. At this time Jessica met a man and fell in love. Unfortunately, their union didn't last but from that relationship came a son, Jesus Cisneros.

This grueling work pace went on for the next few years until finally Jessica and her sister, Marta Gonzalez, decided the time was right. In 1988 they plunged all of their savings into a run down coffee shop in LA's near Westside. The neighborhood was somewhat dilapidated and the space needed a lot of work, but never afraid of getting her hands dirty, Jessica was not deterred the least bit. She was twenty-one years old and full of energy.

With her infant son and an adopted daughter in tow - Blanca Gonzalez, who is now 22 and serving in the Navy oversees ' Jessica got to work. The first order of business was naming the restaurant. Jessica wanted to use her son's initials but JC sounded too much like the department store so she came up with CJ's instead, her son's initials inverted. She and her sister then labored fourteen hours a day trying to make this thing fly.

Young and inexperienced, Jessica learned some very important details right on the job. She was schooled on filing for a business permit, paying taxes, and on how to satisfy the stringent city food preparation regulations, by simply going down to City Hall day after day until all of her questions were answered and after she got everything just right. Another essential lesson learned was to maintain reasonable business hours. Wanting to draw a late crowd, they experimented by staying open until 9:00 pm but unfortunately they were held up at gunpoint one too many times. Jessica instructed her employees to never put up a fight and to always abide by the robber's wishes. Luckily no one was ever hurt. But to be on the safe side CJ's hours are now permanently from 6:00am to 6:00pm. To Jessica the extra revenue is not worth ever endangering anyone's life.

At the onset, CJ's only served up coffee and bagels. But soon the patrons from this predominantly African-American area started making requests for a more diverse menu. So Jessica sold her house and invested all of the proceeds into a full service kitchen. She could now satisfy her client's request for things like oxtail, short ribs, corn bread, catfish, and black-eyed peas. There was one problem: Jessica was Mexican and didn't know the first thing about Soul Food. But one of her very first customers, Fred, volunteered to teach her. They spent weeks together in the kitchen. Fred would make Jessica cook a dish, he'd taste it, and if it didn't meet his approval he'd make her do it over again until it was perfect. Not wanting to waste any food, instead of throwing any of it away Jessica and her family ate a lot of bad Soul Food in those days. Soon though, Jessica was able to compete with the best of them; every cook from then on has been personally trained by her on the finer points of Soul Food.

Fred was an elderly gentleman who has since passed away. Jessica is forever grateful to him and to this day she still gets emotional when speaking of him.

A while back Jessica bought out her sister, who opened a restaurant of her own. But the business still remains a family affair. Jessica now runs CJ's with her husband of three years, Sergio Padilla (they have a son together, Sergio Alonzo, who is one years old), and Jesus who is now seventeen.

As CJ's menu broadened so did its clientele. In the mid 1990's Latino working-class families started moving in. The restaurant had primarily catered to the African-American crowd but also carried a Mexican menu. At the beginning many of the new residents would merely peek through the restaurant windows, and thinking that they were not welcome would not venture in. Jessica would run out after them assuring them that CJ's was theirs too. And today the area is slowly being gentrified - so while always remaining loyal to her long time customers, Jessica always makes room for more.

After so much sacrifice Jessica Padilla can now proudly say that her perseverance has paid off. She is a prime example of dedication, pride, and strength. But she is a modest person and takes all of this in stride, she doesn't see any of this as being extraordinary. It is her husband who points out to her how truly amazing her accomplishments are, to say the least, Sergio Padilla is very proud of his wife.

Jessica says the key to her success has been hard work, faith, and always making her clients feel right at home. There are several loyal patrons who have been there since the very beginning. They show up for breakfast every morning. Some of them are elderly so to meet their dietary needs Jessica prepares their meals special. It is details like this that have made CJ's not only an LA favorite, but also a testament to how one woman's dream came to be by embracing an entire community.

CJ's Cafe
Hours 6:00 AM - 6:00 PM
Open everyday except on Christmas
5501 West Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90019

About Alejandro Diaz:
Alejandro Diaz is a writer and filmmaker who is originally from Chicago.
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