The stretch of Southern California that straddles the 110 Freeway from the 405 south to San Pedro might as well be Kansas as far as most people are concerned. It’s the highway equivalent of fly-over country — we whip past it on the way to the ocean or downtown without giving it much of a second thought.
It’s almost not part of Los Angeles at all, but little independent-minded communities such as Harbor City, Wilmington, Carson and Lomita, as well as the eastern edge of Torrance.
But stop and get off the freeway – not very far, just a couple of blocks — and you’ll find a surprising amount of great food.
Alpine Village — Perhaps the best example in this stretch is this giant complex easily visible from the freeway. But when was the last time you stopped? Sure, there's a high kitsch factor, but visit the market and you’ll find a trove of German and middle European foodstuffs.
Charcuterie is everywhere at restaurants these days, but Alpine’s Alex Lager has been doing it for decades. In addition to cured and fresh sausages, his patés and headcheeses are works of art. Then there’s the market’s hearty house-baked breads -- pumpernickles, ryes and more – as well as cakes, cookies and pastries. The aisles are packed with imported German ingredients such as spiced mustards, krauts and other pickles, spaetzles and noodles.
All that shopping is bound to work up an appetite, so stop at the café next door. You’ll stand in line with a very SoCal assortment of German expatriates, workers from local businesses and folks who wandered over from the giant swap meet next door, all feasting on perfectly cooked bratwurst and knackwurst, smoked pork chops, and a rotating list of homemade soups. And the Sunday brunch at the full-service restaurant next door offers the greatest hits of German dishes. This Sunday is a special Easter fair and Fruhlingsfest. 833 Torrance Blvd., Torrance, (310) 327-2483, www.alpinevillagecenter.com.
Seafood City — This area has a concentration of Filipinos and this small supermarket chain caters to them. You’ll find all sorts of udon and pancit noodles, fresh produce including a half-dozen types of choi and other greens, as well as frozen produce and prepared dishes.
But the real draw is the seafood selection. Of course there’s salmon, but there’s also so much more, almost all of it sparkling fresh and sold whole. The selection rotates based on what is best, but on one recent visit there was a representative sampling that included pink grouper, vermilion rock cod, beltfish, yellowtail, amberjack, silk snapper, canary rockfish, a couple types of mackerel, anchovies, golden pompano, baby bonita and ocean perch.
Choose the fish and take it to the counter for scaling and cleaning. And you might want to buy a little extra, because they’ll also fry it for you while you wait. Just in case, you know, all that fresh fish made you hungry. 131 W. Carson St., Carson, (310) 834-9700, seafoodcity.com.
La Española — Long before Spanish food became cool, before José Andrés, Ferran Adria and the Arzaks, Juana Gimeno Faraone was supplying top-notch Spanish ingredients to Southern Californians out of a tiny shop hidden in a light industrial area of Harbor City. She deserves a statue.
When great chorizo and jamón was forbidden from being imported, Faraone started making them herself and her Doña Juana brand sausages and cured meats are about as good as any you’ll find produced anywhere. Of course, now that great Spanish products are legal, she also has celebrated Cinco Jotas brand hams, including iberico, jabugo and even de bellota, which have been fed only on acorns.
La Española, which also has a website and a national distributorship, also imports Spanish conservas, or canned fish and produce, including razor clams, ventresca tuna and baby squid, preserved in its own ink. There are olive oils and vinegars, a cheese selection and even some wines. Just getting started in Spanish cooking? La Española has a full range of paella pans in different sizes and earthenware cazuelas. And Saturday lunch, there’s always freshly made paella -- sometimes Doña Juana herself even stops by to help prepare it. 25020 Doble Ave., Harbor City, (310) 539-0455, www.laespanolameats.com.
Tasty Block Hawaiian Shave Ice — Tasty Block may not offer the assortment of goods that some larger places do. In fact, it only does one thing — frozen treats — but it does them so well. This part of the harbor area also has a large population of Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, and where you find Hawaiians you’ll almost inevitably find shave ice (not “shaved ice”).
This year-old spot off Figueroa Street in Carson run by the friendly husband-and-wife team of Chris and Jennifer Pacleb is almost guaranteed to make you happy. You can get shave ice (ice shaved razor-thin, then flavored with house-made syrups); shave snow (syrup-flavored ice that is then shaved), ice cream from Hawaiian brand Lapperts and frozen pineapple soft-serve.
These are combined in an almost endless variety of treats, which almost inevitably wind up being a riot of carnival colors and very sweet tropical flavors. It’s strictly kid stuff, but it’s utterly irresistible. 22815 Figueroa St., Carson, (310) 847-5500, tastyblock.com.