Tourists, particularly food tourists, are easily fooled by Los Angeles. They stuff themselves on the obvious Hollywood and Beverly Hills dining bling, missing what makes the locals smack their lips.
This city of 10 million souls wrapped within a dense-pack region twice that size sustains immense immigrant populations. Along with their dreams, L.A.’s newest citizens arrive with treasured recipes. Restaurants serving authentic dishes from China, Japan, Iran, Russia, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Brazil, France, Spain — you name the country — are scattered throughout the Southland like so many diamonds tossed out a car window.
Grand Central Market’s gems
You need more than a map to track down L.A.’s hidden culinary treasures. And now, against long odds, the city has that missing piece. Grand Central Market has become a showcase for the culinary diversity of Los Angeles, the old and the new. When all 50-some spaces are filled this summer, it will house an eclectic collection of restaurants, market stalls and artisan purveyors — without the too-cool-for-school attitude that diminishes some other city food emporiums.
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A kombucha peddler, artisan cheese monger, a deli serving house-cured pastrami, a butcher selling acorn-fed pork, a wood-fired pizzeria? Absolutely. But here, the tattoo-and-suspender crowd shares a cavernous cement hall with family businesses hawking Armenian kebabs, Michoacán tacos, Oaxacan moles, Hawaiian barbecue, Japanese bento boxes and a fresh fruit market with piles of gingergrass and cactus pads alongside a towering stand of green sugar canes.
Saturday afternoons at the 100-year-old landmark market are buzzing. Young families, gaggles of teenagers and downtown’s elderly residents rub more than elbows as they push to the front of the crowd at Tacos Tumbras a Tomas. Young hipsters wait an hour to order breakfast sandwiches at the Eggslut counter. Guatemalan grandmothers and their families commandeer folding tables and chairs to feast on a spread from Sarita’s Pupuseria.
“A year ago, Saturdays were dead,” says David Tewasart, working the counter at his popular Sticky Rice Thai Street Food. “I was the first new place to sign on. It was risky. They had a hard time finding the early people.”
When owner Adele Yellin and her husband Ira bought the market and surrounding buildings in 1984, “the core of the city was rotting away,” she says. “Ira believed if we invested in the core, we could revitalize the whole city.”
When Yellin’s husband died suddenly in 2002, Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall was shining brightly on nearby Grand Avenue and economic development had started to spread throughout downtown. Grand Central Market, however, remained a gritty warren of food stalls on a stubbornly ungentrified stretch of Broadway lined with inexpensive tiendas (stores) serving Spanish-speaking immigrants.
“We weren’t serving the food that the new people wanted,” Yellin says. Revitalizing the market without turning out the family businesses that were her legacy tenants seemed impossible.
Redeveloping without losing its roots
Well into her retirement a decade later, Yellin gathered her courage to redevelop the market without losing its traditional flavor. She gambled on a pair of local food artisans — Joseph Shuldiner, founder of The Institute of Domestic Technology, and Kevin West, author of the preserving book “Saving the Season” (Artisan) — to be her talent scouts.
“The market was Adele’s vision,” West says. “We just made the introductions to chefs and other food artisans to help her realize that vision. L.A. is crawling with food talent. There was a tremendous response to her idea of a gathering place for the many cuisines and cultures that make up the city.”
Yellin championed emerging food innovators and entrepreneurs instead of established businesses, and has emerged a hero to the local food movement. She still has yet to spruce up the place beyond a utilitarian coat of white paint. She wants no “fancy schmantz,” she says.
Valerie Gordon was the second new arrival at Grand Central Market, opening a salad and sandwich lunch counter featuring the petit fours and chocolates that have made Valerie Confections a favorite at L.A.’s farmers markets. (Her cookbook is a finalist for a James Beard Award.) In keeping with Yellin’s mission of uniting the old with the new, Gordon created a brownie made with mole sold at Valeria’s, a neighboring Mexican spice stall.
Wariness from the original vendors vanished as business boomed for everyone, Sticky Rice’s Tewasart says as he dishes up his spicy Tom Yum Goong shrimp soup full of big chunks of mushrooms and fresh bamboo shoots. I sighed with my first bite of Crying Tiger skirt steak; just the right balance of vinegar and spices. His sticky rice? Chewy and sweet, washed down with coconut water sipped from a straw dropped into a freshly cut coconut.
“It’s been wild,” Shuldiner says with a hint of sadness that his work is winding down. This summer, with the opening of the last few new stalls, the market will inaugurate evening hours for the first time in its history. Cocktails will be served.
Asked whether the market is finished, Yellin smiles. “There is the basement. I’d like to bring artisan food production into the city,” she confides.
Main photo: Adele Yellin, Grand Central Market owner, left, with Lydia Clarke, one of the owners of DTLA Cheese. Credit: David Crane