Angelinos have shopped at Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles since 1917. Today, they’re also enjoying cuisine prepared by various vendors sharing space with the grocers. My mom recalls going there as a child with her mother and aunts to do much of their weekly shopping for everything from produce to dried beans, from meat to cheese.
There’s still a butcher, but a more upscale one and the same is true of the cheese purveyor. Many of the transactions for produce are spoken in Spanish. Much of the food is traditional ethnic street fare; some is on the trendier side. It’s a food court with character and characters.
Before a recent visit we created a list of the places we wanted to sample: Tacos Tumbras a Tomas, Sarita’s Pupuseria, Texas barbecue from Horse Thief, Sticky Rice and Bel Campo. We made it to the first two and were too stuffed to eat anything else. Well, except for ice cream from McConnell’s.
The tacos were massive: mounds of carnitas doused in a blend of spicy red and green salsas. Although the tacos were huge in size and flavor, the best part may have been waiting in line (line is used loosely here). I didn’t have enough confidence in my Spanish to order but I understood what those beside me were having and what the men behind the counter were asking.
Sarita’s Pupuseeria was also a popular spot and the line (this one appropriately named) moved slowly. While you wait it’s fascinating watching the women make the thick pancake-like shapes. We tried some filled with refried beans, cheese and pork with cheese. The latter was the tastiest thanks to gooey cheese and shredded pork, but it was also the greasiest.
We’re looking forward to another visit so we can cross the other places off our list.
Grand Central Market
Four Plates (and lots of napkins)
317 S. Broadway
When I worked as a writing tutor at the local community college, I saw enough rhetorical and critical analyses on Sherman Alexis’s “Superman and Me” to fill a classroom – floor to ceiling. I knew his essay inside and out. Until now I was unfamiliar with his other writings. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a fictional account (complete with cartoon illustrations by Ellen Forney) of Arnold Spirit Jr., aka Junior, aka Arnold.
Certainly, similarities exist to Alexis’s life growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation in eastern Washington, but the diary entries are fiction. They follow Junior/Arnold in his freshman year of high school. Plenty of back story is provided, beginning with Arnold/Junior’s birth defects that physically, socially and intellectually isolate him from most others on the reservation. He’s suspended on the first day of school and decides to transfer to the “white” school 22 miles away. On the reservation he’s known as Junior; at the new school he’s Arnold.
He changes schools in hopes of opening new doors while learning to accept that old ones are slammed in the process. His life is a dichotomy. He’s always struggled to fit in and expects to endure the same at the new school. It’s clear from the onset that Junior/Arnold is an underdog, so the outcome is predictable. The transformation of other characters is what’s most heartening; it shows that tribes can be of our own creation. This is evident through the diary reflecting its author’s humor, perception and emotion.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Little, Brown & Co., 2007
Galesburg, Ill., is not a place often, if at all, associated with Coney Island, yet it’s been the home to Coney Island hot dogs since 1921. It’s recognized as the town’s oldest restaurant, complete with a plaque from the local historical society. Of course, restaurant may be a slight exaggeration. It’s has more of a soda fountain aura, and, after all, we’re just talking about hog dogs here.
Nonetheless, the dogs – more than a dozen variations on the theme – are available along with a handful of sandwiches and several fountain treats like floats, shakes and sodas. The focus is on the namesake: a plump dog slathered with mustard, the house sauce and topped with diced onions. The sauce is ground beef mixed with red chile powder. It’s tasty and basic, just a few beans shy of a traditional chili dog.
The décor looks like something out of a 1950s museum: lots of white script on bright red on everything from a clock to a jukebox. It’s not all Coca-Cola, though, there’s plenty of clutter advertising Pepsi, Dr. Pepper and more. There’s a lot of kitsch, but the place wouldn’t work as well with any other design scheme.
Typically, I eat hot dogs at baseball games and am satisfied with that level of frequency. My son, a student at Knox College, just a few blocks from Coney Island suggested we check it out on our recent visit. I’m glad we did. I’m sure if I lived closer my hot dog consumption would dramatically increase.
77 S. Cherry St.
The name Quick Sam’s conjures images of Quick Draw McGraw and Yosemite Sam, neither of which has anything to do with south of the border cuisine. But then the sign for this unassuming, three-table eatery is misleading, too; it boasts pizza, fried chicken and sandwiches, which aren’t even on the menu. Nothing suggests authentic Mexican food. Add to this the fact that Galesburg, Ill., is not a locale that immediately comes to mind for enchiladas, rice and beans.
In a building that stands out only because it’s next to a cemetery on one side and a row of two-story clapboard houses on the other, Quick Sam’s is an anomaly on several levels. The place is small: part tiny diner, part miniature-convenience store complete with glass coolers where much of the inventory for the diminutive kitchen. Yet, it’s muy grande when it comes to flavors.
The menu features standard Mexican fare: tacos, burritos, enchiladas and chile rellenos. Chips and fresh made salsa are the precursors of tastes to come. Quick Sam’s salsa is the kind to ruin an appetite only because it’s easy to eat too much. Self-restraint comes in handy here.
The chile rellenos combined the smokiness of roasted poblanos with creamy Jack cheese that had all been coated in an egg, flour and cornmeal mix and fried. It wasn’t greasy, but not quite as crispy as I like.
Prices are reasonable: less than $8 for a meal that includes rice and beans. All items are also available a la carte.
275 S. Academy St.
In a way I’d love to frequent a place often enough that I’d be known, if not by name, perhaps by where I liked to sit or what I ordered. Colman Andrews recounts the numerous places around the world where this is the norm for his dining experiences. In My Usual Table: A life in Restaurants, Andrews shares his earliest recollections as a child dining in many of the landmark eating establishments in the Los Angeles area. As a kid he, with his family, was a regular at Chasen’s, the Brown Derby and Musso & Frank Grill (only the latter remains today).
Where does one go from there? Apparently, everywhere. Andrews grew up to be a wine connoisseur, dining critic and co-founder of Saveur magazine. He’s also authored several cookbooks.
My Usual Table is an eat and tell memoir with casual and not-so-casual name dropping: Wolfgang Puck, Ruth Reichl, Alice Waters, among others. Some meals are described vividly, some barely mentioned while he focuses on those associated with the meals. What’s most fun is following Andrews’ time line, which precedes, for example, the farm-to-table concept to the present.
Andrews is a fine story teller, but his voice begins to wear thin about 2/3 through. It’s difficult consuming and digesting such rich, often heavy fare for too long. I enjoy dining out, but there’s nothing like a home cooked meal or an occasional burger for basic sustenance. I’m happy, afterall, to have my usual table be in my own dining room.
My Usual Table: My Life in Restaurants
The Boys in the Boat isn’t compelling as a title until considering the subtitle: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. That, believe it or not, provides just the amount of spark to pick up the book. Once in hand, Daniel James Brown’s account is riveting. Sure there are a few spots where it catches a crab, in rowing vernacular where an oar doesn’t completely come out of the water and slows the pace of the shell (boat). Fortunately, Brown keeps a mostly steady tempo.
The narrative follows the unlikely evolution of nine young men who find their way to the University of Washington rowing crew. Much of the story follows Joe Rantz, a particularly poor young man with a heartbreaking past: his stepmother convinced his father to essentially abandon Joe. His history, along with that of his crewmates and their coaches, provide the book’s heart, literally and figuratively. Each chapter begins with a quote from George Yeoman Pocock the boat builder who served as a mentor to Joe and others.
Interspersed with descriptions of the men’s pasts, their grueling training and the exciting races — particularly those against California – Brown describes events in Germany before the world fully understood the atrocities occurring there.
Even though the outcome of the race is known from the start, how the American crew made it to Berlin is fascinating. It’s a story of indomitable spirit that demonstrates the power of hard work, friendship and the American dream.
The Boys in the Boat
Viking Adult, 2013