Many years later, as Grand Central Market faced the renovations that would once again shift its fortunes, Filomena Eriman remembered the day when she first arrived here, one of this country's oldest and largest public markets.
It was 1969, and Eriman had been hired as an accountant for the family that owned the Homer Laughlin building, part of the century-old jigsaw of buildings (a mash-up of vintage and new, reworked and decrepit) in the so-called historic core of downtown L.A. The centerpiece of that jigsaw, both now and when it opened in 1917, is the market — a wonderful, noisy, deeply multicultural synthesis of food and people, commerce and neighborhood, that has operated continuously for almost a century. It's at once a giant food court, a disassembled grocery store and an enduring civic paradigm, all wedged into 84,000 square feet between Hill and Broadway.
While the city sleeps, Tomas Martinez is wide awake. By 4 a.m. the day's work has begun at Tacos Tumbras a Tomas, the stall at Grand Central Market he's run for nearly two decades with brothers Manuel and Jesus.
Four in the morning is actually late for Martinez. When the business was new, he came in at 2 a.m. and stayed until 10 or 11 p.m. There were no employees to help in those days; the brothers did everything. Martinez was used to long hours even then. He'd landed his first job at the market in 1972, cooking at Roast To Go, working 10-hour days that started at 5 a.m. He was only 14 at the time, the first of the brothers to come here from Zamora, Michoacán.
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
Almost immediately, Anya Fernald knew that Grand Central Market was the perfect place to open a second retail outlet for Belcampo Meat Co., her insanely ambitious butcher shop in Marin County. "When I first walked into Grand Central, I had a feeling of being in a market from the turn of the century," Fernald says. "I loved that there was the possibility for Belcampo to operate a shop in a place that had that history."
Belcampo took over a spot vacated by another butcher on the northeast side of the marketplace; it was important to Fernald to find a location where people were already used to shopping for meat. But the meat sold at Belcampo — and really, Fernald's entire company and operation — is vastly different than any retail meat purveyor seen before at the market, or anywhere else for that matter.
Sticky Rice, the vibrant stall serving Thai street food, comes to Grand Central Market courtesy of chef Johnny Lee and partner David Tewasart, the folks behind craft-beer lounge Spirit House Bar in Monterey Park. Sticky Rice was the first of the new class of vendors to move into the market — it opened in April 2013 — though it fit into the market's ecosystem so seamlessly that you'd be forgiven for thinking it's been dishing out beef panang curry for as long as Sarita's has been stuffing pupusas. That curry, by the way, is always a good bet, as are the other two dishes that are constants on the menu: khao mun gai (aka Hainan chicken) and a very tasty gai yang (BBQ chicken). Over on the ever-changing chalkboard menu of specials, you'll find things such as a blistering tom yum soup; and if you're lucky, the excellent Issan-style sausage will not have been sold out. While eating at the counter, you might notice the sign stating that the ingredients are local and seasonal, or you might overhear someone asking the cook about whether it's true that the chicken is cooked sous vide (it is). These facts you'll digest along with your meal. And then to finish? Mango and sticky rice. Of course. Stall C-5
If Grand Central Market is a barometer of time for downtown Los Angeles, Tim Hawkinson's Inverted Clocktower, an unassuming artwork wedged into the northwest edge of the building, is committed to the moment at hand. Unlike the contents of the public market, which have metamorphosed dramatically over the past few years, the clock appears unchanged since its installation 20 years ago. Perhaps it's an answer to an urban riddle, a relic that reflects only the present, while accepting the future and releasing the past.