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Cook's Walk

Five Blocks in East L.A.

A little neighborhood has a surprising variety offood businesses.


The main shopping district of East Los Angeles, centering on the corner of Whittier Boulevard and Arizona Avenue, and heralded with a sign arching over the street, is a place to shop for clothes and furniture.

But if it's food you're after, there's a particularly interesting concentration of businesses about two miles to the west, scattered among auto repair shops in the five blocks of Whittier Boulevard between Alma and Eastman streets.

1. Alma's Cafe

To start on the north side of Whittier, across the street from Ruben F. Salazar Park, Alma's Cafe is a cozy little place with frilly curtains on the walls, not to mention representations of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Marilyn Monroe and Tweetie Bird. It serves all the familiar Mexican dishes and has a back page of seafood specialties.

3837 E. Whittier Blvd. (323) 263-1826. Open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

2. El Lucero Meat Market

A few steps east is El Lucero. Despite its name, it's really a supermarket with a wide array of produce and shelf goods as well as meat. The butcher cases carry the important cuts for Mexican cuisine, including espinazo de puerco (pork backbone) and diezmillo (chuck roll). There are also convenience meats such as milanesa (either breaded or without breading) and ready-seasoned beef for fajitas and carne al pastor. Beef and pork chorizo are sold in bulk. Usually three or four kinds of fish are available.

The produce section, near the checkout counters, carries much the same fruits and vegetables as any Southland supermarket, though there might be two sizes of tomatillos.

It includes a display of sweets, such as cone-shaped loaves of raw sugar (piloncillo), puckery salted tamarind candies and colorfully packaged fruit juice confections aimed at children. The things that look like big brightly tinned buckets on a shelf above the produce are tamaleros for steaming tamales.

Most of the shelf goods are familiar too, but the last aisle carries a number of imported goodies such as dulce de cacahuete estilo mazapan (very sweet crumbly disks of ground peanuts), cajete de leche de cabra (rich caramel with an aftertaste of goat's milk) and bargain-priced Mexican vanilla. The Central American fruits jocote, also known as ciruela or Spanish plum, and the small yellow nance are available either canned or frozen. Loroco, an essential herb for Salvadoran pupusas, can also be found in the small freezer case.

Naturally, the checkout counter features impulse-purchase items like Gummi Bears, Mexican packaged cakes (such as Submarino, which is much like a Twinkie) and little confections that look like cookies but are made from the condensed milk sweet dulce de leche. Right beyond the checkout counter, you can see bags of Mexican charcoal.

3843 E. Whittier Blvd. (323) 268-6041. Open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

3. Mi General Zapata Panaderia

Across the parking lot is this little bakery crowded with shelf after shelf of Mexican sweet pastries. In addition to the usual buns and cookies, it sells quasi-French cornetes and other pastries filled with pastry cream and delicate twists of puff pastry sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.

3857-A E. Whittier Blvd. (323) 660-4813. Open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.

4. Lunch trucks on Hicks Street

Most days two lunch trucks park on Hicks half a block north of Whittier. La Ballena Blanca (which puts up a little sign at the corner to call attention to itself) specializes in seafood cocktails, tostadas and tacos and also sells fried fish and seafood soups. It's usually there Saturdays through Wednesdays. The other truck, El Buen Taco de Jalisco, sells the usual non-seafood tacos, burritos and tostadas and is there every day.

5. Cake Palace Bakery

Cake Palace, on the other side of Hicks, specializes in cakes for weddings, birthdays and quinceanera parties. Various tchotchkes for decorating a wedding cake are stocked by the door. It also makes lots of pan dulce, including the pineapple-filled canasta de pina, plus bolillo de chile, a roll stuffed with cream cheese arrestingly depth-charged with jalapenos.

3865 Whittier Blvd. (323) 266-1474. Open 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

6. Yerbas de Mexico (Herbs of Mexico)

Passing Olympic Donuts, which also serves Chinese food, you come to Ditman Street, and shortly beyond that corner is one of Los Angeles' leading herbalist shops. Most of its stock is medicinal herbs, but it does sell the usual culinary herbs and spices and some unusual ones, such as sassafras, the basic flavoring of root beer. People who want to avoid sugar may be interested in stevia, an herb many times sweeter than sugar. There are also displays of herbal teas on each side of the door.

3903 E. Whittier Blvd. (323) 261-2521. Open 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays.

7. Al Salam Polleria

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