Grand Central Market | Blog | Contest: Writing with your mouth full. | These eight USC writing students came to Grand Central for inspiration. Whose work nails it? Your vote qualifies you for a pair of tickets to CHINATOWN on 12/12. The writer with the most votes gets a party at Eggslut. It's a win-win.
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The Grand Central Market Blog Image
Contest: Writing with your mouth full.
December 06, 2013

These eight USC writing students came to Grand Central for inspiration. Whose work nails it? Your vote qualifies you for a pair of tickets to CHINATOWN on 12/12. The writer with the most votes gets a party at Eggslut. It's a win-win. So dig in!

Read. Consider. Vote.


Once you have voted on the writing contest, click this button to enter yourself into the Chinatown giveaway!


Broadway’s Fluorescent Past

“Amazing food, amazing place…the real deal…think globally, eat locally,” so says the homepage for downtown Los Angeles’s Grand Central Market. Globally themed, GCM supplies shoppers with Chinese, Thai, Mexican, and Hawaiian options. Hell, there’s even a liquor store to serve the, shall we say, thirstier LA natives. Situated along Broadway, GCM faces Bunker Hill and the historic Angels Flight. With no walls or windows to separate the vendors from the crowded Los Angeles’ streets, it is impossible not to notice the richly colored interior, or to catch a loose strand of something delicious on the air. Bright neon lights and wisps of steam entice the senses, while G&B Coffee located right up front promises rich, heady espresso.

Perhaps the signs are in homage to the fluorescent past of Broadway, which was once home to the West Coast’s largest theater district. Designed in 1849 and called Fort Street (it changed to Broadway in 1890) it served as the center of Los Angeles, quenching the desires of natives—and tourists—for shopping, film, and restaurants. In fact, Broadway’s survival can be credited to the heavy influx of Latinos, who to this day utilize the street as a major shopping hub. For nearly a half century, the Broadway Theatre District of Los Angeles was vibrantly lit with neon lights. With the opening of Hollywood and other, more commercial theater districts, it fell into disuse. Though the premiere entertainment district in Los Angeles has since turned vintage, people still flock to Broadway, leaving GCM to invoke the old adage that food can be used as a form of entertainment.

While it no longer caters to the eager movie-going crowd, the eclectic group of merchants at Grand Central Market have created their own form of amusement, one that thrives on the guesswork of picking through spicy peppers, or sifting through beans to find the right coffee. It’s in the way that the cook at Las Morelianas offers a taste of his succulent carnitas. And with the “Bringing Back Broadway” initiatives in place, it seems that the market will continue to entertain the city of Los Angeles for years to come.

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Room for One More

 If I want to astonish a suburban Angelino, I tell him I spent the afternoon in downtown Los Angeles. “Why?” he might ask. “Were you lost?”

No, SIRI never steers me wrong, and last week she led me to Grand Central Market, a food market that has been a staple of downtown LA’s identity since 1917. A lot has changed since the silent film era, when Broadway was a hub for movie palaces like the Million Dollar Theatre, but as I stared up at the high-rises of Bunker Hill, I realized that I was at the ground floor of food and culture in LA.

Walking through the 30,000 square-foot space I encountered chop suey, carnitas, cold-pressed juice, Hawaiian BBQ, a fish monger, a pupuseria, and the first fixed location of a beloved LA food truck. In other words, the quintessential foods of LA.

“Downtown has a diverse population, and so does the Market,” Kevin West, a consultant for Grand Central Market, says. “Everybody's welcome. On any given day, you can sit on the patio and see all kinds of customers sharing its common tables.”

While rich in history, the market is undergoing several changes, as it remodels to incorporate new vendors alongside its legacy tenants, some of which have been there for decades. The old logo—four oranges, a field, and an urban skyline—has been revamped. The new one, a classic oval that looks like the label on an artisanal chocolate bar, proudly points to the market’s location: “Downtown Los Angeles.” The mission statement of the reimagined market begins "Out of food, community."

 “The Market is very LA,” West continues. “It isn't fancy or formal or closed off. We want it to reflect the breadth and depth of the LA food scene, which is among the most vital, diverse, and dynamic in the country right now.”

According to West, the market wants to connect with its history in a way that is “authentic and respectful” while simultaneously “making it relevant to the here-and-now.” Grand Central Market is achieving this by diversifying its overall offerings, a fact that can attract new clientele while offering loyal customers even greater options.

“The Market's future is rooted in its past,” West says. “It's a shared gathering place, a showcase for the cuisines and cultures of Los Angeles. And there's always room for one more at the table.” 

*          *          *

Free-Market Market

When you get outside of a haute-cuisine context, exchanging moules marinières served with Sancerre for carnitas rolled in warm corn tortillas, you remember that certain food has the power to render class meaningless. Such is the feeling when shopping and eating in the Grand Central Market, which is situated in the Bunker Hill neighborhood known, in many ways, for how often it has exchanged rags for riches. Now the neighborhood, like many good urban centers, juxtaposes urban professionals on the rise with chronic inebriates. The prior taking shelter in loft apartments, the latter sharing Angel’s Knoll Park with some rather healthy-looking rodents of unusual size.

Grand Central Market—boasting the kind of braised pork that makes you say a weepy little prayer of gratitude—works in very much the same way. Hipsters drinking fussy third-wave coffee rub shoulders with Chinese grandmothers in for bulk dry goods. There are young women with nose rings and artisan-crafted earrings carrying around canvas bags full of salad greens, and there are train-wrecked men with heads down on the tables, sleeping off things they clearly shouldn’t have done. Whole Hispanic families shop for dangerous chilies and frijoles by the pound while tired-looking guys with loosened ties come in for chow mein from the China Café, which looks like the kind of place where Philip Marlowe might grab some noodles before grilling a low-life thug. Even as I write this, new places intended to appeal to a more high-brow audience are opening—cheese shop, wood-fired pizza joint, egg-centric restaurant—all while the legacy restaurants, produce stands, and sundry shops stay open. As a result, old meets new, and those of modest means meet the more well-to-do.

And so in many ways the Grand Central Market, a revitalized Los Angeles institution, reminds us once again how this city offers experiences that can flatten the class divide or experiences that, at the very least, bring us in closer proximity to people who don’t necessarily live like we do. Much like the Farmer’s Market on Fairfax, Grand Central Market gives us the opportunity to get out of our comfort zones—all in the name of feeding our pie hole. And if we happen to be reminded that it takes all kinds to make a free market flow? So be it. It’s a delicious lesson to be learned.

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Holy Mole

I hunt for yellow mole like a mystic in search of a unicorn. I first enjoyed mole amarillo at a Oaxacan restaurant in Long Beach, one that has since closed. Since then, yellow mole has remained as elusive as a Snufflelufugus, and the closest I’ve come is a recipe in Diana Kennedy’s Mexican Regional Cooking.

Armed with this recipe, I ventured to LA’s Grand Central Market. Cement floors and neon signs sandwich a slew of stalls, some steaming, some fragrant, all colorful. The vendors display an array of foodstuffs, most ethnic; showcasing everything from whole-fried tilapia to Salvadorian pupusas to large bins of jewel-toned candied fruits I never knew existed outside a holiday fruitcake.

For fear of highlighting my Gringo-ness, I felt hesitant to ask for help. I didn’t know what half the items in the recipe looked like (Chayote, anyone?) much less how to pronounce them. So when I saw a stand with a neon sign that read “Mole,” my heart sprang inside my chest. The mustachioed man behind the counter shook his head when I asked if they sold yellow mole, but then pointed me towards Valeria’s.

The counter at Valeria’s—a chili & spice mecca—is composed of huge glass bins of dried beans, spices and chilies. I stepped up to the counter where a man in a black t-shirt and red apron, whose name I learned was Rueben, came to my aid. He, too, shook his head when I inquired about yellow mole, and pointed to the red, green, brown, and black moles instead. When I attempted to ask for the first ingredient on my list, 12 guajillos chilies, Rueben crinkled his brow motioning for my list.

Rueben, who’s worked at Grand Central Market for 25 years (14 of them at Valeria’s), instructed me in pronunciation (gwa-hee-yo) while compiling most of my ingredients. Rueben then pointed me to Ana Maria’s Mexican for the tortillas, and Torres Produce for the vegetables, including the Chayote (a green gourd), before flabbergasting me with a grand sum total of $4.10 – I’ve spent more on one bottle of McCormick’s at Gelson’s!  In fact, the 13 items I purchased there that day cost me an uber reasonable $17.95.

However, despite my diligent shopping, I neglected to buy lard. I’m hoping this accounts for why my mole amarillo tasted more like an anemic tortilla soup than the rich, savory, piquant stew seared into my palate’s memory.  

*          *          * 

Hot Stuff

Stroll into one of those ultra chic specialty shops in Beverly Hills or Brentwood and it would hardly be surprising to spot a sign that reads, “$90/1 lb.”  After all, the philosophy of “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” was practically written for the Westside.

Spotting a similar sign in downtown Los Angeles, however, is jarring, almost unfathomable. But such signs do exist—in this case, deep within the inner sanctum of one of downtown’s most beloved culinary landmarks: the Grand Central Market.

Given the market’s proximity to Skid Row, it’s hard to imagine anything in the market possessing such a lavish price tag. But there it is affixed upon a glass container, unceremoniously placed between two similarly sized jars that read “$2.99/ 1lb.” The item in question? Belgian chocolates? Russian caviar? Colombian coffee? No. A deceptively sweet-looking Mexican pepper known as the tepín.

Measuring somewhere between a cranberry and a cherry, the tepín (Capsicum annum) is the Lexus/Gucci/Beluga of chilies. Categorized as one of the hottest peppers in the world, the tiny but potent tepín measures just below the red savina and the bhut jolokia (aka the notorious ghost pepper) on the heat-intensity measuring Scoville scale. Ten times more intense than the hottest jalapeño, the tepín’s intense heat is enough to make the toughest man sob like a newborn. (For me personally, after just a couple of seconds on the tongue, the tepín set me off in a string of colorful euphemisms reminiscent of those by a South Bay longshoreman with Tourette’s or those found in just about any Quentin Tarantino movie.)

It’s not the expletive-generating heat, though, that mandates such an exorbitant premium when purchasing tepíns—it’s the exclusivity. It’s a fundamental rule of economics: scarcity affects price. And the tepín is a scarce resource, indeed. Found only in the wild, tepín peppers have yet to be domesticated and grown in fields like other chili pepper varieties. Most the tepíns are found in Northwestern Mexico (though birds—who are particularly fond of the tepín flesh—have transported the seeds into Southern California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida). Because of the tepín’s small size and logistical difficulty in harvesting, there isn’t as much profit to be made.

It’s highly unlikely that most Grand Central Market shoppers would expect such an exclusive offering in a market with such a diverse clientele. At ten times the price of the next most expensive pepper in the market (the “lowly” chile costeño at $8.99/1 lb.), the tepín offers a little bit of unexpected luxury in downtown L.A.

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Homemade Almond Milk

When I came upon La Huerta in the Grand Central Market, I stood transfixed before the stall. There’s just something so aesthetically pleasing about plastic bins filled with hundreds of tiny confections. The sight reminded me of the opening scene of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. For a moment, I felt like a kid in a candy store. Then I realized that I was an adult in front of a candy-dried-fruit-and-nut stand, which is better because I didn’t have to beg my parents for money or permission to buy anything. Overwhelmed by the selection, I paced the length of the stall, contemplating the label on each case. Feeling nutty, I passed up the gummy worms, jelly beans, and sour rings and purchased instead raw almonds, chocolate covered almonds, and walnuts. Except for the chocolate covered almonds, my ten-year-old self would have been disappointed in the choices I made. Sorry kid, I’m a responsible adult now.

I have a confession: I lied when I listed my purchases. I did it for the sake of the sentence; I’m sorry. Those were the items I bought, yes. But I didn’t get them all on the same visit. The truth is, I considered buying the raw almonds, but talked myself out of it. They cost $6.49/lb and I have difficulty justifying paying such a high price for a botanic that delivers no mind-altering effects. Late that night, I bemoaned my lack of almonds not covered in chocolate. Almonds on my mind and cotton on my mouth, I decided that the ideal refreshment would be homemade almond milk (I was too hung-up on what was missing in my life to realize the potential of the walnuts). Two days later, I returned to the family-owned nut stand to right my wrong. I bought a pound of almonds.

One of my favorite things about making almond milk is that it’s simple, but most people never think of doing it so it sounds impressive. The most difficult step is remembering to immerse the nuts in a bowl of water overnight. The first time I decided to milk my own almonds it took a week: I’d wake each morning and exclaim, “Dammit! I forgot to soak my nuts!” After you finally remember to soak your almonds, all you do is blend them with water. Variations of the recipe are abundant, but here’s how I do: 1 cup of almonds, 1 cup of water, 2 cups of coconut water, and a teaspoon of vanilla. Once blended, pour through a nut-milk bag or strainer and into a pitcher. Which brings me to my other favorite thing about homemade almond milk: it’s effing delicious!

*          *          * 

Grand Central Liquor

Downtown Los Angeles is a great place to be a drunk. Or, to be more specific, it’s a great place to be a high-class drunk. You have a pretty ritzy selection of places and events where you can get smashed: after parties, whiskey bars, gallery openings—this is the place to be three sheets to the warm, California wind. But let’s say you don’t have a trust fund, or, if you’re like me, any funds. You could nurse one drink at Seven Grand or Golden Gopher the whole night. You could order one small plate (and in the singular, they are very small) at Bäco Mercat. But you’re hankering for a great time, which naturally includes a degree of gluttony. You’re going to head to Grand Central Liquor, on the west wall of Grand Central Market.

It’s such a great name for a shop: Grand Central Liquor. It sounds like the amygdala of a vast booze network. They have a marvelous selection of international liquors. I’m not a mixologist, which both Microsoft Word and my brain tell me is not a real word, but I know what a jigger and a pony are, and they are both woefully inadequate for this adventure.

Let’s get to the drinks:

The Flower Street Special

A generous pour of Peruvian Pisco
Jarritos grapefruit flavor
A dash of club soda 

Note: Pisco is a grape-based liquor distilled in special copper pots. You will be serving it in a water bottle. A sippy lid will keep you well paced. Pairs well with: two generous scoops of carnitas from Las Morelianas, ladled directly into your unsteady hands.

The State Historic Park Sour

Two glugs of baijiu liquor
More Seven-Up than you think is necessary
Sour Mix

Note: Baijiu, a Chinese liquor made primarily from sorghum, is reportedly the most consumed alcohol on the planet. This is fascinating, because almost all human beings possess taste buds, and baijiu has strong notes of Techron ™ gasoline.  Best served in a plastic cup. A paper one brimming with baijiu may spontaneously combust. Pairs well with: a much better Chinese-American concoction, the chop suey from Broadway Express. 

Warm Tecate Beer

One can of Tecate, served at its most unappealing temperature.

Note: A Los Angeles classic. Pairs well with: At this point? The strongest drink G&B Coffee will prepare for you. And a metro TAP card, because you won’t be driving home. 

*          *          *

Over Two Thousand Served

 I don’t have to tell most of you to go to Eggslut in DTLA’s newly renovated Grand Central Market because you’re already there, standing about 20 deep in a line that meanders all the way past Valerie at GCM. But for those who haven’t discovered this food truck-turned-permanent establishment, attention should be paid. 

The devotion of co-owner Jeff Vales’s and chef Alvin Cailan’s customers is obvious, and not unwarranted. With the Eggslut truck, folks ditched favorite coffee shops, dragged out-of-town family members, and schlepped from spot to spot, regardless of distance, in order to indulge in the homey, sophisticated food.

“We got killed yesterday,” Cailan says on the Saturday morning after opening, in between calling out orders to his crew and distributing food to diners lined up at the 20 seats along the shiny counter, bathed in the early morning light through rolled up mega-garage doors. “We sold over 300 sandwiches.” Wearing rolled up pinstriped chef’s pants, a denim apron, and a black beanie, he seems more comfortable than he did at the soft opening on Friday, when he weathered a packed crowd and seemingly endless orders for his egg-centric fare. 

The 5-item breakfast menu is a smart move, as Cailan is keen to focus on starting off strong, including a free-range organic egg option for a $1 upgrade. “We want to do a few things and do them right,” is his present philosophy, but he plans to have different options for lunch soon, including braised pork and chimichurri.

However narrow, the menu is still complex, with obvious attention paid to each item. A brioche bun encloses softly scrambled eggs dotted with chives piled atop sweet caramelized onions, bacon squares, and Tillamook cheese for the popular “Fairfax.” A kick of Sriracha mayo appears in the background after a moment, and lingers well into the next bite without any overpowering spiciness. The “Sausage, Egg & Cheese” sandwich is a balanced stack of buttery biscuit, thick house-made turkey sausage, an oozing over-medium organic egg, Tillamook cheddar, and a sweet honey-mustard aioli in the distance.

Their signature dish, “Thee Slut,” squats in a glass jar, but digging down you’ll find creamy layers of coddled egg, potato puree, and a sprinkling of salt. They swear by one familiar ingredient.

“Butter is the secret to everything,” Cailan laughs.

Over the next two days, Eggslut would serve almost two thousand customers.

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