In Mexican culture, a large community market is an entertainment center, a cultural activity, and a weekly event where families and friends meet and everyone knows each other.
In a mercado, people don't just show up to pick up a few items from the weekly shopping list, but rather they linger in conversation with their neighbor or “comadre” while, for instance, picking up chiles and spices to prepare the long and complex mole recipe required to celebrate a special occasion.
The breadth of items for purchase at the mercado is all-encompassing: First Communion dresses, cowboy boots and hats, trinkets for the kitchen, and that always helpful potion of “me vale madre” (“I don't give a d---”) — an herbal concoction believed to help calm one's nerves. The mercado is essentially a mall that caters to nearly all the needs of the Mexican community.
One such place still exists in the heart of Boyle Heights at the corner of 1st Street and Lorena, across from the Metro Gold Line. The demographic, economic and cultural changes that have transformed downtown Los Angeles' Grand Central Market into hipster heaven have yet to arrive at El Mercado de Los Angeles — also called “El Mercadito de Los Mariachis”. Here, the sounds, smells, and flavors are still very close to the old neighborhood and its mostly Mexican heritage, with dueling mariachis singing every day on the huge top floor, giving the place its popular name.
At El Mercadito, you can still nibble on sweet “buñuelos” (fritters covered with sugar and anise syrup) or the best fresh churros in town, which bear no resemblance to the chewy stuff found under hot lamps on many street carts. These are freshly fried, light and crunchy, closer to their cousins from Spain which are dunked in thick chocolate or café and truly need no sugar or cinnamon to shine.
The place is full of memories for many whose families have lived here for generations, who emigrated from Mexico a few decades ago or perhaps more recently.
“When I was a kid, I used to come here with a tía who made dresses and she would sell them to some vendors in the market and we would hang out on a regular Sunday,” says Boyle Heights native and local chef JR Warren. “She'd drop off the dresses and we would eat the food and meet friends. People would see each other here. It was really vibrant at the time.”
Built in 1968 when Boyle Heights was already predominantly Mexican, “El Mercadito” is still a cultural institution for many and the place to find essential ingredients of traditional and popular Mexican cuisine. It doesn't draw the same crowds as it used to but “it still feels the same,” says Warren.
Indeed, it does. On a weekday morning in early July, it's still possible to have a long conversation with someone here about the different kinds of Mexican traditional sweets, those “dulces tradicionales” that take several days to make in complex preparations that involve boiling whole chunks of fruit, dipping them in lime (the powder, not the fruit) and then boiling them again with sugar to create a thick syrup.
“The nice thing about these sweets is that they are actual pieces of the fruit. It's not from concentrate. There's no chemicals. It's all pretty natural,” says Mel Zuñiga, another local chef who, with Warren and Cynthia Loya, created Three Radishes — a pop-up and small catering business based out of East Los Angeles started by the three friends.
Behind the counter in one of the shops on the ground floor is Pilar Fernandez. She is from a small town in the state of Tlaxcala, México, and has worked here for twelve years. She happily explains the contents of the different trays containing the candied fruit.
“This is calabaza [pumpkin], this is camote, this is cocada with lime, orange, pineapple and anise flavors, mango with chile, mango with chamoy, tamarindo con chile, membrillo, higo, chongos zamoranos, cajeta de leche…” and the list goes on.
One of the trays contains big chunks of shiny yellow fruit called visnaga. It's a candy made of the heart of barrel cactus, usually sold in blocks, and used in many savory and sweet preparations. “My grandmother used to make those from scratch. They would be candied and cut in little cubes,” says chef Zúñiga. “She would use it in her stuffing for Thanksgiving or people just use it like candy. They also add it to carne molida [minced meat] and they mix it up, but you can eat it with milk just like that.”
The “Three Radishes” chefs tend to use the basic ingredients of Mexican cooking and give them a more modern twist to create their own Mexican antojitos. Zuñiga tells of using the membrillo or tamarindo dulces to sweeten cheese trays or adding fresh cucumber, lavender, and agave syrup to other fruits to make lighter and less caloric aguas frescas.
At “El Mercadito”, many of the food vendors are located on the market's second floor. Some specialize in a variety of hot chiles, spices, and moles. Huge buckets of mole paste come from México to be sold at the market. Mole verde and rojo from Guerrero, mole negro or colorado from Oaxaca, mole poblano, and many others. You can buy mole here by weight, add some broth and a protein to it, and you’ve got an entire meal.
The “International Deli”, one of the largest shops, boasts a sign that harkens back to the early part of the last century when Boyle Heights was home to generations of Jewish immigrants. At the “deli”, you can get a 20-piece package of freshly made corn tortillas for a little over a dollar, buy spicy-limey Mexican beef jerky or “cecina”, take home chunks of fresh cheese imported from Mexico, or try the Oaxacan delicacy known as chapulines (crickets), now apparently the latest “protein trend” among Bay area techies.
Then, there's more mole, camarón seco, charales (little dried fish), chicharrón and bags of corn husks ready to contain tamales. A carnicería-cheese stall sells fresh meat and queso de los menonitas, a soft, mild and cheddar-like cheese made by Mennonites in the state of Chihuahua, which arrives weekly at the market.
A smaller shop next door, “mini-Mercadito”, carries bags of cinnamon sticks the size of a baguette. Canela is a spice that has inordinate importance in Mexican home cooking.
“You can use it with everything,” says Warren, who keeps referring to his grandma as the reference for everything. “She used it with coffee. You can add it to salsa. When you cook it with savory foods, it becomes complex and nutty.”
With reports of the market's owners looking for ways to attract more customers from outside the Boyle Heights area — even from the Westside — the future of the Mercadito may look very different but, for now, it remains closer to the memories of home for many Mexican immigrants and their families.
Top image: On the top floor of El Mercadito, also known as "mercadito de los mariachis", there are two sizable restaurants with stages on opposite ends where mariachi musicians play every single day of the year. || Photo by: Kyle Scoble