When the Grove shopping center opened to great fanfare in March 2002, there were predictions that it would spell the end of the beloved Los Angeles Farmers Market, which has stood on the adjacent property since 1934. In recent years, green markets had sprung up in competition with the Farmers Market all around the Southland, and some said the new Grove would finally starve the Market out. No longer would Angelenos speak the immemorial phrase “Meet me at 3rd and Fairfax” unless they were headed to NIKEgoddess or Victoria’s Secret.
But 2 1/2 years later, with the dust at least partly settled, that hasn’t happened. The Grove overflow has changed the Market’s demographics somewhat, but the nearby parking lots start to get tight by noon, the place still seems as lively and convivial as ever, and a new generation of restaurants and shops has energized it.
Take Monsieur Marcel Pain Vin et Fromage. For many decades, the Farmers Market was dry and it would have been unimaginable for anybody to open a wine and cheese bar. But Monsieur Marcel offers 42 wines by the glass, along with French dishes such as poulet Dijonnaise, boeuf bourguignon, steak with Roquefort or Bordelaise sauce and salade Nicoise. It’s set up as a horseshoe-shaped bar from which you can look out on the rest of the market (tables are also available). People have long compared the Market, with its intimate scale and specialized shops, to a European market street; voila, here it is exactly.
Or take Singapore’s Banana Leaf, one of the few restaurants in L.A. to present the food of that crossroads of India, China and Indonesia. The banana leaf of the name is no mere motif -- everything is served on banana leaves, just as it would be at a hawker stall in Singapore. Some of the dishes that come on banana leaf plates are the thick, coconut-rich beef curry rendang, the fruit salad in peanut dressing rojak and the cylindrical fish souffle otak-otak (which is even steamed in banana leaves).
Despite these innovations, the Farmers Market is still one last corner of our big, bustling city where everything is old-fashioned and small-scale. When you sit down, it’s on lime-green folding chairs. When you shop, you haul your goodies around in wooden shopping carts of pre-supermarket design, looking like slat-sided wastebaskets on wheels. Upstairs there’s a big overflow dining room in the airy, high-ceilinged architectural style of old L.A., the Raymond Chandler L.A. of palm trees and wooden bungalows.
You can understand why some old-timers come here every day and sit at the same tables they’ve always used. But you also see teenagers exploring the world and young families shopping for groceries. The Farmers Market has always managed to draw a young crowd, generation after generation. It’s unique and perennially vital, so hey, it’s bound to be hip.
?Loteria! Grill would be hip even if it sold nothing but everyday Mexican snacks, just for its arresting mural of the symbols for the Mexican bingo game: el payaso (the clown), la llanta (the tire), diablito (little devil), and so on. At first glance, it looks as if it does sell ordinary tacos, burritos and tostadas -- but the fillings turn out to be cutting-edge stuff: chicken stewed with chipotle peppers and homemade chorizo, mushrooms with epazote, Yucatan-style roast pork. Fresh fruit drinks (aguas frescas) change with the season, and the flan is made with goat’s-milk caramel (cajeta).
When the Farmers Market opened 70 years ago, it handled nothing but produce, originally sold right out of farmers’ trucks. But the long-term trend has been the ever-increasing numbers of stalls selling food for eating on the spot, which now outnumber the produce stalls 10 to 1. Lately, some observers have taken to calling the Farmers Market the Grove’s food court. A food court with history and character, mind you -- a distinctive one without chain affiliates, apart from the inevitable Starbucks and a Johnny Rockets just outside one of the entrances.
“Groceries are the heart and soul of the Market,” protests Farmers Market publicist Sydney Weissman. “We think of it as an outdoor grocery market with restaurants.” The Farmers Market does have six produce stalls, two butchers, a fish market, five bakeries and other markets.
Leading the newer businesses is Monsieur Marcel Gourmet Grocery -- which supplies Stephane Strouk’s Monsieur Marcel restaurant next door. The largest business in the Farmers Market in terms of floor space, it features well over 100 cheeses, including the very rare Vacherin Mont d’Or and Les Fumaisons, a smoked cheese from southwest France. There’s an aisle of California wines and a room of unhackneyed European imports.
It also sells half a dozen imported butters, Spanish jamon serrano, Moroccan-style sausage (merguez) and many rare French products, such as red rice from the Camargue, along with breads and imported sauces, relishes, pickles and olive oils. Speaking of olives, there are about 10 barrels of imported olives in front of the sausage counter, serve yourself.
A little free-standing cube of a building right next to Du-par’s bakery shop sells nothing but hot sauces. Light My Fire’s walls are entirely lined with 1,200 of them, the names boasting of apocalyptic suffering in store: Brain Damage, Toxic Waste, Sudden Death, Pain Is Good.
They’re ranked from 1 to 10 in hotness. “And 10 plus, and plus-plus, and off the charts” says owner Byong Min. Off the charts would include Pure Cap, an industrial extract rated at 100,000 Scoville units that’s so strong that the skull and crossbones on its label is a serious warning (taking it straight could cause respiratory collapse). Unless you’re making chili in 100-gallon batches, it’s strictly for showing to your friends, like a shark’s tooth or a shrunken head.
All Spice, a coffee, tea and spice importer that moved into the Market eight months ago, is a favorite of happening chefs such as Susanne Goin. Owner Perry Doty sells rare spices, the rarest being lemon myrtle, a native Australian ingredient that actually contains more lemon oil flavoring than lemon peel itself. He also mixes his own curry and barbecue rub mixes.
A few years back, Francisco Carvalho took over the old Phil’s Deli, made a success of it, and then started a restaurant serving the food of his native Brazil opposite Phil’s. Pampas Grill is basically a churrascaria or roast meat restaurant, cafeteria-style; you pick your side dishes and the skewer of meat you want them to slice for you, and then you pay by the pound. (Ask for the picanha if you like roast beef well done.)
These are the newcomers, but the Market is still crowded with old favorites. Young actors still like to see their 8-by-12s hung on the wall at Kokomo Cafe (the newsstand next door carries not only the trades but the very inside-showbiz Ross Reports). Japanese tourists still come in to photograph the prime beef at Huntington Meats so they can show friends back home how astonishingly plentiful beef is in the U.S., and how shockingly cheap, by Japanese standards.
Magee’s Kitchen still grinds fresh horseradish, as it has since 1934, and Magee’s Nut House still makes peanut butter in the same Rube Goldberg gadget it has always used. Tusquellas Seafood is run by the son of a butcher who opened a shop at the Market in the 1930s. Bennett’s Ice Cream bottles its own soft drinks, even its own seltzer water. Huntington Meats makes its own sausage and jerky. Littlejohn’s Candies is one of the last candy shops in the country to make chocolates by hand.
The arrival of the Grove has drawn larger numbers of shoppers to the area, and the Farmers Market is still working out its modus vivendi. The market stays open later than it used to -- until 9 p.m., rather than 6:30. Though it used to stay open until 8 before the 1980s, some shop owners say they don’t like the new, later hours. Traffic is more congested in the neighborhood now, despite promises that the lights would be reprogrammed to deal with that. Parking is tighter, unless you use the more distant parking structure built for the Grove.
“The Grove saved the Market,” says Bill Higgins, Variety’s Los Angeles reporter and a long-time habitue of the Market. “It was dying drip by drip. In the ‘50s it was kept alive by the Stadium and Gilmore Field. Then it was the tour buses. Now what’s revitalizing it is the Grove.”
Others are less sanguine, but the Farmers Market has always proved to have the inner resources to deal with the changes.
Restaurant owner Charles Myers has his complaints. But he says, “When I opened the Gumbo Pot [in 1986], I got a low-interest loan from the city, because this was an economically depressed area.
“That’s sure changed. The neighborhood has never been more lively and vibrant.”
Grate or dice the Gruyere de Beaufort, Gruyere de Comte, Appenzeller, Morbier and Roquefort cheeses and mix them in a bowl.
Rub the inside of a fondue pot or heavy pot with the garlic clove. Pour in the wine and bring it to boil over medium heat. Gradually incorporate the cheese mixture, stirring constantly in a figure-eight pattern with a wooden spoon.
When the cheese is entirely melted, about 20 to 25 minutes, add salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Stir in the mustard and kirsch.
To serve, set the fondue pot on the table over a fondue burner and let diners spear pieces of bread with fondue forks and plunge them into the fondue. Stir the fondue frequently (always in a figure-eight pattern) to keep it from separating or sticking to the bottom.
When the fondue is nearly finished, clean up the pot by putting in some pieces of bread, adding the egg and stirring with a wooden spoon until the mixture thickens. Let diners pick out the pieces of bread with their fondue forks.
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