Sunday, January 22, 2012
Mercado Olympic-L.A's Next Street Food Star
I've always shopped in the Produce District at the various Mexican produce markets, pinata and sweets shops, and Latino cooking supplies wholesalers along Olympic Bl. to the west of Central Ave. You can find quality chiles--a broad selection, too--Mexican spices, special cooking devices and utensils, and all the oddball candies and savory snacks.
When I first started going to the legendary Breed St. vendors on the weekends sometime back in 2007, I thought there might be another place like that, and the Mercado Olympic certainly had potential--a huge Latino customer base of shoppers hungry after dragging their families to and from the Fashion District before calling it a weekend. But the vendors and restaurants here were either bad, routine, or both: pupusas, hot dogs, tacos, and street corn.
That all changed a couple of years ago. It got much better--way better--and in the last 6 months it has erupted. It seems as though every week something new and substantial is joining the ranks of the mostly Mexico City, Puebla, and Michoacan style vendors.
These vendors are only around on the weekends, from the early morning 'til around 5PM. The hot items here are quesadillas, where a fresh made-to-order tortilla is formed from raw masa and cooked on a flat top. The tortillas are stuffed with a variety of stews, called guisados in Spanish. Most of these stands are people from Michoacan and Puebla, which means they have different stews and braises, and their tortillas and masa shapes are a bit different. The huaraches(masa boats shaped like sandals)are thinner and crispier at the Michoacan style stalls, and they have pots of delicious stews like chicharrones in salsa verde, steak ranchero, and ribs in chile pasilla, or a soupy tinga(spicy chicken).
The Pueblan stands have the stuff we're more familiar with: squash blossoms, huitlacoche, mushrooms, and the thicker style of tinga, but they also have tlacoyos(stuffed masa shaped like an oval). Tlacoyos are rare in Los Angeles, and the're usually filled with requeson(like ricotta), beans or another simple flavor, that is mixed in with the masa then toasted on the comal.
There are several solid carnitas vendors from Michoacan preparing this famed Mexican dish in a mode you would find on the streets and in the market stalls of Michoacan . Whole pork shanks, fresh made chicharrones, kidneys, liver, hog maw, pork skin, snout, ears, ribs, and shoulder are all available to go or for some quick tacos at the curb. Hidalgan lamb barbacoa, Mexico City style deep fried fish fillets, cemitas poblanas, tacos de canasta(basket tacos), toasted garbanzos with Valentino salsa, and there are a few Pueblan barbacoa trucks that park nearby as well. Shopping? Take home some chapulines(grasshoppers), quesillo(Oaxacan cheese), sweets from Puebla, or homemade chorizo.
What does this all mean? If you've ever walked the streets of Mexico City, you'll feel as though a stretch of Arcos de Belen has fallen on the City of Angels. LA now has a serious street food zone with a density and bill of fare only the likes of what you'd find in D.F., or in the State of Mexico. Very similar types of vendors set up here--except for the heavy presence of the michoacanos--but never-the-less it's a place to snack like a chilango(people from Mexico City)
Don Julio pinata. I want to beat hell out of that one just on principle.
Until now I've agonized over sharing this pristine spot, only sharing it with good friends, and encouraged them just to enjoy--no tweets or pictures. This is where I go to eat Mexican food these days--more of a vision of Mexico than the former Breed St. extravaganza--and like a few other Latino spheres around L.A. it's pura raza. The last thing I wanted to see was 50 blogs, Yelps, and Chowhound posts with marathon rundowns, and having the vendors ducking from intrusive shuttering of IPhones and cameras, or other disruptions. I'm hoping that those who truly want to savor this amazing food come for that reason, and that's why I now serve up this bounty and offer up a seat to a Mexican food lover's wonderland. Buen Provecho!
The South side of Olympic is a pathway covered by the familiar umbrellas of Mexican street food vendors, this is where most of the action resides. But don't neglect the other side of the street--there are some amazing eats there, too.
Yes, there are still elotes, or esquites to be had. But if it isn't Mexican field corn, I'm out.
Screw Jamba Juice; go for some Mexican fresh squeezed Viagra casera(homemade). Ask for an orange juice with quail eggs, and a splash of Jerez. Hehe, uh...shhhh. For 2 quail eggs, Jerez and juice it's $4--take a drink of the juice first so there's room for the other ingredients.
Need some Rompope, tortas de santa clara(Pueblan sweets originating from a convent), a box of the famous camotes from Puebla's calle de los dulces(sweets street), candied fruits and vegetables, caramel, quesillo, or palanquetas(nut bars). There's a young, street smart entreprenuer that bring them in fresh from Puebla, as well as other food products--the quesillo is amazing. These days, much of the quesillo used in Oaxaca is made in Puebla.
And their chapulines are thick, juicy and only purchased seasonally. They make excellent bar snacks or a filling for small tacos with guacamole, or for sopes.
Tacos de canasta are not commonplace in Los Angeles, but there are a couple of stands here now on the weekends. Neither of them are as good as even the average stands in Mexico City, but for homemade versions, they aren't bad. This is a real serious taquero discipline, and is a lot harder to make these than it seems. The tacos are filled with basic fillings--mostly sauce--and carefully stacked in a basket or box like the one above, and covered with a towel after cooking. The tacos are steamed on the way to the stand and slump into soft, oily, wet snacks as the tortilla absorbs all those hearty flavors.
Potatoes, beans, and chicharrones are the only ones available, these sellers avoid the more challenging mole verde and adobo fillings you'd find as standard in D.F. This is just the difference between pros, and the way families make them at home.
Domestic picklings of vegetables and chiles are a required side for tacos de canasta.
They're small so get a set, and just pour the salsa on top, otherwise they might fall apart when you open them.
One of my favorite stops is to see Eddie. I call the muscle bound chilango Eddie because he always has an Iron Maiden shirt on, and dark shades. He's a real gentleman, but could easily take Danny Trejo's gig if there's ever an opening.
He does Mexico City style fried fish--thin, crispy strips of fish with a nice seasoning, topped with the D.F. classic: salsa valentina. Here's Jeannie Mai showing us how fashionable street food is now that these guys have showed up. Eddie has superb frying technique, and there might not be anything better on a Sunday afternoon than a basket of these things with a bit of hot sauce.
He promises soon to include seafood empanadas--he'd been waiting on a recipe but it turned out to be unfit for his stand. I had hit a sore spot when I brought them up since he had previously told me he'd have them. "I called home and told them this isn't right" "I need a correct recipe." "Give me another month and hopefully I'll have something", he shrugged.
He might even have some refreshing tepache(fermented pineapple rind juice) on hand. Just don't show up with a Poison t-shirt--Heavy Metal rules here.
I'm going to spare you any chia jokes here, but there's an agua fresca of chia seeds that's flush with the infamous gelling buds. This is the signature drink over at one of the carnitas vendors.
At first there were just a couple carnitas stands, both making some fine textured and porky, lard-fried pig.
But the cazos have come out and the carnitas game has gotten interesting even as of today, when I saw a couple of new vendors that I'd never seen before, and it was only a month since I've was last here.
A more offal intensive spot was offering dark,smooth pieces of kidney, liver and wrinkled buche(hog's maw); another tray held snouts, and skin; and a silent, grimacing man was working a cauldron of chicharrones. Crackling,popping, hot chicharrones to go are also a trend here at the Mercado Olympic.
Across the street a more peppy fellow from Sahuayo brought a real familiar tone to the afternoon. "Hey, where are you countrymen from?" he asked. "Here, have a piece of this chamorro(pork shank), come on you have to have some tortilla with it....and salsa."
"I also have chorizo michoacano, have a taste" Chuy and I took 2-inch long pieces of raw chorizo to taste. We could have made a meal with the samples. Man, such a well-seasoned chorizo, and so natural--we each picked up a pound.
The key to the carnitas is arriving early for best results, and get it to go, some of these vendors are out by 6AM stirring pork in large metal pots of hot lard.
Lamb barbacoa roasted in a pit, Hidalgo style, is available and is very good.
But the spicy pancita(offal stuffed stomach) is even better, packed with dried chile tang. This stand is on the southwest side of the E. Olympic as it fractures, losing itself into E. 9th St.
Heading back towards Central Ave. into the jam of peddlers, food stands and markets you'll see a portly street stand boss manuevering around a table of soup pots full of tasty stews. His family also serves up quesadillas brimming with colorful brews full of pork ribs, cactus, and dark, stained sauces that form appetizing shades of oils and chile on the surface.
The cactus salad and pot beans are on the house--this is Mexico.
On a more quiet and sane corner-- the northeast rim of Olympic and Kohler--you'll delight in the novel tlacoyos and traditional quesadillas of Pueblan origin. Try a tlacoyo of epazote-laced requeson(Mexican ricotta)that yields a creamy, mild, salty cheese pungently seasoned by Mexican herb.
The quesadillas of squash blossom, huitlacoche and cesina(salted beef) are outstanding, but the moronga(blood sausage) is gourmet street food, a memorable dish that sets this stand apart. It's well-herbed, supple, and tastes of purgatory: neither foul, nor purified of its bloody soul.
In Toluca, Mexico, chorizo is their pride, their craft. "Oaxacans and Pueblans have mole; Jalisco its birria; Hidalgo its barbacoa--we have chorizo", says the spectacled Toluqueno with a perpetual smile. All day long he makes the best chicharrones on the strip; large sheets of trimmed pork skin, or fatty gnarled chunks with meat attached.
This chorizo is a gift to us weary of the industrial brands at the Super; the rotting, discolored imports also of industrial origin, and the mediocre store made sausages at places like Vallarta. It's one of the only places I shop for chorizos--along with the stand on the other side of the street from Sahuayo--made from 100% meat, and includes almonds in the mixture. The longaniza is spiced differently and is made in a continuous tube of sausage, not tied into links. Tolucan chorizo is perfect for grilling and making tacos, the longaniza, too. They're all made with natural casings, and get their reddish color from dried chiles instead of the paprika found in Spanish chorizos.
I asked about their famous chorizo verde, a Tolucan creation that has earned Mexico's charcutiers international recognition. This is an original Mexican sausage of Toluca, and a symbol of Mexican gastronomy. Its color comes from the bleeding of green chiles, and vegetables. He made it for me a couple of times, and occasionally has it available. I'm picking up a pound next week matter-of-fact. Tacos de chorizo verde? Forget about it.
Toasted gabanzos are as Mexican as tacos, and ceviche. You see it more in Michoacan and Jalisco, but here it is in the heart of Downtown LA. As many things street food, it's given some hot sauce, and a little lime. All that's missing here is a pulqueria!
Oh! It comes from magueyes grown in Victorville, mind you, and is pasteurized, and isn't the same as you'll find in D.F.--closer in flavor and texture to the type offered on the highways of tequila country, in Jalisco, but give it a try. Or drink of the aguamiel, the sweet nectar of the maguey plant.
This is the place to pick up a molcajete to make your own table-side guacamole without going to Rosa Mexicano, or to give some cascabel chiles a try. Its a one stop shop for large bags of duritos(puffed wheat snacks), molinillos(mole stirrers), and to get set up with your own backyard al pastor rig--and you don't even need a Costco membership to buy a palette of toilet paper. Load up the car and stroll the stands along Olympic Bl.; pick up a queso fresco wheel, a cup of chapulines; and experience a food crawl, Mexico City style at the Mercado Olympic: a Mexican street food consulate in Downtown Los Angeles.
Saturday and Sundays
early morning to 5pm
Olympic Bl. just west of Central Ave.
Los Angeles, CA