In Singapore, where eating is about the only sensual activity not directly prohibited by the government, the island's many street-food businesses were long ago herded into what are known as "hawker centers," massive conglomerations of food stalls where the air is thick with the smoke of cooking fires, and the sound of clacking chopsticks continues far into the night. Hawker centers aren't bad things--the sanitation is scrupulously controlled, which is more than you can say for most Third World snack carts.
Singapore, the original multi-ethnic metropolis, has significant numbers of Indians, Malaysians, Indonesians and all sorts of Chinese. When you sit down at a good hawker center, you can get Chiu Chow-style black-mushroom noodles and South Indian-style grilled giant prawns, Cantonese soft-shell-turtle soup and massive heaps of beef satay , food from dozens of different cooks and exotic beverages from dozens more. Everything is cheap, and the competition keeps average quality very high. A Singapore hawker center crams more interesting kinds of food into a hundred square yards than most entire cities in California do within their borders.
The closest thing to a "hawker center" in Los Angeles is, of course, the Grand Central Market downtown, that huge old place between Hill Street and Broadway famous for good prices on cows' heads, and carp, and fragrant heaps of vegetables that tend toward extreme ripeness. On weekends, the market swarms: Little kids watch puffed-out tortillas dropping off the conveyor belt of the tortilla machine; mariachis blast among the green onions; grandmothers pick up 15 pounds of farm roosters and fresh chicken feet to make giant vats of soup; swaggering dudes check out the Mexican sea-turtle extracts and bull-based virility tonics at the herbalist toward the rear. German tourists lean against the Carlos beer bar up front, gulping Miller Lite at 10 in the morning and taking tentative bites of Carlos' famous \o7 menudo\f7 . Artists from the nearby loft buildings stop by Maria's for fresh-tuna tacos--$1!--and by the coffee bar for good, silty espresso. Among the fruit stalls and the poultry stands, there are 10-odd places where a hungry person can get something to eat. Last week, I had lunch there every afternoon, and I was never bored.
Check out the China Cafe, that noir-looking place up the stairs with 1930s neon and Formica that's seen many decades of wear, if you can find a seat at the counter--because a full meal for two can cost as little as three bucks, the place is crowded all day. The chicken chop suey, a bland, crunchy mound of Chinese vegetables sauteed with a little broth, might be sprinkled with chopped chicken the way a bowl of spaghetti is sprinkled with grated cheese, but the bok choy and such still have life in them, and it comes with an enormous scoop of rice. When you stir in some Mexican hot sauce, as everyone around you will, the stuff tastes healthy and good. (The egg fu yung on the other hand, though freshly fried, tends to be mealy and stale.) For dessert, head to the nearby juice bar for a carrot flip, which is pure carrot juice blended with a Dixie-cupful of vanilla ice cream.
By the tortilla machine, La Paz \o7 tortilleria\f7 sells forgettable tacos and \o7 sopes \f7 and such, and also dryish deep-fried taquitos in a sour green sauce, which is what everybody seems to order. Instead, try no-meat \o7 memelas, \f7 thick corn tortillas softened in hot oil, brushed with bitter chile sauce and topped with chopped onion and crumbles of fresh cheese--the natural sweetness of the fresh tortilla is spectacular. Packages of three dozen La Paz corn tortillas, still warm from the oven, cost only 60 cents.
King Taco, whose sweet tacos \o7 al pastor\f7 pack in customers at two dozen other locations, is practically ignored at Grand Central: There are the carnitas tacos at Roast To Go here, what seems like a full quarter-pound of crisp, savory pork crammed with onion and hot salsa into a couple of tortillas barely big enough to contain the meat, and also Roast To Go's tacos of \o7 buche\f7 , pig throat. Their big, golden sheets of fried pigskin are terrific. But my favorite food at the market is at Ana Maria's next door--\o7 gorditas\f7 , golden, deep-fried puffs of dough split like pita bread and stuffed with beans, lettuce and a dollop of pork stew, \o7 carne asada\f7 , tongue or brains, and a wonderful, tart green salsa that will inevitably cascade down your arm. \o7 Gorditas\f7 are the perfect things to eat while you're deciding what to have for lunch.
\o7 Grand Central Market, 317 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, (213) 624-2378. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Cash only. Take-out. Lunch for two, food only, $3-$9.\f7