Westside ladies, their purses carefully bandoleered across their chests, gasp at the sight of Japanese eggplants for 50 cents a pound and ask the patient counter clerks to explain the subtle differences of Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Costa Rican cream. Pensioners rush in to squeeze the 25-cents-a-loaf white bread. Mexican and Salvadoran families move from stand to stand, loading up on a week's worth of food, quitting only when they can't manage to carry any more home on the bus.
No matter how many gourmet markets open up in Los Angeles, Grand Central Market remains the most intriguing food store. No matter how many pasta boutiques or cheese shops open, nothing touches Grand Central for sheer excitement.
It's food shopping in the fast lane. Those mannered, trendy shops, where clerks correct your pronunciation of each French cheese and Italian salad, have none of the razzle-dazzle of Grand Central, where Spanish is the language to know (though it's hardly ever corrected).
A quick once-over indicates that the market seems to sell mostly day-old bread, cheap deli meats, four kinds of sour cream and ready-to-split-open-its-so-ripe produce. But leisurely browsing finds ceviche, cherimoya (a $3-a-pound bargain), pans of ready-made chile and chocolate mole, green mole, maiz morado (essential for making posole, a Mexican soup). Hardcore foodies thrill to discover that there are several kinds of shredded coconut, half a dozen varieties of rice and rare herbs such as epazote.
A sociologist would probably take one look at the market setup and say that the power is with the clerks. After all, they stand imperiously high on behind-the-counter platforms and they choose the tomatoes. Customers look up, asking to buy Japanese eggplant or French beans. Once you have a clerk's attention, you are expected to make your purchases quickly and to trust the clerk's judgment on which tomatoes are best. It pays to look before you buy here since prices vary considerably from stall to stall. Stall owners are competing with each other, not with other stores, according to co-owner Tracy Lyon, and that's what accounts for red peppers being two pounds for $1 at one stand and $1 a pound at another.
The four meat counters offer every conceivable anatomical part of pigs, cattle and lamb. Beef lips, beef cheeks, mutton necks and whole heads--eyes intact but thankfully a bit glazed over.
Busiest Market Stand
The busiest place in the market is the stand-up taco stand under the "Roast to Go" neon sign in the middle of the building. At lunch, dozens of downtowners, from pencil pushers to day laborers, shout their orders to harried clerks behind the counter. Those who like to take a load off their feet head up the half a flight of stairs to the China Cafe, which allows patrons a way of observing the hustle bustle while slightly retreating from it.
Most customers arrive by bus, but to encourage the car trade, the market now offers free parking with a $15 purchase. Saturday is the hot day here, although, in response to changing shopping patterns, the market is now open on Sundays.
Grand Central is undergoing a slow but calculated renovation. Owners Ira Yellin and Tracy and Beach Lyon are hoping to keep their bus trade and pull in the carriage trade as well. Can quarter-a-loaf bread buyers coexist with the La Salsa clientele when that quintessential yuppie taco stand opens a branch just inside the Broadway entrance soon? Except for the La Salsa stand, the Broadway section is expected to keep its present tenants (with some remodeling to the stalls themselves). The big changes are slated for the Hill Street side, with the bargain dry-goods section being ripped out in favor of a ceviche and oyster bar and a well-known Chinese restaurant. It will be interesting to see what happens as the now-quite-workable cultural mix is stirred a bit more.
Grand Central Market, 315 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, (213) 624-2378. Hours Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-4 p.m.