On the street, they could be enemies.
One has a tattoo, "Chicana Pride," across her neck. The other holds a knife. They are from different gangs.
The two young women glare at each other. Others notice. No one says a word.
The one with the knife draws it up and brings it down -- into a big, red onion.
All at once, they laugh.
"It's so hot," the tattooed woman says. "My eyes sting."
"Keep going," says the one with the knife. "Gotta keep going. You can do it."
"Can't slow down," a third says. "Lotta people out there."
They might be from different neighborhoods and different gangs, but in this cramped kitchen at the back of a small restaurant just east of downtown Los Angeles, they put fights and guns and jail cells behind them. They make sandwiches, bake cookies, wait tables and run the cash register.
This, they will tell you, is almost a miracle.
"Hard to believe," said Joanna Flores, 18, who has been in and out of jail since she was 12. "If some of the girls here were walking in my neighborhood -- before I knew them, before we came here -- there would be problems. It wouldn't have been good. But it's cool now. Now we're homegirls."
Welcome to the Homegirl Cafe, a 10-table breakfast and lunch spot on a hilltop boulevard in the Boyle Heights section of East Los Angeles. In a city teeming with small, quirky, homespun restaurants serving inexpensive food with flavors from different lands, this one stands apart.
There is the food, Mexican with a twist. But it's the help that makes the difference. Where else can your frothy bowl of fideo soup -- noodles, peas and cilantro -- be prepared by a girl from the Lynwood gang, served by a woman from the Maravilla gang and cleared from your table by a smiling mother from the 18th Street gang?
Finally, there is Patty Zarate. She watches over the homegirls, always. She is 47, shy but strong, with short silver hair and keen, roving eyes that hardly miss a thing.
She is from Mexico. Not long ago she was trying to find solid ground in the United States and figure out whether her talent for cooking could be turned into something profitable. Now she is the boss, chef and, in a symbolic way, the mother here. Her new trainees -- girls and young women who have listened to few people in their lives -- listen to her.
She calls almost all of them "mija," "my daughter." She prods them with sweetness. "Can we maybe go a little faster with the chopping, mija?" "That's good, mija, that's beautiful." "We're so busy now, mija. Please." "Thank you, mija, much better; you are learning."
Zarate doesn't own the restaurant any longer; that is part of her story. But make no mistake, this is her place. The homegirls would not be here, the yellow-walled cafe that smells of red pepper and roasted garlic would not exist, if not for her dream.
It began to take hold in the 1980s. Back then, she was fresh from Guadalajara. She had been a stocker at a hardware store, and then she worked as a secretary at Dolores Mission, a Jesuit parish and touchstone in the Boyle Heightsneighborhood.
"At first, we only knew one side of Patty," said the Rev. Gregory Boyle, her former boss. In a community of what he calls "abrasive personalities," he noticed that she was a confidante to two groups: the new arrivals from Mexico and Central America, and the wayward gang toughs who made the parish streets some of the city's most dangerous.
"She was extraordinary," Boyle said. Maybe she should become a social worker, he thought at the time. "Patty's way with people was absolutely peaceful and respectful.
"Then we found out about the other side of her."
In her spare time, Zarate had started tinkering in her small kitchen at home, at first for her husband and young children. She says she was trying to find herself by discovering something she truly loved to do. Expanding on recipes and techniques she had learned from her mother, she began turning up at the parish with treats.
Her food was far from the fattening tortas, tacos and burritos sold at many of the neighborhood eateries. Her food was "algo diferente," something different.
Most of it was Mexican, but much of it was vegetarian. All of it was light and healthful. She used basil, lentils and filo dough. "Japanese mushrooms and tofu," said Romie Armenta, one of the scores of parishioners who grew enchanted with her cooking. "Tofu with mole sauce? We'd never heard of that."
Often, the food became dinner for Boyle and a household of other Jesuit priests. They tasted her cooking and encouraged her to see herself as more than a secretary.
The Rev. Michael Kennedy said: "The question became this: What would Patty do with this great talent we were learning about?"
For a while, nothing.
Boyle had begun devoting full attention to directing Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit business that finds work for gang members and parolees. Zarate and Boyle talked about running a restaurant together.
She got a job helping poor families in East Los Angeles find homes. One day in 2003, near an old Boyle Heights cemetery, she discovered a hole-in-the-wall restaurant for lease.
Her daughter Angela wanted to attend a private college in Seattle, and this might be a way to pay for it, as well as college for her two other kids. It was a gamble. Some said she was crazy, but Zarate quit her job, used her last paycheck for the first month's rent and took over the run-down restaurant. She thought she would be successful.
"I was mistaken," she said. "It wasn't what I had thought."
But the restaurant introduced the neighborhood to Zarate's cooking: whitefish sauteed with chipotle peppers, black coffee flavored with orange rinds, tofu enchiladas and Mexican bolillo rolls stuffed with turkey and mango salsa. She named the dishes after friends and family: Tita's Pipian, Chabela's Fish Soup, YuYu's Sandwich, Angela's Green Potion.
The typical meal cost less than $6.
Some days, that was enough. The gray linoleum counter was lined with customers -- neighborhood kids in big white T-shirts seated next to old men in cowboy hats. Sometimes people dressed in business suits came from downtown. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, then a City Council member , was a regular: The turkey sandwich was his favorite.
But on other days, hardly anyone showed up, and the little zip-top bag Zarate kept by the cash register for receipts was empty.
The nuts and bolts of running a business? Marketing, pricing, balancing books, maintaining inventory? Of this, she knew next to nothing.
She paid a visit to Boyle. They both remember how she slumped in his office, tears flowing.
Zarate gave up ownership of her cafe to Homeboy Industries. In April, it became official. The Plaza Cafe turned into the Homegirl Cafe: tidy, with brick tile floors, a big black stove taking up a third of the kitchen and a growing legion of customers who sometimes line up on the sidewalk.
She is the head cook and manager of daily operations. Two of her longtime assistant chefs are there. All the while, she trains a fewhomegirls, each selected by Boyle after they have convinced him they are determined to let go of their old ways.
The homegirls and Zarate have forged a bond.
Whether serving food or chopping onions, the girls can be slow and inefficient, causing customers to wait. But Zarate pushes them: Move faster, clean more, smile often.
Sometimes they push back with stares and shrugs and snickers.
When they go too far, as one did when she showed up singing loudly and smelling of alcohol, Zarate fires them. Politely.
Sometimes, Flores said, she and the other girls find the work hard. Then there is life in the neighborhood: A few weeks back, a teenage boy had been killed on a nearby street. A homegirl was walking with him. Someone began shooting. But she was not hurt.
"It's not all roses, you know," Flores said. "It's not easy money, like I'm used to. . . . That's something new. The main thing is: You have to work hard for this, like Patty works. Be patient. Just try."