Recetas deliciosas to transport your tastebuds south of the border.
Los Angeles has the highest population of Mexicans in the United States, with the eats to prove it. When you're done completely redefining your regional Mexican food palate by taco touring your way through this sprawling city, there may come a time when you will want to start experimenting with your very own carne asada and long-braised lamb barbacoas at home. When this time comes, you can rest assured that the hundreds of Mexican markets, corner stores, and even some major local supermarket chains will have your back.
Most Mexican markets here can be treated as one-stop-shops, and can supply you with everything you need and more (see: dark Mexican beer) to make killer Mexican food at home. But there are some markets that specialize in certain ingredients —you just have to know what they are and where to look. Here is the list of my favorites, as a first generation Mexican American and native Angeleno.
Tortillas: As you get into cooking Mexican food at home, you will quickly realize that having a proper tortilla is half the battle. If you have a decent tortilla, your food is guaranteed to be at least 50% more amazing. (That's science, right?) Yet, surprisingly and sadly, there are a ton of bad tortillas flapping around in Los Angeles. A good corn tortilla should only contain three core ingredients: corn, lime, and water. Because a tortilla is so simple, any preservatives or additives added to extend its shelf life will be extremely noticeable. You'll taste a faint metallic flavor and smell a strong sour aroma in these culprits. Though these processed tortillas are easily available and would do in a serious pinch, always aim to buy tortillas with ingredients that are as close to just corn, water, and lime as possible. Cellulose gum or xantham gum are okay every once in a while, especially if you use these kind of tortillas to fry up some homemade tortilla chips.
The absolute best place to buy tortillas in Los Angeles—and therefore the best corn masa to make tortillas at home —is Amapola market in Downey. It's a little off the beaten path, but their buttery tortillas are worth the drive. They take pride in the quality of their nixtamal (the thousand-year-old natural process of treating dried corn with lime to make corn more digestible); the end result is somehow buttery. You can buy masa "para tortillas" here, as well as masa for tamales that has already been seasoned and is ready to be steamed at home. Make sure to buy a package (or three) of their ready-made tortillas — they're the only ones in the whole city that are made from nixtamalized white corn. Every other brand in Los Angeles —even at other tortillerias —uses Maseca, the cheaper corn flour alternative.
A slightly more convenient tortilla shop to buy fresh masa is Tortilleria Acapulco in East Los Angeles. They use yellow corn in their masa, which is a bit chewier and intensely corny flavored (not a bad thing). Their packaged tortillas are made with corn flour, though, not nixtamal. Skip those and grab some tostadas "planas" instead —these fried tortillas lie perfectly flat (unlike most curvy, out-of-control tostadas) and are ideal as vehicles for ceviches at home.
Now for my best kept tortilla secret in Los Angeles: freshly pressed blue corn masa at El Mercado de Los Angeles in East L.A. You must call in advance and you have to order 20 pounds of the stuff, but the ultra-toasty flavor and vibrant color are simply unmatched anywhere else. You can split it among friends and eat like Aztec gods for weeks.
Diana's Tortillas is the only brand I buy outside of these aforementioned tortillas. They are easily available at every Mexican market or corporate supermarket in a Latino neighborhood. Only get the yellow ones made with corn, water, and lime, though—skip the white ones.
Flour Tortillas: Handmade flour tortillas are extremely hard to find in Los Angeles. I've only heard of one location in all of Los Angeles that makes them by hand and are available everyday to the public: El Rey Azteca Tortilleria in East Los Angeles. They are thick and hearty, almost like an Indian roti. Eating these is a completely different experience than eating the pre-packaged version. Don't believe me? Grab one of the tortilleria's chile relleno burritos for lunch to try before you buy; they're worth their weight in gold.
Dried Chiles: When you buy dried Mexican chilies, you must keep in mind that it is essentially a sun-dried chile, meaning that there should be at least a little moisture left in there. Squeeze to make sure they're a little plump, like a raisin or sun-dried tomato. A dry, papery chile is a sign that it is old and its flavorful oils are gone. The nub where the fruit was attached to the vine should still be attached to the chile, otherwise the chile most likely originated from China, a cheaper, lower-quality alternative is unfortunately trending these days. The best place to buy dried chilies is Mercado Olympic in Downtown Los Angeles. These are undeniably fresh and make for fantastic salsas.
Spices and herbs: Mexican cuisine uses many of the same spices found in other ethnic cuisines. Cumin and achiote (anatto seeds) are the most common spices all around Mexico. In the herb kingdom, oregano is king. Most Mexican supermarkets carry both of these and many more in a designated corner in the store. Stick to these baggy versions and steer clear of the ones in containers. The bagged spices are rotated more quickly, and they will always be fresher than the stuff in the middle of the aisles. The spice bags at the El Super chain are admirably fresh; they're restocked weekly, sometimes daily.
Produce: You'll also find slightly more obscure Mexican produce at El Super, things like fresh mamey custard fruits, fresh garbanzo beans for chicken stews, tender nopales, Huazontles (goosefoot weed), and every kind of fresh chile under the sun. When they are in season, you can find extremely affordable bunches of fresh squash blossoms.
Food 4 Less has good prices and good quality when it comes to non-obscure Mexican produce like avocados, tomatillos, chayote (water gourd), plantains, fresh peppers for stuffing with cheese, and fresh herbs like cilantro, and epazote (to be cooked with black beans). They also just started carrying wild fish in their butcher case—ceviche, anyone?
Mexican bread: El Super makes some of my favorite everyday birote rolls for tortas (and they also carry a whole wheat version that I like). Make sure to toast them up either in a pan or toaster oven before eating to soften them up a bit. For Mexican pan dulce (sweet pastries), the only place that gets my business is La Monarca Bakery. The reason for that is simple: they only use butter, not vegetable shortening. Their conchitas (pictured) are barely sweet and very light, their cakes are even lighter and less sweet, perfect for birthdays. This makes them unique in the world of Los Angeles Mexican panaderias, which often have cloyingly sweet pastries heavy on the shortening.
Grains and legumes for cooking: Dried beans and legumes make up a lot of Mexican side dishes. When the beans are freshly harvested and cooked properly, they become the entree. For freshly harvested dried beans, Gonzáles Northgate market is a great spot. They carry a good selection and they're always fresh. I like their "Flor de Mayo" varietal beans, which are firm and silky. The creamy black beans are good here, too. If you're making pozole, drive back to El Super and look for their cans of cooked blue corn hominy in water. I've only seen this variety of blue corn hominy at El Super. They have a faint toasty flavor that really elevates your pozole, not to mention how cool they look swimming in your red or green broth.
Both El Super and González Market carry fine hibiscus blossoms in bulk too, to make refreshing Jamaica agua fresca at home. This tannic beverage pairs well with your many rich DIY Mexican meals to come.
Meats/Dairy: For Carne Asada, La Tropicana Market's Ranchera beef — marinated upon request — in Highland Park is the best choice. The butcher is a well-known local restaurateur and it's something of a local secret in Highland Park for great quality meats. For every other cut of meat, including extremely affordable cuts of lamb for barbacoa and goat for birria, Super King Market is your place. It's kind of the best supermarket in the planet. Their locations in Northeast Los Angeles (home to a huge Armenian population as well as Mexican and Central American) make their offerings the best in Los Angeles, and somehow it still manages to be dirt cheap.
Dairy-wise, there are really only four main Mexican cheeses in the U.S.: crema (Mexican sour cream), queso fresco (freshly curdled farmer's cheese), cotija cheese (salty, dry and Parmigiano-like), and a melting cheese like queso quesadilla or manchego (different than Spanish one — this one is made with cow's milk). The brand that I always look for when shopping for dairy is Los Altos, and many supermarkets such as Food 4 Less, El Super, and González market carries them. I've found this brand to be the best quality here in the States. Cacique is a fine replacement too, and available at all major supermarkets.
Mexican chocolate and piloncillo (Mexican-style unrefined brown sugar) Let's take a moment to acknowledge perhaps the absolute best contribution that Mexican culture has given to the world: chocolate! (Only behind other valuable contributions like vanilla beans, tomatoes, corn, and chilies, of course.) But like any other commodity, once chocolate went corporate, the quality of real stoneground Mexican chocolate has been widely lost. To find real Mexican-style chocolate in Los Angeles, you must step out of your supermarket and stock up at Guelaguetza, a Oaxacan restaurant in Koreatown. They import their own chocolate tablets and they are ideal for real Mexican hot chocolate. They also import their own Oaxacan melting cheese, called quesillo. This cheese is from Mexico so it's unpasteurized and tastes 1,000 times better than anything found in the supermarkets here.
La Monarca Bakery and all of their locations also sell Oaxacan chocolate, and theirs is already ground up for you, so it's easy to dissolve into your mug every morning.
For fresh cones of piloncillo, head to Top Valu market in East Los Angeles. They have it in bulk there and the cones are always super fresh. Look for cones that are a solid dark brown — white "blooms" in cones means that the sugar may be a little old and stale.
An honorable mention goes out to Northgate González Mexian Markets for starting to carry bulk items similar to health food markets and for their Guadalajara-style Tostadas Raspadas, a type of tostadas that are baked until puffy. They also win an award for being the most user-friendly, with signs breaking down each fruit and veggie in English. A second mention must go out to FeliMex Market in Highland Park, for being the only market to let me shoot photos inside their store.