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Portraits of Service: the People Behind the Counters of Grand Central Market

Grand Central Market hallway | Samanta Helou Hernandez
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Watch a segment of <i>The Migrant Kitchen</i> and learn more about Chiles Secos at Grand Central Market
The Migrant Kitchen

An iconic landmark of Los Angeles, Grand Central Market, has been providing the community with fresh produce and culinary ingredients for a hundred years.

But in recent years, drastic changes took place. Many of the old stands are gone, ushering in trendy gourmet stands selling everything from oysters and champagne to vegan ramen. Thankfully, some of the staple locations remain. Many employees and owners have worked the majority of their lives at these stands. They’ve seen the market evolve, they’ve made and lost friends and they’ve seen multiple generations create culinary traditions here.

For many of these people, working at Grand Central Market led to opportunities for autonomy and entrepreneurship. Some bought the stands they worked at, others opened up their own shops, while others rose through the ranks to managerial positions.

For all, working at Grand Central Market is a way to stay in touch with and share their culture — a culture often left behind in search for a better future.

Tomas Martinez, Tacos Tumbras

Tomas Martinez left his home state of Michoacan, Mexico when he was only a teenager. At about 14 years old he started working at Grand Central Market. That was in 1972. It wasn’t until 1995 that he opened up his own taco stand “Tacos Tumbras.” Specializing in the famed Michoacan-style carnitas, he still works diligently, slinging hundreds of these succulent pulled pork tacos to eager customers both old and new. To him, Grand Central Market is a second home, a place that not only gave him an opportunity to work as a recent immigrant but also a chance to eventually become a business owner.

Tomas Martinez of Tacos Tumbras | Samanta Helou Hernandez Grand Central Market
Tomas Martinez of Tacos Tumbras | Samanta Helou Hernandez 

“I’ve been at the market since 1972. I am a pillar here at Grand Central Market. I’ve spent the majority of my life here, so I feel a deep affection for it. One must know how to prepare Michoacan-style carnitas a certain way. They need their condiments, but the most important thing is to give them time to cook. My dad and my grandparents had the knowledge in their hands, it’s just about learning it and continuing the tradition.”

Sara Clark, Sarita’s Pupuseria

Sara arrived in Los Angeles after fleeing potential political persecution in her home country of El Salvador. She soon found a job through an ad in La Opinon: a jewelry shop in the market was looking for an employee. After working there for years, she eventually bought the shop. Yet opening up a Salvadoran food stand was always in the back of her mind and in 1998 she opened up Sarita’s Pupuseria. The stand specializes in pupusas, thick corn tortillas filled with staples like beans, cheese and chicharron (fried pork belly) served with a side of curtido, a pickled cabbage slaw. Sarita’s also features non-traditional options like shrimp, spinach and basil pupusas. The stand offers her an opportunity to share her culture with people from all over the world, but more importantly, she provides a little piece of home to Salvadorans living in Los Angeles.

Sara Clark of Sarita's Pupuseria | Samanta Helou Hernandez Grand Central Market
Sara Clark of Sarita's Pupuseria | Samanta Helou Hernandez

“[There were] political problems in my country. We came here because one of my brothers was a professor and they were threatening professors. I’ve always had the idea to start a food stand because there wasn’t this type [Salvadoran] of food here [in Grand Central Market]. That way, I can let people know about the ‘Tom Thumb of Latin America.’ That’s what they call El Salvador. I can help with something, contribute my little grain of sand, not only by giving my countrymen their food but also an opportunity for work.”

Ruben Yepez, Valeria’s Chiles & Spices

Ruben Yepez has worked in the same stand at the market for 27 years, first as an employee of the dried goods stall, then, as the owner. Filled with a colorful variety of grains, beans and, of course, chiles, the stand provides a mostly Latinx client base with the ingredients to create staple cultural dishes from their home countries. His best seller is chile guajillo, a dry chile with a smoky tinge used in everything from pozole to chilaquiles. “For Mexicans, if we don’t have chile, it’s not food,” he explains in Spanish.   

Ruben Yepez of Valeria's Chiles & Spices | Samanta Helou Hernandez Grand Central Market
Ruben Yepez of Valeria's Chiles & Spices | Samanta Helou Hernandez

“I’ve worked here since I arrived from Mexico, first as an employee then as the owner. This is basically my home. I’ve worked here for 27 years. At that time the market was all produce and there were more Latino people. It was 100 percent Latino.  You could find everything you were looking for especially fruits and vegetables. It was very affordable.”

Marta Luna, China Café:

Marta Luna was 17 years old and new to the United States when she first started working as a waitress for Mr. Tam, the original owner of the 58-year-old China Café. Back then, the market was completely different, full of produce, seafood and butcher stands. Marta describes her customers as multigenerational and loyal, children and grandchildren of people she remembers eating at China Café in the early 80s. Catering to a primarily Latinx clientele, China Café serves its famed won ton soup with a side of limes and chili oil. It was also the first and, for a long time, only place to serve alcohol at the market.

Marta Luna of China Cafe | Samanta Helou Hernandez Grand Central Market
Marta Luna of China Cafe | Samanta Helou Hernandez

“I’ve been working there like 37 years. I know the majority of my customers by name. The first owner, Mr. Tam, and his wife…I don’t remember her name because we always called her ‘The Mama.’ They were so nice, oh my god, excellent! They used to provide free hot tea. They had these special little tea cups and all the people that came to eat, if they wanted hot tea, it was free. To this day, a lot of the old regulars don’t want to pay for the tea. My current boss tells me not to charge them. He says ‘the older clients you’ve known for a long time, don’t charge them [for the hot tea].’ A lot of people come and say ‘oh my mom used to come eat here, she brought me when I was a little kid.’ It’s like a tradition for them to come eat here because this is where their parents used to eat.”

Lourdes Rodriguez, Roast to Go

Lourdes Rodriguez, originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, worked at multiple stands inside the market until she was poached by the original owner of Roast to Go. Serving all things protein from carnitas and pork stomach to carne asada and grilled chicken, the stand has served Mexican-style meats for 65 years. Rodriguez finds pride in the legacy of Roast to Go, a sign that she’s doing something right in her managerial position. Much like China Café, her customers often reminisce about their trips to buy burritos at the market as children. They refuse to eat anywhere else. Eating at the market is more than a culinary novelty to them but a longtime tradition full of childhood nostalgia. 

Lourdes Rodriguez of Roast to Go | Samanta Helou Hernandez Grand Central Market
Lourdes Rodriguez of Roast to Go | Samanta Helou Hernandez

“I’ve been working here for 30 years. That’s speaks well of a person, that one has lasted a long time working here. I’m the manager of this place and all the stands I’ve worked at here, I’ve always become the manager. I like it because no one bosses me around, I’m my own boss…hahaha. And you know dealing with someone who bosses you around is difficult. The new wave of customers is often the second generation, people that used to come with their parents. Young men come with their wives and they tell me, ‘oh you’ve been working here a long time. I used to come here with my dad when I was little!’”

Top Image: Grand Central Market hallway | Samanta Helou Hernandez

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