5 Old-School Vendors Keeping Grand Central Market Classic

China Cafe

Photo by Anne FishbeinChina Cafe

China Cafe

The venerable China Cafe rivals the trendiest hot spots in L.A. — if not in the food, definitely in the competition for a seat. Would-be diners crowd around salivating as they wait their turn to tuck into old-fashioned wonton soup, chop suey or chow mein — the sort of food you got in Chinatown years ago, served under a neon pagoda that looks as if it's been here since the café opened in 1959. Two years ago Rinco Cheung, who previously had a Chinese restaurant in Gardena, took over. Cheung is from Hong Kong; his partner and head chef, Jie Hui Li, is from Canton province. Li's specialty is wonton soup, which, unlike in Chinatown, comes with a bowl of lime wedges. That's to please Latino customers, who like to punch up their soup with a squeeze of lime and hot chiles. There are bottles of hot salsa on the counter and a plastic container of really hot, gritty, dark red chiles in oil. You could pile on enough of these to transform your lightly seasoned Cantonese fare into pure Sichuanese fire. The restaurant takes cash only but you won't need much of that, because few dishes cost more than $5. Besides the basics, there are house specials such as kung po chicken, Mongolian chicken and lo mein — soft-boiled noodles with chicken, beef or seafood. Servings are big, not trendy dabs of this and that. And the ambience at the counter is as friendly as a communal table, which makes the place not just cheap but fun — if you're lucky enough to snag a seat. Stall C-14


Photo by Anne FishbeinValeria's

See also: Grand Central Market Restaurant Issue

Valeria's Chiles & Spices

These days, even 99 Cents Only stores are stocking dried ancho and guajillo chiles. But chile cascabel, that little round chile that rattles when you shake it? Or chile costeño? Or tiny chile piquin? For these, you come to Valeria's, which can supply the ingredients for almost any Mexican dish you might want to make, even cacao beans for grinding into mole pastes. This stall has been in the market for decades, a destination in an era when Mexican ingredients were hard to find. Ruben Yepez, who is from Apatzingán, Michoacán, took it over 13 years ago, back when it was called Bardovi & Kazan. It looks the same as always, with its displays of flor de mayo, peruano and hefty ayocote beans, purple and white dried corn, rice and spices that include azafrán de bolita, which are tiny balls of Mexican saffron that you could mistake for oversized peppercorns. You can get salt cod and dried shrimp in the shell here, too. And achiote seeds for Yucatecan dishes. And chamomile flowers for tea to calm upset stomachs. Not up to making your own mole paste? It's a lot easier to buy Valeria's ready-made "super mole poblano" or the green and red mole pastes that Yepez gets from Teloloapan, a mole-crazed town in the Mexican state of Guerrero. Yepez stocks red and black Oaxacan mole pastes, too. The back shelves display cereals for kids along with Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Maseca, Gold Medal flour, cooking oil, coffee and other kitchen basics, making Valeria's as close to one-stop shopping as you'll find in the market. Stall D-6

Jose Chiquito

Photo by Anne FishbeinJose Chiquito

Jose Chiquito

Horchata and tamarindo are on tap, and pan dulce sits in a box on the counter. But little else is Mexican about Jose Chiquito, except the name. Opened in 1998, Jose Chiquito serves familiar comfort food, boxed quickly, to eat there or take out. The big selling point is all-day breakfast: If the urge for hot cakes or French toast strikes at 5 p.m., Jose Chiquito can help you out. A big seller is the breakfast wrap, which you're likely to call a burrito because the wrap is a flour tortilla. Inside are scrambled eggs, hash browns, cheese and a choice of ham, bacon or sausage. (Get the bacon.) It comes with house-made tomato sauce, which is pretty mild, but there's hot sauce on the counter. Jose Chiquito's breakfast sandwiches combine meats such as Polish sausage, pastrami or smoked ham with eggs, lettuce, tomato and mayo on a choice of breads. Or you can have an omelet with your cup of Euro Coffee. While breakfast is the big attraction, there are lunch favorites, too. The logo on the wall behind the stall shows a patty melt inside a glitzy orange neon circle, indicating that burgers are important here. And you'll want one, especially if you're cash-strapped. Jose Chiquito's basic hamburger is just $2.98, which is a bargain now that market sandwiches are heading to $10 and beyond. Even the double burger will set you back only $3.77. There's also a grilled cheese, a Reuben, a BLT and a turkey melt or turkey club. Exotic is not what you get here, unless you've never heard of a gyro laced with creamy cucumber sauce. Stall A-6

La Huerta

Anne FishbeinLa Huerta

La Huerta Candy

During the holidays, La Huerta is the go-to place for citron (or rather the diced, greenish fruit that passes for citron now), candied orange peel, cherries and anything else that fruitcake bakers need — don't laugh, such people do still exist. Even more startling, these ingredients are available all year, hidden in the back until the holidays approach, when they are displayed front and center. Fruitcake in July, anybody? But maybe you'd rather have killer chocolate-coated almonds, dark chocolate espresso beans or toffee nuts; La Huerta has these and almost any type of nut or dried fruit you could want, plain, raw, roasted, sweet and/or spicy. There are chipotle peanuts, chile-lemon pistachios, Jordan almonds and countless things zinged up with sweet, spicy, fruity chamoy, like the giant glass jar of mangoes in intensely orange chamoy sauce on the counter. The stand is owned by Ana and Arturo Huerta, who took it over in 2000. Arturo, who is from Tepeaca, a city in Puebla, Mexico, and Ana, who is Salvadoran, had opened La Huerta Produce in the market the year before and saw the candy stall as an opportunity. They ran both stalls for 11 years, before closing the produce one in 2011. The candy stall still offers a phenomenal assortment that includes trail mixes, sacks of flax seeds, amaranth, quinoa and wheat germ and two kinds of honey almond granola, one produced in the United States and one from Mexico — the American version is sweeter and clumpier. Traditional Mexican candies include crunchy nut, seed and raisin bars from Nuevo León, logs of coconut candy from Guadalajara and guava paste from Talpa de Allende, Jalisco. You'll also find the candied gourd chilacayote, candied sweet potato and squash. However, your inner kid probably won't be satisfied unless you walk away with a lollipop, a bag of gummis (try extreme watermelon chamoy) or a long skinny roll of cacahuate garapiñado — candy-coated peanuts, if you need the translation. Stall F-7

Making carnitas in a cazo at Villa Moreliana

Photo by Anne FishbeinMaking carnitas in a cazo at Villa Moreliana

Villa Moreliana

Located right at the front of the market on Broadway, near the lines wending toward Eggslut, this stall gives away so much free food that it seems like a business plan for losing money. Walk by, and you'll be handed a corn tortilla wrapped around the stall's signature meat, carnitas. It's a smart ploy, because you won't be able to resist buying a full-size taco, burro or torta just to get more of that savory fried pork. You also can buy carnitas by the pound to share with the office folk or take home, packed with beans, tortillas, salsa and chiles. There's plenty of action as high-energy guys in red shirts pull the pork out of the case and pound it to shreds. At the front of the stall are condiments to make your order taste even better, such as a powerful roasted chile de árbol salsa, marinated sweet onions deftly seasoned with oregano, and the usual cilantro and onions, pickled jalapeños, green salsa and lemon wedges. Carnitas and the state of Michoacán are practically synonymous, but Villa Moreliana has other cuts of pork, too, including ears, feet, snout and skin. Not your thing? Try ribs or roast pork, but maybe not those tempting, golden-brown stuffed tortillas in the display case. They're filled with brains. You could even — shhh — ask for carne asada in your taco. Fernando Villagomez, who owns this stall, is from Morelia, the capital city of Michoacán. If you've never been there, you can get a taste of what it's like by scanning the photos of tourist attractions that line the counter facing Eggslut. You also can see the authentic copper cazo, or vat, used for frying carnitas in Michoacán — though, yes, it's for display only. The health department has consigned Villa Moreliana to the steel alternative. Stall C-1

See also: Grand Central Market Restaurant Issue

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Grand Central Market

317 S. Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90013