At 10.45am on a Sunday morning at Grand Central Market in Downtown Los Angeles, I join the back of the queue at Eggslut. To keep me occupied, I have a takeaway espresso coffee from G&B and a view of people getting a "Kick Start" from Press Brothers Juicery. A Press Brothers sign tells me that a 16oz Kick Start is $8. It tells me that a Kick Start's ingredients are reverse osmosis water, apple cider vinegar, raw honey and chia seeds, and that the beverage is alkalising, a lymphatic booster and an excellent source of Omega-3, fibre and protein. For a queue like this though - it reaches 20 metres or more back towards Belcampo Meat Co - a Press Brothers "Longevity", a carrot, pear, beet, lemon, beet greens and ginger combination claimed to rejuvenate the blood and liver, might be more appropriate. A chirpy Eggslut-ee is moving along the queue handing out menus. I don't need one. I already know what I want for my late breakfast (which, at this rate, I'll be eating around dinner). I'm armed with the information that the "Bacon, Egg and Cheese" is quite the thing (hardwood smoked bacon, "over medium" egg, cheddar cheese and chipotle ketchup in a warm brioche). I'll have Eggslut's signature "Slut" another day.
The historic Grand Central Market, a once under-used and dowdy drawcard for Downtown's Latino community, has got its groove back. In 2012, market owner Adele Yellin, the widow of developer Ira Yellin, recruited unlikely consultants in her bid to revitalise the 98-year-old South Broadway markets - Kevin West, a food editor and canning expert, and Joseph Shuldiner, vegan cookbook author and founder of California's Institute of Domestic Technology, a "modern home-ec university". Both West and Shuldiner are "Master Food Preservers" which, in a food world where fermentation is a hot trend, says much about their inclinations.
The California Sunday Magazine described the pair as "professional gentrifiers". Others have dubbed them the market's "creative directors". Whatever title bestowed upon them though, West and Shuldiner's speedy efforts to bring the cavernous Grand Central into line with 21st-century food values and an upwardly mobile demographic has been rewarded: In its September 2014 issue, Bon Appetit magazine gave the market the No. 10 spot in its 2014 list of America's best new restaurants. The fact that the market is a curated collection of eateries rather than one restaurant evidently wasn't an issue. The new-look market is a fitting contribution to the rolling gentrification of the majestically grimy Downtown area, a gawk-provoking mix of yoga-mat-burdened young women, loft-living hipsters and the heart-wrenching homeless who camp in Skid Row's tent communities. It's also a return to form. In its early years, the market's fresh produce and dry goods filled the larders of wealthy local residents, who would make the trip from their Victorian mansions on nearby Bunker Hill to the market on the world's shortest railway, the Angels Flight funicular railway.
Market fruit vendors wore white coats and aprons and black bowties. Reves & Gentry sold fish, oysters and poultry, the latter "bought alive and dressed to our order". A few years on and Langford's would be serving five-cent frozen malted milk and root beer floats. Then came the Latino vendors with their pinto beans and cactus leaves, green mole paste and piles of dried chillies, tacos and carnitas.
But as Downtown's golden age as a financial centre and entertainment district filled with grand hotels and theatres receded, so too did the markets. "You would come in here a year ago and look around and kind of be like, 'oh, this place is kind of disgusting, I don't know if I really want to be here'," says Micah Wexler. The acclaimed former fine-dining chef blitzed West and Shuldiner's spreadsheet of questions, humorously dubbed the "Vend-O-Matic", which they used to pick out the high-quality and the entrepreneurial vendors of Adele Yellin's dreams.
Wexler gave the market a Jewish deli — Wexler's Deli. "There used to be like, four or five delis in this building; I felt that Los Angeles deserved just a better class of deli, that it was about time," says Wexler. "Old-school deli soul food," is how he describes things. The meats (corned beef, pastrami) and fish (sturgeon, lox) are smoked over apple wood in ovens at the back of the cool-rustic shop. They barrel ferment their pickles in salt brine.
"If there is a better version of lox and bagels in Los Angeles, I have yet to taste it," Los Angeles Times' food critic Jonathan Gold noted in August. "If there's a pastrami heaven, Wexler's is certainly there," wrote Gold's colleague, S. Irene Virbila. Wexler's bagel with smoked sturgeon and cream cheese is a work of devastating brilliance.
But other new tenants are presenting Wexler's with some serious competition. Belcampo Meat Co, a high-end butcher's shop with a counter and a menu, makes a cheeseburger that has hit the city's best burger lists. DTLA Cheese will sell you cheeses to take home such as Cypress Grove chevre or Cowgirl Creamery's Devil's Gulch washed rind, or make you lunch. (Think roasted baby potatoes with manchego, chorizo and romesco sauce, or a sandwich with runny D'Affinois and ham.) Sticky Rice serves organic Thai street food. G&B (Glanville & Babinski) pulls possibly Downtown's best espresso, a slap in the face for execrable American filter coffee. McConnell's Fine Ice Creams (Roadside Raspberry, Golden State Vanilla) might convince you that it's possible to live on ice-cream alone. The Oyster Gourmet, created by Christophe Happillon, Los Angeles' only "Master Ecailler" (shellfish master), opened late in 2014 offering raw things, while Better Booch sells a spritzy kombucha tea in apothecary-style bottles.
Better Booch and its Booch Bar are opposite Eggslut. They're now coming up on my left as the queue for breakfast inches forward. I consider asking the chattering women behind me to hold my spot so I can grab a bottle but eavesdrop instead. "Are you vegetarian?" one asks another behind me.
"Yes, I'm not even supposed to be eating eggs but I've allowed myself," is the answer.
At a group of tables off to the right of the queue, a handsome Latino family - mother, father and two small boys - are eating tacos. A swarthy man brushes past in a white Stetson and low slung pants with a serious belt buckle. When the market's revitalisation started there was an immediate push back from the largely Latino "legacy tenants", according to Micah Wexler. "It's that classic kind of gentrification-versus-poor-people argument that's gone on in a million different places and I don't think there's any perfect way to ever do that, but I think that the market's doing it about as best as I've ever seen it done before," says Wexler. He points out that many of the old tenants, including Tacos Tumbras a Tomas, remain. Wexler and Tomas Martinez travelled to New York together to accept the Bon Appetit award on behalf of the market and to cook for the event. "He was doing tacos and I was doing eggs and lox and it was a good time," says Wexler.
I have reached the head of the Eggslut queue, ordered ("thank you, have a nice day," says the Eggslut-ee at the cash register) and am waiting now for my order. It's 11.15am. I might get lunch, not dinner, after all. "Two more sluts," another Eggslut-ee shouts back to the stall's short-order cooks.
"One slut," he shouts forward to the hungry crowding the counter. He passes a cup to a young woman. It's Eggslut's punchline, the "Slut", coddled egg on top of potato puree, poached in a glass jar and served with a "demi" baguette.
I score a seat at the counter. The bacon in my Bacon, Egg and Cheese is crisp as only American bacon can be. The egg and cheese are gooey, yellow heaven. The bun is soft and sweet. There are no queues at Villa Moreliana (Carnitas Estilo Michoacan), Eggslut's "legacy" next-door neighbour, but they're offering free samples. A man in a red T-shirt and back-to-front baseball cap is pulling flesh from great slabs of cooked meat, cleaving it fiercely, and slapping it into tacos. People are speaking Spanish, helping themselves to sauce, jalapeno, and onion, and stopping to devour the soft, corny-flavoured tacos.
But it's Eggslut that's making all the noise.
"Stella K!" is a staff member's repeated cry. Stella K hasn't picked up her Eggslut order. "Stellaaaaa!" The order sits on the Eggslut counter, going cold.
"Stellaaaaa! Can you get your groove back!?" Stella K finally appears. Perhaps she needs a Kick Start.
THE PICK OF THE BUNCH
Micah Wexler's top five for the Grand Central Market goes like this . . .
Pupusas at Sarita's Pupuseria: "A Salvadoran taco/quesadilla mash-up sort of thing. And they make a shrimp soup there that I've been into lately."
Noodles at Sticky Rice: "They've just opened this new area and their pad kee mao is probably my go-to - picy drunken noodles."
The kombucha at Better Booch: "The best kombucha you'll ever have. It's amazing, it's phenomenal. I'm very into fermented foods."
Belcampo Meats burger: "It's pretty killer. And the cheesesteak sandwich too. It's a very American thing - steak sliced thinly, served with cheese on top and peppers and onions, cooked on a griddle. A classic Philadelphia thing."
Eggslut sausage, egg and cheese: "It's definitely a favourite. They're a phenomenon."
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Grand Central Market is in Downtown Los Angeles and within walking distance of The Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites, which has been a location in films including In the Line of Fire and True Lies. Rooms start from $360. See thebonaventure.com.
The writer was a guest of The Australian Ballet in Los Angeles.