Like many of Highland Park's new young residents, I happily moved out of the ever-pricier Echo Park/Silver Lake area about a year ago and found my dream home a little farther northeast, in Highland Park. In the former area, the speed of gentrification was too fast for me, pushing my girlfriend and I out, tired of paying the area's rapidly increasing rent. I'm not saying Highland Park isn't rapidly changing as well: it is. But, it just seems that the new businesses opening up around Highland Park seem to be doing a slightly better job at respecting the older residents' food customs, at least in the case of my neighborhood convenience store, La Tropicana.
I first realized that La Tropicana was not your average Highland Park corner store earlier last year, when I stepped in to buy an $11, obscure dark craft beer from Ipswich, Massachusetts. I started stopping in whenever I could, and would find occasional goodies like organic butter lettuce with the roots still attached, but still never really thought twice about it. It wasn't until after perhaps my 100th time driving by their multiple colorful signs touting "we now sell organic milk and eggs" and "Grass fed beef" that I finally stopped by to re-investigate their offerings. I met the owner, Rana Redfield, and found out that she has been slowly introducing foods such as those advertised outside over the last five years, stocking up on things like baked pea crisp snacks and special vintages of certain wines per her regular customers' personal requests, as well as her personal culinary favorites.
On the same visit, I walked to the butcher area in the back and immediately spotted a pile of merguez sausage coiled high and available for $9 a pound. This elusive spicy North African lamb sausage is hard to find in Los Angeles, not even available at Whole Foods unless you specially request it. Just how did it make its way to a tiny corner shop in a semi-suburban street in Highland Park? After peppering the butcher with questions about it, discovering that he also made the merguez daily using lamb shoulder and lamb casing (even rarer) from scratch himself, I found out that he is actually Josh Siegel, owner of the popular eatery The Park in Echo Park. He leased the back area of La Tropicana Market from Redfield last July and opened up a sandwich shop with many of The Park's same sandwiches and deli foods; Siegel also took over the carniceria and started introducing things like the aforementioned sausage and other artisan meat treats like house-cured bacon made with heritage pork, smoked grass fed beef pastrami, and wild salmon all smoked with his own smoker using apple and cherrywood. At first, the butcher shop was started to supply The Park's menu, but eventually it grew to have its offerings available to the public as well.
Among all these higher quality meats -- and consequently, higher priced meats -- there are still your average bargain cuts that I grew up with in East Los Angeles. Like espinazo de puerco, a cut of pork spine with little meat but lots of flavor usually used for stews and sometimes pozole, and thinly sliced chuck "diesmillo" flap meat, a popular cut in Mexican and Central American cultures that grills up instantly; ideal for loading on a toasted tortilla.
"The goal is to be a great carniceria for the clientele that has supported La Tropicana for the last 11 years, but also a great butcher shop the for new residents that ask for things like lamb and local pork," says Siegel as he helps a woman with her daughter in the nearby elementary school's uniform buying some of his non-organic, non-local carne asada. The carne asada at Monte 52 doesn't sit already marinated in mystery marinades like most other carnicerias; instead, Siegel marinates his meat with his own recipe at request of the customer, providing for a more fresher, cleaner taste when cooked.
Another time that I was there, I waited for my turn to order my merguez and eavesdropped on the request of the customer in front of me. He wanted a thick cut pork chop, but didn't end up buying one since Siegel only carries the traditional Latino thin-cut favorite. "Yeah, that's kind of the neighborhood cut," Siegel told the customer.
He does carry thick-cut pork chops from nearby farms (Cook's Ranch avocado-fed pork makes an appearance) for his customers, but he requires a two-day notice for such orders. Siegel has managed to keep this fine balance of respecting old Highland Park resident food customs while meeting the demands of HLP's new residents by pre-selling his high quality meats before he even gets his animals, through an email blast to his loyal customers. By using this email system and always rotating the popular Latino cuts and longer lasting cured meats, he has minimized his product waste and established a successful business. Knowing this, I couldn't be happier paying for my higher priced organic Mary's Chicken that I have the luxury to afford (barely).
Before La Tropicana, I would have to go to at least two different markets to stock up on ingredients to cook conscious renditions of the Mexican dishes that I grew up with: Whole Foods or Trader Joe's or Fresh & Easy for quality meat and seafood and good beer and wine, and then my local Mexican market for things like nopales, tomatillos, and Mexican calabacita squash. Now, I only have to go La Tropicana.