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Comfort Food : Survivors of Bygone Times : Retailing: Neighborhood markets are not yet a thing of the past.

January 24, 1991|DEBORAH SROLOFF

When my mother was growing up in Boyle Heights, then a Jewish-Latino ghetto, the focus of her neighborhood was Everybody's Market on Brooklyn Avenue. In her neck of the Heights it was the only market of its kind, where you could see everything under one roof.

In turn, when I was a kid living in the Borscht Belt of the next generation, the Beverly-Fairfax area, the neighborhood market was Merlo's on Beverly Boulevard, across the alley from the Fairfax Theater (where Standard Shoes presently stands). I'd go there a couple of times a week with my grandmother.

My parents thought it dank and old-fashioned, preferring to shop at the more contemporary Market Basket on Third Street, but it's Merlo's that I remember most fondly. The produce man, who was Japanese and barely taller than my 4-foot-11 grandmother, would always give me a handful of cherries or peas in the pod. It was the first place I ever saw (and got) Crayola jumbo crayons. While my grandmother endlessly baited and cajoled the butcher into giving her a better cut of lamb chop or brisket, I patrolled the meat case with a 7-year-old's mixture of horror and fascination; real-life cows' tongues lolled on a bed of parsley, hunks of calf's liver were hefted onto the scale with a diabolical-looking metal hook and glass containers held the tiny yolks and viscous whites of unlaid eggs removed from butchered hens. This was almost better than going to the scary funhouse ride at Kiddiepark.

Despite the hammerlock that supermarket and convenience chains have on Los Angeles, a few neighborhood markets remain. Some of them are survivors of another era; some of them are only a couple of years old.

Larchmont Market and Green Grocer, 131-133 N. Larchmont Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 856-9953, feels as though it's an entrenched, established part of this sleepy, retro-genteel street, when in fact it's only 2 years old. Granted, it inhabits the space of the old Larchmont branch of Jurgensen's, but it's much closer in spirit to a friendly country store than to the former inhabitant's sniffy chill. Clean, light and airy, the Larchmont Market looks almost like an Andy Hardy-MGM version of a neighborhood grocery store--except it's doubtful that Andy had ever seen a baked potato bar or green corn tamales.

There's really nothing ordinary about the Larchmont Market; even the magazines carried here are haute (Paris Vogue, Maison et Jardin). And you'll find Dean and DeLuca risotto mix alongside Uncle Ben's Converted Rice and pozole and flageolets a la Bretogne cheek-by-jowl to the navy beans.

The meat department here, Prime Corner, is owned by Jerry Rothstein, and is an absolute gem. "You pay 10% more here, but we get our meat fresh every day," he says proudly. All the beef is corn-fed and from Iowa, all Prime grade. He also stocks Black Forest hams, imported prosciutto and Lido veal, and claims to be the only purveyor in town to offer Prime grade lamb from Northern California. He also takes special orders and will cut and prepare meats to order.

There's also a decent selection of very good international cheeses in Jerry's case, as well as deli sandwiches. Don't miss the meat loaf sandwich--it's homemade (you can buy the meat loaf mixture raw as well) and absolutely delicious.

But the real centerpiece of the Larchmont Market is its green grocery, run by Janet Macduff. The produce is lovingly displayed in baskets and bushels--sort of a Grange version of Cartier. Produce is delivered daily; Macduff won't keep anything perishable in stock more than one day.

You'll find the best of whatever's in season, including plenty of exotic lettuce and herbs, as well as homemade croutons, sun-dried tomatoes, and boutique-label salad dressings and spices. Gorgeous loaves of bread from Fred's Bakery and Amy Pressman's Old Town Bakery arrive fresh every day. And not only is there a salad bar here, there's also a Pritikin-prepared foods bar (including Pritikin turkey chili), a baked potato bar and green corn tamales from El Cholo.

Customers are greeted by name at the Larchmont Market; most of them have house charges. It offers home delivery--just the way markets used to back when dinosaurs roamed the earth--and also makes up beautiful food platters and gift baskets.

Owen's Market, 9769 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (213) 553-8181, has been a Westside fixture since 1957, catering to the denizens of the Hillcrest Country Club and other carriage-trade folk who never really felt comfortable at Jurgensen's. Owen's is a compact yet well-stocked market that features perfect produce (grown locally and exclusively for Owen's by Dale Burkett), including some out-of-season items available year-round and a fabled meat department. Manning's beef is the name of the game here; all the beef is dry-aged for four weeks in a moisture-proof cooler, and special orders are not only honored but encouraged.

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