My favorite thing about visiting the West Coast is the car culture. It seems like everyone I make friends with has a classic car, bumps oldie music, and is a member of an auto club. What truly blows my mind is that new friends even encourage me to borrow their priceless classics to drive around while I am in town. In New York, asking to borrow a friend’s crumbling ‘98 Corolla is one notch below asking for a kidney. The West Coast car etiquette is dignified—it is even regal. It was this hospitality that enabled me to drive a powder-blue ‘66 Impala hardtop around Compton, California blasting Ralfi Pagan’s greatest hits.
My second favorite thing about the West Coast is Loreto’s Fried Turkey, a luncheonette at the intersection of West Compton Blvd and North Dwight Avenue. Loreto’s sits tucked away in the corner of a tiny concrete strip mall next to a butcher and across from a liquor store. Upon walking in the door, one is met with a large glass case in which owner Joe Loreto showcases beautiful golden brown whole turkeys, like treasures from a museum, fresh from the fryer and ready for carving. From his flagship shop, Joe carves several turkeys a day. They receive a proper soak in a fresh orange juice marinade before getting a flavorful dry rub and a 30-minute dip in sizzling peanut oil.
Joe carves the moist birds in their salty, crunchy skins to order. A neighborhood favorite is the soul taco, which unifies elements of Compton’s African-American and Mexican communities in the perfect five-bite morsel. Turkey, lettuce, cilantro, cheese, tomatoes, homemade gravy, and hot sauce come dressed in a flour tortilla and are purchased by the bag-full. Customers can also call ahead to reserve a whole 15-pound turkey and all the sides. While tacos rule the roost on an average day, once any holiday draws near, it’s whole turkey platters all day.
Whispers of Loreto’s succulent sizzling birds have traveled well beyond the borders of the Hub City. “We have a few regulars who fly in from Oakland California to Compton Airport. They just get four turkeys and fly right back. There are also several top Hollywood caterers who will order turkeys and sides through me and use them to supply craft services for movie sets.”
From salads to sandwiches, Loreto’s menu is essentially a manifesto of different ways to eat deep fried turkey. Joe’s idea of him and his wife leaving their city jobs to bring crispy fowl to the streets of Compton came in the form of a nocturnal prophetic vision in 2002.
“I don’t usually go to church but one day my wife dragged me along. The pastor’s sermon was all about maximizing potential. I tossed and turned in bed all night thinking about what I was good at and how I could better my community. I kept thinking about how much I liked having parties in my backyard and frying up Cajun style turkeys for friends. I woke up my wife and told her I wanted to sell turkey tacos in Compton. She thought it was a great idea.”
Joe’s children Jerimiah and Coco grew up working behind the counter. Joe has seen many generations pass through the neighborhood. “We all know each other in the neighborhood so there is respect. The same young people that come in here and behave will go down the street to McDonald’s and tear the place apart.”
“Man, Compton is a turkey town now… I hope you aren’t still eating chicken. You don’t want to get me started talking about chicken, those little guys are scavengers, man.”
One of my favorite things about eating at Loreto’s is listening to Joe talk turkey (quite literally). Joe keeps up on all of the latest scientific papers regarding the health benefits associated with turkey meat consumption—and he has a few choice words regarding that other winged delicacy.
“Man, Compton is a turkey town now. It is a high protein food that is easy on the body. I hope you aren’t still eating chicken. You don’t want to get me started talking about chicken, those little guys are scavengers, man. They are bad news.”
Loreto’s gets so many holiday catering orders that they close the cafe from November 1 to Martin Luther Kings Jr’s birthday in mid-January. During this time they transform into a catering center and only sell whole birds and party packages. With a turkey, Joe sends out trays of mac and cheese, candied yams, cornbread stuffing, collards, and turnip greens.
Joe is excited about the prospect of transforming Loreto’s into a national franchise. He has been approached by a handful of companies who want to take him national but is still waiting for the right fit. He believes that to do it properly, his partners would have to buy a turkey farm so they could be their own supplier. Although he has big plans to expand in the future, his heart is still in his small local shop. He claims Compton’s rough reputation has never stopped new guests from driving in to taste his golden brown turkeys. “When I was a little boy, I overheard my grandfather say that if you are on an island playing good music and cooking good food, people on the mainland will find a boat so they can get to you. It makes me proud to give people a reason to come to this neighborhood.”