How Noa Noa Place Turned A Boyle Heights Sports Bar Into A Queer Latinx Hub -- In The Middle Of A Pandemic
If you think opening a bar at the peak of a pandemic sounds like a terrible idea, you're not alone. Yet the owners of Noa Noa Place, the newest queer space in Boyle Heights, did just that -- and the venture isn't merely scraping by, it's thriving.
"One of the things that my mom always says in Spanish is 'bendita pandemia.' Bless this pandemic. And I didn't understand why she would say that," says Luis Octavio, one of Noa Noa's three co-owners.
It wasn't until multiple surgeries landed Octavio in the hospital this summer that he started to consider what his mother might have meant. As difficult as the pandemic has been, it has also given us opportunities to strengthen bonds with people we care about and form ones with people we don't know.
During his two-month hospital stay, Octavio couldn't have visitors due to COVID-19. The isolation was lonely but it was also clarifying.
Laying in bed, wondering if he'd ever leave the hospital, he floated back to a dream he'd had years ago, long before he came out -- a vision of opening a bar. As soon as Octavio was discharged, he called longtime friend Donaji Esparza. They had wanted to start a queer Latinx night in Los Angeles or Santa Ana in 2019 but those plans hadn't materialized.
Octavio convinced Esparza to join forces with him and they looped in another friend, Deysi Serrano, who owns Mesoamerican restaurant Milpa Grille in Boyle Heights. Together, they're the brains and the brawn that propels Noa Noa Place.
READY, SET, LAUNCH
When Octavio, Esparza and Serrano began looking for locations, they started scouting spots in Santa Ana. Then, a friend pointed out a recently shuttered pizza and beer bar on 1st Street near the corner of Soto. It felt like destiny. Not only did the space have a full kitchen, a bar and a room where they could host dance nights and drag shows, it had a front patio they could use whenever dining restrictions are lifted.
With funds from their families and seed money from Octavio and Esparza's mylar balloon business, they were ready to get the keys. Since signing the lease in November, Serrano says they've seen several signs they made the right choice.
"Even before opening the doors, we would text each other all the time, like, 'Hey, did you notice this about the place?,'" Serrano says. She loves the pink and purple neon lights outlining the building's roof. They happen to look great with the retro neon pink, blue and green color scheme of their logo. The lights also echo the pink triangle, which was used by the Nazi regime to identify and separate queer people in concentration camps before it was eventually reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ community.
In three short weeks, the trio gave the joint a makeover. They cleaned up the patio flooring, added greenery and installed three Insta-friendly walls, transforming a run-of-the-mill watering hole into a hip pizzeria and bar.
"We put in a little bit of [our] essence," says Esparza. Every evening, after finishing her job hosting Univision's KLOVE, she comes straight to Noa Noa to check temperatures and mop up. "For me, just seeing this one grow with our hard work, it's really a different vibe. It makes it more personal. It was a labor of love."
The most important change, however, wasn't physical. It was ensuring no one in the Latinx community was excluded.
"We were looking to create a space that would make our guests feel comfortable and, more importantly, that would make them feel like they belong. This is the table that everybody in our community gets a seat at," Octavio says.
Seats at these tables are getting fewer and farther between. Despite queer liberation, or maybe because of it, LGBTQ+ bars and clubs have seen a wave of closures during the past decade including Jewel's Catch One in the Crenshaw District, Club Ripples in Long Beach and The Palms, which was West Hollywood's only dedicated lesbian bar.
For queer people of color, the losses have been profound. If you live in Boyle Heights and want to go to a queer bar in the neighborhood, your only option, until now, was Redz Angelz, a small lesbian bar that opened in the 1950s. Other than that, you'd have to head to Club Chico in Montebello or hit up DTLA to find a spot catering to people of color.
DANCING TO THE BEAT
"If I, as a Latino queer person of color, wanted to listen to norteña or cumbia, I would have to go to a very specific queer Latino club. [In] West Hollywood, the only Latino song that I would really be listening to, if I got lucky, would be a Selena song," Octavio says.
Only a handful of mainstream clubs offer Latinx nights and the ones that do tend to schedule them for slower nights, like Wednesdays or Sundays. They also tend to lump all Latinx people into one bubble, making no distinctions between Mexico's musical subcultures. That doesn't work for Octavio.
"We are queer during that night, before that night and after that night. We are Latino queer people all the time," he says.
Even so, these events were a welcome respite for patrons looking for songs in Spanish and shared experiences. Losing Latinx-focused spaces such as Circus Disco, Arena Cafe and Club Cobra -- all of which have shuttered in the last five years -- means Latinx people have less of an independant presence in the often white-led queer community. If keeping these venues afloat was difficult before the coronavirus pandemic, it has become a herculean task these days.
When Akbar opened at the corner of Sunset and Fountain on New Year's Eve in 1996, Silver Lake was a neighborhood with few gay bars for a community reeling from the devastation of AIDS. Owners Peter Alexander and Scott Craig wanted a space where people, gay or straight, could find community.
For years, they've offered an alternative to sexualized nightlife by hosting stand-up comedy, crafting, cabaret and karaoke nights. Even as their street corner gentrified, Akbar remained popular. They joke its glory days happened during the Obama administration but the bar was doing well until COVID-19 hit. Even for the nine-day stint in June when bars were allowed to open, Akbar has been completely closed since March. Costs piled up to the point where Alexander and Craig had to start dipping into their retirement funds.
In early December, they realized they couldn't continue carrying the bar's debts and mortgage payments, so they launched a crowdfunding campaign on Dec. 8, hoping to raise $150,000. The money will pay back a small business loan they took out to cover expenses and help keep them solvent through 2021, which they expect to be a lean year.
"If a restaurant fails, someone else will open up a restaurant. But if a queer space disappears, that's a big loss to our community and to queer people in general," Alexander says.
By late December, the campaign to save Akbar had raised more than $190,000. The owners announced that 20% of all donations above the original goal will go to the TransLatin@ Coalition, a nonprofit that assists trans Latinx immigrants. The outpouring of support speaks to people's love for Akbar and their desire to preserve queer spaces.
Alexander and Craig are proud that Akbar is the kind of place where you can flirt up a storm with the cute bartender who poured your cranberry vodka, hang with coworkers for happy hour or bring your parents.
"The wonderful thing about gay culture is that we were always welcoming to outsiders because we all felt like outsiders ourselves as we were growing up. The idea that all these people can be under one roof happily, there aren't really other physical locations like that," Craig says.
Akbar and other queer bars have played pivotal roles in helping people come out, introducing couples, organizing political actions and connecting LGBTQ+ people to each other. But gentrification, rising rents and changing tastes have closed many queer venues in the last decade. The pandemic has dealt a fatal blow to several others.
‘MORE THAN JUST BARS’
In the United States, queer nightlife has alway been a place where LGBTQ+ people could be their authentic selves, away from the judgements and violence of society. As being openly queer has become more acceptable -- and let's be clear, that acceptance isn't spread equally across the community; trans women are still nearly three times more likely to be attacked on the street than non-trans women -- gay bars have struggled to stay relevant.
West Hollywood staple Rage Nightclub, one of the only spots to have queer Asian events such as GAMeboi, ended its 37-year run in September. WeHo's Gold Coast closed the same month following the closures of nearby venues Flaming Saddles in August and Gym Bar in July. In July, Cuties in East Hollywood, the only queer-focused coffee shop in the city of L.A., also closed. It has since transitioned to an online community space.
"I don't know if the heterosexual world understands the importance of bars. Maybe they think it's frivolous, like a luxury tax, but they're more than just bars," Akbar's Craig says.
As apps like Grindr and Tinder have made it easier for people to hook up, they don't need to go to bars to find that special someone. That's a point Larry Hebert, who co-owned Club Ripples, makes. Before the place closed in December 2019, it was Long Beach's oldest gay club.
"I don't know what's going to happen after this pandemic is over," Hebert says. "I hope maybe people have realized and appreciated bonding with other people, meeting other people and having friends. Because a lot of people don't have friends."
Club Ripples had its heyday back in the 1970s, according to Hebert. Disco was in and the spot was packed every night. He and his partner, John Garcia, made it a point to "become family" with their customers. For decades, business was good. It started to decline in the 2000s and they began searching for a buyer a few years ago. Hebert, 68, and Garcia, 75, still own the property but are in the midst of finalizing a deal to sell it. They say the new buyer hopes to convert the space into a gastropub.
Octavio understands the perils of getting stuck in a cultural rut. He hopes his marketing background -- he started his career at a Spanish rock radio station, working in promotions with Esparza -- will help him stay abreast of current tastes and keep Noa Noa relevant for years to come.
"Our community is always looking for the best, the brightest, the coolest thing. If you don't evolve, then people are going to move on," Octavio says.
From the Juan Gabriel "lo que se ve no se pregunta" selfie setup where you can take a photo illuminated by a flattering ring light, to the sparkly fringe decor, the place feels like visiting your fun but laid back friend's party pad. The menu goes beyond beer and chips to feature carne asada "Tater THOTs," chorizo pizza (the "perfect drink food," according to Octavio) and alcohol-infused aguas frescas.
"Imagine a martini met an agua fresca at the swap meet and they fell in love. Our drinks are the byproduct of that," Octavio says.
Since opening on Dec. 5, business at Noa Noa Place has been steady. The bar is open Thursdays through Sundays only for takeout food and drink orders. (Due to pandemic restrictions, you can't sit and nurse a beer or snack on wings.)
It's hard to gauge exactly how well Noa Noa is doing. What do revenue benchmarks look like in a plague year? But orders have ticked up since they implemented a new online ordering system and Serrano says she's grateful for all the business she's seeing in these strange times.
Although the pandemic has been unsparing, Octavio thinks he is, perhaps, starting to understand his mother's invocation of its silver linings. A new queer space in Boyle Heights is, unquestionably, a blessing.