In the happy chaos that is the new Grand Central Market, the circa 1917 food court in downtown L.A. that has in the last few years been the center of a massive makeover, it’s easy to lose sight of the so-called legacy vendors in all the dust, drop cloths and hype. But amid the high-profile chefs going into the space, there are many businesses that have been there for a long time -- and some of the new construction is theirs.
Tacos Tumbras a Tomas, run by Tomas Martinez -- who has been working at Grand Central Market since 1972 -- and his brothers, is expanding. And Las Morelianas, where Fernando Villagomez has been making enormous vats of carnitas since 2008, is opening a new seafood counter underneath a mermaid sign.
Villagomez will open La Tostaderia later this month, in partnership with co-owner Gerardo Reynoso and chef Sandra Felix, serving Mexican ceviches, tostadas, tacos and something Villagomez calls octopus pops -- crunchy octopus with chiles, chipotle aioli and ahi amarillo creme fraiche. Maybe something to divert at least some of the people standing in the endless line around EggSlut.
La Tostaderia is the second project in Grand Central Market for Villagomez, but it’s not his second restaurant. A native of Morelia, the capital of Michoacan, Villagomez went to school in Toronto, where he opened a carnitas restaurant before coming to Los Angeles. Villagomez and Reynoso began thinking about La Tostaderia a few years ago, when Reynoso was working at a seafood place in Leon, Mexico. During the process, Villagomez met Felix, who was then sous chef at Blue Cow Kitchen & Bar downtown.
“Every Saturday I’d come down and buy carnitas from Fernando,” said Felix recently as she worked on the new dishes at La Tostaderia. As a further part of the culinary jigsaw, Felix had worked at Campanile when she was just out of culinary school -- and thus with chef Mark Peel, whose seafood place Bombo recently opened in Grand Central Market. A native of Calabasas, Felix grew up partly there and partly in Mexico, where her family is from, then went to culinary school in both Pasadena and San Francisco.
Put all those traditions and wide-ranging experiences together, add gorgeous blue and white ceramic tiles handmade in Jalisco and ceramic plates, handmade and fired in Morelia (“That’s why the opening took so long,” says Villagomez), a lovely neon sign of a mermaid, and yes, the seafood, and you have a place for slightly more upscale Mexican food than what Villagomez has been serving for the last eight years on the other side of the market.
As Villagomez prepped an octopus that would go into an octopus tostada, with yuzu juice, cherry tomatoes, dill, radishes and sea salt, he said that he was trying to source Mexican seafood from Baja and the Pacific coast. “You’ll spend more money, but it tastes better,” he says.
In addition to the octopus tostada and octopus pops, he and Felix will be serving ceviche verde with wild Mexican shrimp; mahi mahi fish tacos; aguachile with raw shrimp, red onions, radishes, cilantro and habanero sauce; shrimp toreado (deep-fried shrimp with Sriracha aioli and arbol chile); and what they’re calling a taco chile (shrimp, octopus, scallions, cheese and roasted chile guerito on a soft tortilla).
La Tostaderia won’t have a liquor license when it opens in a few weeks, but Villagomez hopes to get one soon. In the meantime, you can order beer and wine at Belcampo, just across the aisle, or walk over and get a Michelada from Las Morelianas.
Why tostadas? Why ceviche? And why, oh why, a mermaid? “Everyone knows tostadas,” says Villagomez, leaning against one of the 12 counter chairs, also handmade in Jalisco. “But not everyone knows a good one.” The same could be said for ceviche, and he hopes to bring both traditional and original recipes to the market, made with seasonal and local ingredients.
As for the mermaid, “seafood places always have fish, but we wanted something a little different,” Villagomez says. Half-fish, as it were, to go with the fish on your plate.
Because taking pictures of food is almost as much fun as eating it, I’m on Instagram @ascattergood.