Monday, August 5, 2013

Mercado Olympic

The A-frame at the parking lot said "$2 - Pinata District Parking," and I pulled right in. The young guy in the green polo shirt wedged my little Honda into a tiny piece of real estate between a forklift and a stack of pallets, and said, "Four dollars."

"The sign at the front said two dollars," I said, and he came back, "That's fifteen minutes. Four dollars for more time."

"Ah!" I laughed. Read the fine print. I gave him a five, keep the change.

The Mercado Olympic is a totally unofficial street market in downtown Los Angeles, operating on Saturdays and Sundays. On Olympic Boulevard roughly from Gladys Avenue east to Central, it's a motley collection of wholesale businesses and street vendors, crammed mostly along the south side of the street, although there are some outlier vendors on the north side.

The first thing you encounter is a taco truck, selling grilled meats. Lightweight plastic tables and stools are arranged along the sidewalk under a stretched blue tarp, and they're full of people, eating.

The path is narrow - the vendors set up at curbside, working out of parked vans and SUVs. Customers snake between the dining tables and the cooking area, coming close enough to feel the heat from the makeshift sizzling comals and griddles fashioned from hotel pans, fired by bottled propane mounted on shopping carts and milk crates.

Every manner of L.A. street food is here. Bacon dogs. Fruit cocktails. Quesadillas and huaraches, with grilled nopales and huitlacoche folded inside. There's a guy frying churros, dusted with sugar and cinnamon, and a guy selling flan tucked into plastic clamshells.

I bought a paper boat with five deep-fried fish strips - tilapia fillet - from a guy with a deep-fat fryer set up at curbside. It cost me $3.50, and I got a wedge of lime and chopped fresh onions and cilantro to dress it with. I had to wait for them to cool down, but when they did, they were perfect - crispy and tasty, the fish flaky and white within the crust. I stood along the fence in front of a table lined with ranchero CDs while I ate.

The businesses along this stretch are party supply shops and produce wholesalers, restaurant suppliers and discount wholesalers. On weekends the sidewalk vendors sell to families that come to shop. There are moms and dads and kids in strollers. People push through the crowd carrying giant sparkly pinatas, along with panhandlers and guys selling soccer balls, toys and balloons.

Some of the warehouses and shops bring in taco trucks and set up dining areas, and tables with arrays of pastel colored jars of aguas frescas. In a back driveway, the Tacos al Chivo trailer set up and ancillary stands sold carnitas, chicharrones, and al pastor tacos.

I ordered one taco al pastor from the guy tending the pineapple-topped trompo. He prepared it for me, then waved me off to the trailer to pay - trusting me for the $1.25.

I gave the young lady $2 and served myself from the plastic bins of condiments, which included three kinds of salsa, plus some pickled vegetables. I bought a limeade from her for just $1.

Another vendor was selling honey, bee pollen and beeswax guaranteed to cure all your ills and maladies. A panhandler tried to hit me up, but just like the rest of the customers, I waved him away.

This vendor was selling chicharrones, or pork rinds, fried hot right there on the sidewalk. I asked him if I could take a picture, and he agreed. You can buy a pound of these airy, crunchy fried slabs of pig fat for only $8 a pound - they're so lightweight that your dollar will go far. He let me taste a small crumb, which was deliciously crunchy and at the same time rich and lip-smackingly fatty.

Grab a bag of potato chips - the vendor slices them with a mandoline straight into a vat of hot fat, strains them out to drain. You can squeeze lime juice on them and splash them with chile sauce from a big bottle of Valentina.

Bulk ingredients are on sale, like spices and dried chiles, displayed in big plastic buckets and bins right next to the party favors, bulk packages of gift bags, and Barbie toys.

The atmosphere vibrates with sound - pounding ranchera music, burbling muffler exhaust from V-8 truck engines, and squealing kids. It's not a place for timid people, but in a funny way it's incredibly welcoming.

When you join a line of people snaking single file past the hot grills and comals, you get a sense of being part of a larger family. People smile at you. If they bump into you, they nod in apology. Kids with fancy painted faces show off to their families, and your own lips tug up in a grin at seeing their joy.

Girly Barbie pink toys
It's a totally unregulated, bumptious, crowded, catch-as-catch can scene. Like other human spontaneous events and phenomena, it's something that may not be around much longer if it continues to attract attention - but it shouldn't be missed. If you're in L.A. - check it out.

Downtown Los Angeles, Olympic Boulevard between Central Avenue and Gladys Avenue, Saturdays and Sundays from approximately 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.


Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

Add this to the growing list to "must do" things for a visit to LA and also to your list of fantastic LA travel posts. Really, Aunt Snow, a book is in order! I'd buy it and I live on the opposite coast!

smalltownme said...

I second Claudia.

Sue said...

Oh how fun! It must smell wonderful with all those yummy (and sometimes greasy) foods! It is so colorful...would love to be there!

Jenny said...

Oh My! I Love how this Is All So Beautiful, Yet It TaKes Me Back To My Childhood. :) Great Job!

Jenny said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Glennis said...

Did you go there when you were little, Jenny? How cool! There were lots of kids there. Lots of family groups.

Jenny said...

Oh yes ma'am. My mom used to take us after church on Sundays for brunch. Then we would eat the fresh made Churros and raspados. Yumm...I must take a stroll down memory lane! ;)