On the corner of Branch Street and York Boulevard, snuggled nicely into the brightly colored homes surrounding it, lies one of Highland Park’s top restaurants, Pocha Los Angeles. A modern Mexicana restaurant rooted in tradition and Angeleno Pride, Pocha LA merges Mexican and American cultures while maintaining respect for both in a healthy and vegan-friendly way. 

Celebrating its third birthday on April 10, Pocha LA has served authentic, fresh food and has only grown with time since its opening in February 2020. Although the restaurant was launched three years ago, the idea sprouted incidentally in January 2019 when Claire Risoli, founder and owner of Pocha LA, added a printed-out “Pocha,” a derogatory term used by native-born Mexicans against U.S.-born Mexican Americans who don’t speak Spanish well, to her vision board. 

Now living in South LA with her 14-year-old son, Risoli grew up a confident girl in Torrance, CA, with Mexican and Romanian roots – her mother from Sonora, Mexico, and her father from Brooklyn, New York. Risoli, though very proud of her origins, had a rough relationship with the term, “Pocha,” growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood where she had difficulty finding her place. 

“I always felt like, ‘We’re not the same. You’re over at my house and it smells different. Our food smells weird to you,’” Risoli said. “And it made me feel like I wasn’t enough when we went to Mexico because, by that point, my Spanish was broken as I wasn’t using it as much. There was a whole lot of ‘not enoughness’ going on. But, then I realized there’s this whole subculture of us, and I started finding my people outside of South Torrance that I identified with more.”

La Pocha
Claire Risoli, owner and founder of Pocha Los Angeles. Claire Risoli, owner and founder of Pocha Los Angeles. Courtesy of Pocha LA → Claire Risoli, owner and founder of Pocha Los Angeles.

Dabbling in acting in various English and Spanish commercials and feature films, such as Labor Pains and Puncture, and singing Spanglish music signed with MCA Records, Risoli garnered a bachelor’s degree in business, management, marketing and related support services from California State University, Long Beach. 

From there, Risoli began working in marketing and advertising before being introduced to Arbonne International, a beauty, health and wellbeing brand focused on sustainability and empowerment, where she has worked for 12 years and is currently the national vice president. But it wasn’t simply her marketing skills that made her fit to open her own restaurant; serving and training at the Golden State’s infamous California Pizza Kitchen (CPK) gave her the experience she didn’t even know she needed. 

“I really loved what they had built, not just from a brand experience, but culturally, what it was like to work there,” Risoli said of the two founders of CPK. “I always say that I learned more working there than I did in college. And I just thought, ‘How cool would it be to build something from the ground up, like CPK, but with my DNA, with my fingerprints, [with] my branding like that, but Pocha.”

Reclaiming the term she and so many other Latinas and Chicanas grew up resenting, Risoli changed the meaning of “Pocha” in February 2020 when she found a small, yet cozy, home for her restaurant to live in. But before the restaurant owner, one prep person, dishwasher and server could truly get started, only a month after opening, the COVID-19 pandemic began. Despite the challenges that come with the pandemic territory, Pocha LA stayed afloat by serving food for pickup and eventually seating hungry guests once restrictions were lifted. 

Amid the obstacles, came several blessings in disguise in the form of cheaper liquor licenses and, shockingly, the lack of experience in navigating a new restaurant in one of the most difficult times for businesses in recent history. For Risoli, in comparison to restaurateurs who had establishments for 15 to 20 years before the pandemic hit their business, opening a business and balancing the epidemic was all she knew. 

“I already knew it was going to be hard; opening up a restaurant is going to be hard. I think it would have been harder if we had opened up full force, all guns blazing, because we would have been a hot mess. I didn’t know how to train people,” Risoli said. “I’m still trying to figure that out. I’m still trying to re-engineer systems so that they’re airtight and seamless. If we had had a grand opening, all dining rooms open, patio open, takeout, delivery, everything, it would have been a disaster. People wouldn’t have been as forgiving. I think it’s actually a blessing in a weird way.”

With such an unorthodox start to Pocha LA, Risoli had to take things into her own hands and gain support and traction herself – Instagram and Facebook, to be specific. Social media, along with word of mouth or Yelp, is often how customers find the Mexicana restaurant, as they tell Risoli when she asks. 

La Pocha
One of the chefs of Pocha Los Angeles. Courtesy of Pocha LA.

With her experience working at Arbonne, navigating the online world wasn’t impossible, but Risoli is still finding her way. 

“I’m still learning how to do it. I don’t know about all this hashtag stuff; I’m way behind the ball on that,” Risoli said. “It’s just about not being afraid to not do it perfectly. I think I heard it said, ‘Imperfect action is better than perfect inaction.’ So, just be willing to not do a perfect post, not put the perfect words out and not [create] the perfect image. Sometimes just taking action and moving forward is most important.”

Not only has actively posting on social media reeled in loyal customers, but it has also allowed Pocha LA the opportunity to expand its reach through catering for the NFL and the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Annual Influential Latinos in Media Celebration, visits from Becky G and Kat Von D and grants from PepsiCo Foundation Impacto Hispanic Business Accelerator Program and SoCal Gas in only three years.

“I feel like we’re just getting started. We’re still a baby, three years old, like we’re a toddler. An overnight success story takes about 10 years,” Risoli said. “It does to really perfect what you do. To really get it dialed, to get it duplicable, to build the brand equity to gain the respect in the industry from the client base, it does take about 10 years, and you do have to withstand the test of time and fine-tune and correct.” 

La Pocha
Pocha LA has a variety of Mexican plates, such as pozole verde, chilaquiles, vegan ceviche, and breakfast bowls. Courtesy of Claire Risoli

The most important growth made within Pocha LA is the one regarding the menu. A lover of food at heart, Risoli wanted to incorporate meals that she grew up eating, and, as the kitchen staff grew, so did the assortment of options for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Tacos, signature Burritas, Mole Poblano, vegetarian and vegan options such as Taquitos de Papa and Vegan Ceviche, an array of agua fresca, Good Juju Coffee and delicious churros barely scratch the surface of the restaurant’s offerings. 

“I wasn’t afraid to color outside the lines. It’s definitely Mexican-influenced. We’re not Tex-Mex; we’re not Americanized,” Risoli said. “We’re definitely rooted in tradition. We don’t compromise tradition. But we’re also not afraid to evolve. And if you really follow the history of any food, any cuisine, Mexican food or any other, it’s an evolution. So, we’re continuing to evolve; it’s an evolving thing, and we’re not afraid to be part of that process.”

La Pocha
Claire Risoli, owner of Pocha Los Angeles, and the Pocha staff cultivate a warm and traditional Mexicana dining experience.

Risoli is not only cultivating a warm, tranquil atmosphere for guests to eat and enjoy themselves but for the Pocha LA community as well. 

“I love our people. I love my coworkers,” said Katie Castillo, a server at Pocha. “I know that we don’t say it, but I do feel like we’re family. I feel like we don’t need to tell each other, but we care for each other.” 

Liz Carrillo-Garcia, a co-founder of Good Juju Coffee, which is sold at Pocha LA, continues, “[Pocha] means to be a part of something that’s bigger than I think we are here. I think everyone here is a Pocha. We’re minorities, and our parents are from Mexico. And I think that’s the most meaningful thing of it all for me, is that we’re all in the same boat, sharing the same story.”

An inspiration to young girls and women, especially young Latinas, today, Risoli grew up feeling a lack of support for female entrepreneurs in the Latino community but has stood corrected seeing the increase in women-owned businesses and empowerment. 

“I think that we’re a force to be reckoned with. I think we’re really shaking things up. We are the fastest-growing sector for new business owners,” Risoli said. “We’ve also had the least access to capital. That’s definitely changing because big companies are waking up. And the way that we support each other is amazing – I don’t feel a sense of competition. I feel like we’re showing up for each other in a way that we never had before. ” 

Pocha LA has been covered on KTLA, Spectrum News, Univision and Telemundo, to name a few, and has garnered much success on a high scale in its few years, which has Risoli feeling an immense sense of pride with a side of imposter syndrome.

“Sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve it. Sometimes I feel like ‘Oh, my gosh, how did I get here?’ I feel like ‘Why are so many people trying to help me?’ It just falls in my lap,” Risoli said. “But I also think it’s a result of all the preparation, that’s led me to this point, all the training. Not just the last few years, but I’ve trained for this, I think, my entire life. I just didn’t know that. That’s what I was training for. It’s just an honor.”

La Pocha
Pocha Los Angeles, named one of the top restaurants in Highland Park, has extensive indoor seating, both upstairs and down, as well as front and back patio dining. Courtesy of Pocha LA.

As Pocha LA continues to grow, Risoli is looking to the future and is interested in creating cooperative ownership of the restaurant, but she’s definitely going to be meticulous about who she shares the investment opportunity and the legacy with. 

“I want a company that’s owned by the people that are building it, literally on their backs,” Risoli said. “They’re some of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen, and they love Pocha. They breathe Pocha, it’s in their veins. I don’t know how I can reward them, but I’m figuring that out.” 

Pocha LA has accumulated and continues to accumulate, such great success in its short lifetime, and despite how difficult it is to run a business, it’s Risoli’s passion to learn from her mistakes and continuously better herself as a business owner that points to a continuously bright future for the restaurant, regardless of the bumps along the way.

“I think that people think that the road to success is just this straight shot, but it’s ugly, and it’s really messy, and it’s really painful,” Risoli said.

If you’re interested in the Mexicana family-dining experience that Pocha LA offers, head on over to 6101 York Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90042. Visit their website and Instagram to stay up-to-date on Pocha LA’s upcoming events and reminders for their Thirsty Thursdays. 

Serena Sanchez is a freelance writer for CALÓ NEWS. She grew up in San Pedro, Calif., and studied journalism at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Her reporting interests include art, the environment,...