If you've ever spent a weekend on Olympic Boulevard, cruising through downtown as it crosses Central Avenue, you'll probably notice some people. Well, hundreds of people, really. You can't miss them: They cross the street whenever they feel like it, double-park so they can load up their cars with all sorts of trinkets, and they have this really cruel habit of standing just on the curb, eating from a plate of something that looks and smells more delicious than anything you've ever tasted in your entire life.
Unless you've pulled over and inquired as to just what the hell is going on down there, you might not know that it's actually just another weekend at Mercado Olympic. The largely unregulated weekend-only street party is equal parts bazaar and bizarre. There are less-than-authorized piñatas that shamelessly match the look of popular kids show characters hanging alongside rows and rows of dried chiles. There are tacos (everywhere), cooling fruit juices (most places) and at least one guy who sells fish sticks, because -- why not?
These weekend vendors are mostly comprised of mom-and-pop vendors who show up just for the Mercado Olympic, to cash in on the hungry crowds strolling through the makeshift market. You won't find many business names hanging from these outdoor stalls, let alone credit card machines or health inspection ratings. But in this DIY marketplace, there are many amazing food vendors getting amazing things done all weekend long. Turn the page for five of the best food finds you'll come across at the Mercado Olympic.
5. Industrial Churro Man
This intrepid businessman is really upping the churro game for everyone else. With an assortment of specialized churro-making tools that would send Batman weeping back to that hole he had to climb out of in The Dark Knight Rises, this fantastic man has made it possible for hundreds of market-goers to experience the deliciousness that is a freshly fried churro. Rather than handling the sweet dough himself, there is an industrial paint mixer involved. Sure, the metal stirrer still binds up a bit when the heat index rises, but it certainly beats mixing 45 lbs. of sugar and flour by hand.
There are also putty knives that double as bench scrapers, a weapons-grade churro caulk gun and a boiler of hot oil that's seemingly always churning out the next great cinnamon-laced treat. And churn he does, with a set of metal rods, hooked at the ends to ensure that the churros can be flipped and manipulated from a safe distance. Once the heavy-duty frying is done, it's time for the treats to be dusted with cinnamon, wrapped up in paper and meted out to the waiting faces of desperate children, almost all of whom have stopped to watch the churro man in action.
4. Boxes and Boxes of Dried Chiles
Your chile choices are practically endless at the Mercado Olympic, with washing machine-sized boxed filled to brimming with dried arbols, guajillos, chipotles, poblanos and more. If anything, the market has become something of a way station for many local trucks, stalls, stands and eateries, many of whom rely on the bulk pricing that comes with the market in order to keep their salsa costs down. Of course, you'll still find plenty of family shoppers just looking to pick up a few chiles for their own personal use.
3. Fresh Fish Sticks
While it's ultimately unclear if the Van de Kamp fisherman is the same guy from the movie I Know What You Did Last Summer, one thing is for certain: His time has finally come. You won't be needing Van de Kamp's frozen fish stick tubes after one bite from one of the fried fish men on the western end of the market. Using fresh tilapia and a simple, slightly salty batter, each piece is a bit of warm and tender heaven. Rather than relying on tortillas and some crema to make this a meal, it's perfectly acceptable to splash on some of the provided salsas and dive right in -- once they've cooled, of course.
2. Unending Tacos
Tacos are everywhere at the Mercado Olympic, with nearly every food stall offering some form of small tortilla and meat combination. There are also fried cactus and some potato tacos to be had, of course, but the real pleasure is in the warm and smoky carnes that are being offered. Be careful not to get too sucked into a taquero's work; they're likely to load you up with a plate, shove it into your hands and demand payment for them all before you have much time to think about it. Wait for the center of the street market to open up for a chance at some trompo-spinning al pastor and, behind that, freshly fried carnitas that come piled onto double-stacked corn tortillas.
1. Blue Corn Quesadillas
Fresh blue corn masa, milled earlier in the day and pressed, patted and prepared right in front of you -- it's a thing of beauty. The blue corn quesadillas come fast and thick, with less cheese than the American versions you might be used to chowing down on late at night, but with at least twice the flavor. And once you add the cojita cheese, crema and salsa to the outside, it's a flavor explosion that's worth a trip to the Mercado Olympic by itself. Possible quesadilla fillings include that funky Mexican corn smut known as huitlacoche, earthy squash blossoms or chorizo, the meatiest and most popular option. Warmed simultaneously on the griddle, the sturdy blue corn tortilla is loaded for bear with well-spiced and a handful of melty cheese for a salty, meaty, indulgent weekend meal.
Mercado Olympic is a weekend-only street market on Olympic Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles, just west of Central Avenue. The market unofficially kicks off on Saturdays and Sundays around 9 a.m. and runs through 5 p.m.
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