LA’s Salvadoran Street Food Market Is a Central American Culinary Wonderland

Salvadoran street market in front of Koreatown’s Two Guys Plaza with stalls and cooked foods.

Salvadoran street market in front of Koreatown’s Two Guys Plaza | Bill Esparza

It has everything from pupusas and green mango snacks to home-cooking ingredients

El Salvador Corridor, a Koreatown-adjacent micro neighborhood located on Vermont Avenue in front of Two Guys Plaza, was established in 2012 to promote economic development for Salvadoran businesses. It’s here along the western side of the street that a flourishing street market serves Salvadorans and other Central Americans anything from cool strips of green mango prepared with lime juice, salt, and ground pumpkin seed powder to pickled vegetables in homemade vinegar.

The market has blown up over the last nine months as more vendors have arrived to meet the growing crowds. So while the neighborhood has international notoriety as a Korean food destination, it’s also home to Oaxacalifornia (the Oaxacan community in California), Bangladeshis, and Central Americans, among others. The largest group of Salvadorans settled in Westlake, South-Central, and Koreatown fleeing their horrific Civil War in the 1980s, which was prolonged and escalated because of U.S. intervention.

In spite of the strife, Salvadorans planted a bounty of ingredients and food in Los Angeles. The cuisine is full of bitter herbs and plants, balanced by flavorful sauces. A pupusa de loroco is a perfect introduction to the flavors of El Salvador — hand-pressed dough filled with cheese and the slightly nutty herb — is perhaps the most common Salvadoran street food. Pupusas are a pre-Hispanic stuffed corn masa tortilla beloved by all cultures from Mesoamérica, who share a masa-based cuisine. They vary in size and in their condiments, with tomato sauce as a common topping, as well as curtido (pickled cabbage) in different regions of El Salvador.

The vendors today also sell seafood cocktails, antojitos salvadoreños (Salvadoran cravings), and a large selection of breads, vegetables, fruit, herbs, beans, and sundries for Salvadoran families.

Colorful produce and other Salvadoran ingredients at Two Guys Plaza in Koreatown.
Produce and other Salvadoran ingredients at Two Guys Plaza in Koreatown
Woman cooks at a pupusa stand in Koreatown’s El Salvador Corridor.
Pupusa stand in Koreatown’s El Salvador Corridor

In his “poema de amor” for El Salvador, Roque Dalton writes “salvadoreños somos los comelotodos”, meaning Salvadorans will eat anything and never go hungry. The market has proof: Salvadorans have been eating a variety of flowers long before famous chefs began decorating their plates with delicate, edible blooms.

Walk to the market on a sunny weekend morning and you’ll probably see a busy cook from Ahuachapan making plump pupusas filled with loroco flower and cheese, beans and cheese, crackling, or everything mixed together, known as revuelta, to order. She’s next to a pair of large Cambro containers, one filled with curtido and the other with Cuzcātlan cola champagne-colored escabeche, or pickled vegetables, stained by homemade, spiced vinegar crafted from fermented apples and pineapples. Squirt bottles of tomato sauce are the centerpieces at each picnic bench for diners.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a Honduran girl accompanied by her sister and mother asks about the pasteles, fried corn fritters stuffed with potatoes. The girl snacks on thin strips of gritty green mango covered in lime and alguashte (pumpkin seed powder), known by Guatemalans as pepitas. “You [Mexicans] don’t eat green mango, only ripe mango,” says the girl Mary, with her mother smiling in agreement. “We come here for the prepared green mango, because it’s not easy to find where we live,” Mary continues, as green mangoes satisfy Central-Americans love for bitter notes and firm fruits. It’s generally not a flavor profile that sweet-toothed Mexicans, who dress sweet mango with chile salt and lime, are accustomed to.

Loaded green mango snack with lime juice, salt, and ground pumpkin seeds at Koreatown’s Salvadoran street market.
Loaded green mango snack with lime juice, salt, and ground pumpkin seeds

Never has there been fresher products, nor a greater variety of ingredients, for Salvadorans in LA, who seem to be coming together at bustling street markets like this. Some products are moving across the border; others are grown locally. This bounty comes at a time when the White House is putting extreme pressure on Central American immigrants and refugees, separating their families and running squalid detention centers on the U.S./Mexico border.

The availability of products like chipilín (herb like spinach and watercress), pescado seco (salt cured fish) for Lenten tortas de pescado seco, chufles (edible flowers) for hen soup, nisperos (loquats), and their special on gallina india, or wild, free-range chicken, for sopa de gallina india are a defiant contrast to President Trump’s anti-Central American policies and rhetoric, proudly declaring that Salvadorans are a vital community in LA. These products, and the people who buy, cook, and eat them, are here to stay.

Claudia, from Santa Ana, and Rosita, from Usulutan (who did not offer their last times) also cook pupusas at the market, but their main attraction is a heaping plate of yuca con chicharrón (fried cassava and pork cracklings) which most diners dress with curtido and tomato sauce to add a balance of acid and tang to the savory cakes. In El Salvador, the condiments are served on the side to avoid a soggy pupusa. Salvadorans don’t really eat spicy food, but there’s hot sauce for Mexican customers, and anyone else who likes heat.

Pupusa topped with curtido with sauce at LA’s Two Guys Plaza Salvadoran street market.
Pupusa at LA’s Two Guys Plaza Salvadoran street market
Live crabs sitting in a box at LA’s Salvadoran street market.
Live crabs

Salvadoran cooks can find imported cheeses, such as locally-made crema salvadoreña and queso cuajada (soft cheese). Other ingredients like salt-cured shrimp and fish for sautéing with rice; red beans; fresh, crisp loroco; plantains, and ground pumpkin seed for making alguashte (Salvadoran pumpkin seed stew) make cooking traditional dishes easy at home. And of course, there’s always the quick market snack of green mango.

The culinary delights continue to Salvadoran breads like quezadillas (a moist, sweet Salvadoran cheese pound cake) as well as candies from El Salvador like espumillas (meringues), tartaritas (cookies topped with caramel), and jaleas de fruta (fruit pastes). They’re sweet bites of nostalgia for Salvadorans, either for recent arrivals, or those who were born and raised in Salvadoran-American neighborhoods such as South Central, the San Fernando Valley, or Westlake.

On the weekends, the street market gets even busier, with vendors crowding together in just a few short blocks. The atmosphere feels like a snack stop in Olocuilta, famous for its for rice flour pupusas, which is a delicious bite to eat on the way to San Salvador from the El Salvador International Airport.

Here in LA’s El Salvador Corridor, you can also get a taste of the touristy, seaside city of La Libertad at several stands serving coctél de conchas, a seafood cocktail of fresh concha negra (blood clams) brought in from Ensenada. It’s mixed with chimol, which is a Salvadoran pico de gallo made with lots of tomato, purple onion, and cilantro that brighten the strong liquor produced by the clams. Add messy sprays of lime that coat the side of the cup and a final burst of umami from Worcester, England.

Worcestershire sauce, or salsa inglesa, is popular in Latin American cuisines, but for Salvadoreños it has to be salsa perrins (Lea & Perrins) in their coctél de conchas — because any other Worcestershire sauce would be heresy. Take the opportunity to try the outstanding refrescos salvadoreños (fresh fruit water drinks). Ensalada, which is a fruit salad in a juice blend of oranges and cashew fruit, comes covered with floating bits of green apple, pineapple, and mamey. No one would ever confuse this for a Mexican agua fresca because this is Salvadoran patrimony in a glass. There’s also horchata, piña (pineapple), and arrayan (sartre guava), and maracuya (passionfruit), all which are sweet complements to the pupusas and pasteles.

If you’re not sure what to do with the bounty of Salvadoran ingredients, just ask any of the vendors. It seems almost anything there can be fried with rice. Stop by the market seven days a week to shop, but know that weekends are best for a food crawl, from morning until around 5 p.m. It’s the best way to show support for a vital Los Angeles community under siege.

The Two Guys Plaza Salvadoran street market takes place along Vermont Avenue between 11th and 12th Streets. Hours generally run seven days a week, morning to about 5 p.m., with most vendors showing up on weekends.

Concha, a seafood cocktail featuring fresh blood clams, served at Koreatown’s Salvadoran street market on a flowery table.
Concha, a seafood cocktail featuring fresh blood clams
Green mangos and some ripe mangos for sale at the Two Guys Plaza Salvadoran market in LA.
Green mangos and some ripe mangos for sale at the Two Guys Plaza Salvadoran market
Edge of the Salvadoran street food market at Two Guys Plaza in Koreatown.
Edge of the Salvadoran street food market at Two Guys Plaza in Koreatown
The whole of the Salvadoran street market in front of Koreatown’s Two Guys Plaza.
The whole of the Salvadoran street market in front of Koreatown’s Two Guys Plaza

Source: LA Eater