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MARKETS : Packed With Pupusas, Chock Full of Chuco : Liborio covers the Latino food spectrum from Mexico to the Andes

November 02, 1995|LINDA BURUM

At Ninth and Vermont, where Koreatown's barbecue joints and acupuncture studios begin to mingle with clusters of pupuseriias and panaderiias , the first Liborio Market has flourished for nearly 30 years. You can detect remnants of a former Thai enclave here in authentic Thai restaurants like Vim and Alisa, although today these places make most of their money selling fried rice and chow mein to customers from Guatemala and El Salvador.

Tapping into this ever-changing neighborhood mix are Liborio's owners, the Alejo family. "We're still really a mom-and-pop business," says John Alejo III, the founder's son. "And we've always talked to customers about what's available in their markets at home."

When Enrique Alejo Jr. and his father opened the small store in the late '60s, the shelves looked like something straight out of a Miami neighborhood carniceriia --not surprising, because that's exactly where Alejo Jr. worked as a meat cutter after abandoning his engineering studies to flee Cuba when Castro took over.

It took only three years for Liborio to double in size. Cubans shopped there, and the market also began to draw a clientele from the Yucatan and Campeche in southern Mexico, where ingredients are comparable to those in the Caribbean.

Good cooks heard about the store through the grapevine, and it became a sort of neighborhood comfort stop where people knew that the banana leaves were fresh and the perfectly seasoned chorizos in the butcher shop were homemade. The produce section, though small, was carefully groomed. Bunches of the really ripe thin-skinned manzano bananas and squishy-sweet ripe plantains would be hung on round wooden posts to keep them from bruising. It gave the place a slightly exotic tropical atmosphere.

Although the family added warehouse space and bought more adjoining property, the store could barely keep pace with the growing Latin community around it. And despite expansion, shopping there remains a rather claustrophobic experience; the aisles are always crammed with the widest assortment of Latin ingredients in town.

In the late '70s, customer requests began to grow beyond the basic Caribbean ingredients like yuca and achiote . The Alejos found themselves filling orders for Brazilian manioc meal, dried Peruvian potatoes, Guatemalan mashed black beans and the Salvadoran coffee cake called quesadilla .

Today, they're able to fill customer demand for good prepared products like the ready-to-use pupusa fillings that Liborio makes in its butcher section or the roasted turkey and lechoon asado (whole roasted pig) for parties. They've also installed a Central American/Cuban-style bakery.

Liborio has opened a second and larger supermarket in the Mid-Cities, which has become one of the county's newest Latino bedroom communities. Wedged between Vernon and City of Commerce, vintage '40s California tract homes on tree-lined streets are hidden from the throbbing commercialism along Atlantic Boulevard and Gage Avenue. When their customers began to discover the area, the Alejos were watching and listening.

SHOPPING LIST

* Pupusa Supplies: Monterey Jack cheese blended with chopped loroco , a delicate-tasting flower bud that comes frozen from El Salvador, makes up the cheese pupusa filling sold at Liborio's butcher counter. To make these stuffed, grilled corn cakes, you need cornmeal masa , and Liborio's butchers have that ready-made too. They also deep-fry pork and use it to blend with minced tomato, bell pepper and onion for a chicharroon pupusa filling.

Even with all the elements at hand, it takes practice to pat the corn dough thin into its flying-saucer shape, then to slather on the filling before you enclose it by patting more dough over the top. But it's still easier to use the prepared elements than to start from scratch. And Liborio's blend of fresh ingredients will make your pupusas taste thoroughly homemade.

* Chun~os Blancos and Chun~os Negros: The Incas found that they could preserve their potato crop if they left the tubers exposed to the sun in the dry, freezing air of the Andes, where the potatoes would alternately freeze and thaw until they became bone-dry and bone-hard. Originally this was strictly a survival tactic, but Peruvians grew to love the meaty texture and unique flavor of these dried potatoes.

Today, says importer Willie Veliez of Amazonas Natural Foods in Sun Valley, chun~nos are prepared by boiling them and then freezing them for 21 to 30 days before canning for export.

Chun~os are small golden potatoes with a slightly sweet nutty taste. Some flavor is lost in drying, but chun~os can absorb the nuances of sauces and broths in a way that intensifies them.

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