Located on Broadway and Hill between 2nd and 3rd, The Grand Central Market reflects the changes sweeping over Downtown Los Angeles. Long before farmers markets appeared all over LA, the Grand Central Market provided the Downtown community with fresh food at affordable prices.
The shoppers who filled the aisles, bought fresh produce, fruit, fish, meat and poultry. Freshly made tortillas traveled down a conveyer belt where they were stacked in plastic bags and sold still warm in the open-air tortilla factory that once stretched along the southern wall close to Broadway.
The Market specialized in health products, fresh fruit juices, herbal teas and homeopathic remedies from around the world. And where there are shoppers, they will be places to eat. Dozens of stalls sold Mexican tacos, enchiladas, ceviche, whole lobsters, plates of fried fish and shrimp in the shell. Anyone who needed an old-school Chinese-American food fix could eat at China Cafe and Broadway Express.
Today, many of the vendors have been at the Market for generations. On the Broadway side next to the floor-to-ceiling Grand Central Liquor, you can't walk by Las Morelianas without being offered a taste of their delicious roast pork inside a freshly made mini-tortilla. A personal favorite, to the moist meat I add mounds of pickled onions and carrots, chopped raw onions and cilantro and a liberal dousing of green chili sauce all freshly made.
I first visited the market when I was in college. I bought spices at Valeria's and the ready to use mole paste at the very misnamed A&B Coffee where I could also buy any one of a dozen different dried beans. I wanted to learn how to make tortillas at home. I came to the Market to buy masa and a tortilla press. The tortillas were good, but, I had to confess, the ones I bought at the Market were better so I kept coming.
In the late 1970's I photographed the Market to use for a TV pilot I was producing for KCOP. I took a hundred photographs of the vendors and customers. I loved the community feeling of the Market. Families with babies in tow shopped for the basics and stopped to have snacks or lunch.
Today the market still has families doing their daily shopping but they have been joined by a new population, eager to explore the newly arrived vendors who have set up shop and added new flavors and culinary experiences.
To keep that new population updated, LA food blogs track the latest the developments at the Market. Upscale purveyors like DTLA Cheese and Belcampo Meat Co. have opened stalls with counter seating, selling high quality products previously only available in specialty stores in Beverly Hills or Hancock Park.
Customers wait patiently in line for their turn to order at McConnell's Ice Cream, Sticky Rice - Thai Street Food, Egg Slut and Wexler's Deli. Compared to the original vendors, the new comers are definitely more upscale and more expensive.
I have my favorites and they are a mix of the old and the new: the mole at A&B Coffee (ask for a taste and find the one you like), pork ramen at Bento Ya, the vegetable curry with shrimp and Crying Tiger beef at Sticky Rice, the roast pork tacos at Las Morelianas with lots of salsas and pickled vegetables and the beef at Belcampo Meat Co. (terrific although pricey, Jared Standing, Head Butcher suggested I try one of the less expensive cuts, the chuck eye steak and it was delicious!).
The produce stands that are still in the market are very old school. The fruits, vegetables and berries are sometimes a great bargain and sometimes not so great. I can always find root vegetables at a good price. And on occasional seasonal berries that are half the farmers market price.
At this moment in time, the Market is perfectly balanced between the new and the old so that I can indulge my passion for affordable ethnic food and quality products from specialty purveyors.
The old and the new are pressed together in a mash up that reflects what's happening Downtown. The mostly Latino population has been joined by a diverse mix of young professionals who have rediscovered the glories of Downtown Los Angeles, rich with history and benefiting from a great collection of buildings that are now being renovated and modernized.
Before that rediscovery, the Market had fallen on hard times. Local shoppers had turned to farmers markets for better produce. One by one stalls closed for lack of customers. The grit and grime of the city settled heavily onto the walls and floors. The Market had grown sad and forlorn.
But today, the Market is one of the most frequented Downtown destinations. Come during the day and the aisles are packed. The large indoor patio on the Hill side is filled with families and professionals enjoying a large bowl of ceviche from Lupita's Seafood, a taco plate from Sarita's Pupuseria, Wexler's house smoked lox on a freshly baked bagel and Bento Ya's $5.00 pork ramen that, in my opinion, is as good as any of the celebrity-chef bowls on Sawtelle or in Manhattan sold at three times the price and half the portion.
There is so much more to say about the Market, but I'm getting hungry. Happily I brought home a bowl of Bento Ya's ramen and I'm going to have that for breakfast.
One quick user's-tip about parking. Parking Downtown is very expensive. Happily, there is 60 minutes free parking inside the Market building.
The entrance is on the Hill Street side, almost to 2nd street. Spend $10.00 and ask the vendor to stamp your parking ticket. Go to the Security Desk next to the China Cafe for validation, then (yes, you still have one more step) go up the stairs to the parking garage and to your left you'll see a parking kiosk. Put your ticket in and you'll be told if you owe any money. Take the validated ticket with you to use at the exit.
On the weekend, the open air parking lots to the north of the Market above 2nd Street have reduced, all day rates, so if you are staying for several hours, park there.
Grand Central Market, 317 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90013 (213/624-2378), Sunday-Wednesday 8:00am-6:00pm, Thursday-Saturday 8:00am-9:00pm (selected vendors only open past 6:00pm).
David Latt is an Emmy-award winning television producer who turns to cooking to alleviate stress. He shares his experiences with food and his favorite recipes on his blog Men Who Like To Cook.