To describe the soon-to-be-unincorporated City of Vernon, located a few exits southeast of downtown, as an industrial wasteland might serve as an understatement. Most of the landscape is a collection of sprawling warehouses, massive scrapyards and factories producing an array of products that range from Tapatio Hot Sauce to Farmer John's Sausage. The city's motto is "Exclusively Industrial." The 2010 census lists a total of 91 residents.
Yet, a brief drive through Vernon's wide, pot-holed boulevards shows hints of life that a Census Bureau can't capture. First comes the smell of the roadside asaderos that dot the street corners come weekends, grilling over modded oil drums and scenting the air with thick plumes of poultry-flavored smoke. Drive further, and men waving day-glo flags directing cars into empty lots appear, operating with a finesse that might suggest they moonlight as LAX ground crews. Beyond that, hidden in plain sight amongst rows of unremarkable looking warehouses, is the Alameda Swap Meet.
Each building house dozens of stalls selling, well, pretty much everything: cowboy hats, lingerie, norteño CDs, herbal supplements, national flags, subwoofers, cinqueceñera dresses, car parts, leather boots. There's a petting zoo for the kids. Shiastu massages and acupuncture are available out back. On Sundays a live church service blasts out of loudspeakers, competing with the constant clamor of wandering Mariachis. The crowds swell to what must be twenty times Vernon's "official" population. Spanish is preferred, but the language of bargaining is universal.
The real show, as you may have guessed, is the food. Not just any food, but what is probably one of the most comprehensive and superb collections of Mexican cuisine heaped together in one place outside of Mexico.
The food stalls seem stretch the length of the complex. In one corner, stands a hulking red tornado of al pastor spinning on a spit crowned with fresh pineapple. Nearby a row of grandmothers work slabs of blue masa into oblong huraches or quesadillas, then stuff them with gracious handfuls of squash blossoms, a malty smear of huitlacoche, or slow-simmered tinga de pollo.
And yet there's more meat: whole roasted cow heads dripping with jus and wilted green onions, chicarron stands stacked four feet tall with delicate wafers of pork skin, and tubs of birria, a rich goat strew, ready to be tucked inside pillowy tacos de canasta or drowned in hearty consomme. Mariscos El Bucanero, famous for goblet-sized cocteles, blows through enough shellfish in a weekend to make a fisherman blush.
Pupusas stacked like doughy vinyl collections. Fire-grilled corn cobs brushed with butter, cotija cheese, lime and chile are passed off to toddlers, who brandish them like miniature swords. Churros fried in wide-brimmed vats are ordered by the dozen and then dipped in tooth-dissolving cajeta caramel. Sweet, multi-colored jugs of agua frescas can be found around every corner, not to mention the fruteras serving bags of mango squirted with lime and chili, or the heladeros serving Styrofoam cups of homemade sorbets.
It's as overwhelming as it is appetizing. The well-heeled glutton could spend a solid week here, sampling each vendor and parsing out the high and lows. Of course, the market is open seven days a week, rain or shine, making that type of pilgrimage a real possibility. For most of us, though, a Sunday afternoon is more than enough to fill up on. And then some.
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Alameda Swap Meet: 4501 S Alameda St., Los Angeles.