A new wave of food stalls alongside some old-time favourites has made Grand Central Market one of LA’s most raved-about dining destinations.
If the snaking queue of people lining up for coddled egg on potato purée at Eggslut is anything to go by, the gentrification of Grand Central Market in the grungy downtown of Los Angeles is now complete.
Even the butcher shop has received a modern makeover, with its dry-aged, pillow-talked beef on a burger now more popular than its rib-eye steak or snags.
Traditionally a workaday produce market that catered to the Latino community in LA’s historic core, the marketplace is now one of LA’s most raved-about dining destinations, and a magnet for visitors who previously avoided this down-at-heel part of town.
For a first-timer shuffling through the industrial-like, dimly-lit space – a fixture in South Los Angeles since 1917 – it looks and smells just like any other commercial food hall.
With its candy-coloured neon lights and the heady aroma of slow-cooked carnitas and fresh-brewed coffee, it follows the familiar cookie cutter template that has made Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market and Boston’s Faneuil Hall so successful.
The overhaul of Grand Central is symptomatic of the urban renewal sweeping through downtown LA.
But you’d be ignoring the upheaval that has occurred here over the past decade, as changing demographics and soaring rents squeezed out generations of immigrant vendors, from Germans and Italians, to Armenians and Mexicans.
While the cavernous hub between Hill Street and Broadway still has its fair share of no-nonsense taco counters, it’s hard to ignore the influx of classically-trained chefs now dishing up high quality, fast-casual food for a new generation.
The overhaul of Grand Central is symptomatic of the urban renewal sweeping through LA’s dilapidated downtown, thanks in part to a 1999 “adaptive re-use” law that made it easier to convert rundown office buildings into housing.
Between 2000 and 2013 alone, more than 30,000 new residents moved to downtown LA, drawn by its low rents and retro-cool office spaces.
It’s a trend that’s expected to continue over the next decade as everything old becomes new again in the run up to the 2028 Summer Olympics.
Eager to attract this lucrative new customer base at its doorstep, the century-old market welcomed a raft of new food vendors after a renovation in 2012, to mixed but generally positive effect.
Downtown Dining Hub
With its exposed concrete, big beams and dusty skylights, Grand Central Market sits on the ground floor of the Homer Laughlin Building, running between Angels Flight and Broadway.
It’s a stone’s throw from Pershing Square, the Jewelery District and the Broadway Historic Theatre District.
Wander through the 30,000-square-foot market at any time of the day or night and you’ll see Latinos and Koreans dishing up no-nonsense comfort food at many of the 40 or so counters, alongside fancy fare and sweet treats from some notable newcomers.
From kransky, cabana and bratwurst sausage to chop suey, oysters and almond milk lattes, there’s a taste sensation around every corner. It’s a classic balance of old and new, rich and poor, east meets west.
Eggslut, a former food truck sensation, maintains a well-worn footprint on the Broadway side of the market, while one of the oldest-surviving vendors, the beloved China Cafe, serves up warming bowls of wonton soup, chow mein and other classic California-Chinese dishes just as it has since 1959.
Sari Sari’s spicy Filipino rice bowls, Olio’s wood-fired pizza and Lucky Bird’s fried chicken breakfast burritos are also crowd pleasers.
Sensational Street Food
Eggslut: The quirky dining chain has turned traditional breakfast and brunch fare into an all-day dining experience. Its signature menu item is ‘the Slut’: a cage-free, coddled egg on top of a potato puree, poached in a glass jar and served on a baguette. Other menu items include bacon, eggs and cheese in a brioche bun; and a cheeseburger with caramelised onion, pickles, cheddar cheese and dijonnaise in a brioche bun. Eggslut has three other California outlets (including Beverly Hills), as well as Las Vegas and Kuwait City. It’s also about to try its luck in London, opening its first UK store at Portobello Road in Notting Hill in August. Next stop Australia, if the reports are true.
Prawn Coastal: The seafood stall formerly known as Bombo was rebranded by chef Mark Peel in 2017. The new concept Prawn Coastal still serves brilliant seafood, just in a faster, casual, crowd-pleasing manner. The menu includes staples like fish & chips, chowder and various mouth-watering sandwiches, like a Thai lobster roll filled with Maine lobster, fresh Thai basil, tangy coleslaw and aioli. There’s fried shrimp and oysters and even a crispy beer battered chicken sandwich.
China Cafe: One of the original, old-school favourites at Grand Central Terminal, well since 1959 at least, China Cafe attracts a steady flow of regulars from sunrise to sunset with a popular menu that includes Chinese-American classics like chow mein and chop suey, noodles, shrimp fried rice, wonton soup and the ubiquitous egg foo yung (a fluffy Chinese omelette). The counter seats are almost always filled, and that’s the mark of a good food stall.
Villa Moreliana: For traditional slow-cooked pork as it is prepared in Michoacan, Mexico, you can’t go past the carnitas at Villa Moreliana, on the east side of the market. It’s a classic meat and tortilla stand, and they use every part of the animal in their cooking. Once the meat is gone they shut up shop, so get there early in the day to avoid disappointment.
Wexler’s Deli: If you crave classic Jewish deli food, then Wexler’s Deli slow cured, hand-crafted pastrami and smoked salmon is the way to go. The O.G pastrami sandwich is one of the most popular menu items while the crusty, chewy bagels with salmon and cream cheese are hard to resist. Wexler’s has four locations across Southern California.
La Fruteria: This Mexican fruit stand is the newest arrival at Grand Central Market and serves up exotic, spicy and healthy street snacks like fruit cups, salads, shakes and Biónicos – seasonal fruit bowls with muesli, yoghurt and Mexican crema. If you’re after a healthy way to kickstart your day, La Fruteria has you covered.
Belcampo Meat Co: Belcampo is a butcher shop-cum-diner that raises, processes and sells its own sustainable meat. At one end of the counter you’ll find a selection of fine meats, while at the other end it’s a counter style diner that serves grass-fed burgers, as well as wine and beer. They make their own vinegar slaw, ketchup and aioli as well.
Berlin Currywurst: What is currywurst, you might ask? Well, currywurst is a popular fast food dish often sold at subway stations in Germany. It’s usually a pork sausage that’s steamed then fried, cut into bite-sized pieces and seasoned with curry ketchup. And it’s been a sensation at Grand Central Market since Berlin Currywurst arrived in 2014. Another popular menu is Fleischkaese Broetchen, a German breakfast meatloaf served on bread with an over easy egg on top.
Sticky Rice: This is probably the closest you’ll get to authentic Thai street food in Los Angeles, even the undisputed hub of Thai food, East Hollywood. Sticky Rice, and its noodle-based spin off Sticky Rice II, are found in the middle of the market floor. Just follow your nose and you’ll find them serving up incredibly aromatic beef Penang curry, khao man gai and green curry with vegetables to the hungry hordes.
Getting to Grand Central Market The best way to get there is to take the Red Metro line to the Pershing Square Station. Take the Fourth St exit which is around the corner from the market’s Hill Street entrance, near Angels Flight.
© 2019 Bernard O’Riordan (Travel Instinct). All Rights Reserved
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