Photograph by Lisa Romerein
The phone behind the counter is always ringing at Vail Market in Montebello. A restaurant orders 300 pounds of ground meat for tacos. A woman asks, in a rapid-fire voice that suggests an imminent visit from the in-laws, whether they sell meat for a birría, the traditional meat stew of Jalisco, and whether she can bring a pot with her so all she has to do is add water at home. Smiling and aproned—the very image of the reassuring neighborhood butcher—Joaquín Martín answers sí.
In the seven years they have owned the business, Martín and his wife, Monica, have transformed the once-struggling operation into what many consider to be L.A.’s best carnicería, a traditional butcher shop specializing in Latin American meats. Beef is trimmed of all excess fat; marinades are made in-house, starting with cooking the chiles; three butchers work the counter that displays a wide variety of thin cuts such as espaldilla and palomilla; and fresh chorizo is stuffed into casings in the back.
A native of Jalisco and the son of a birriero—essentially a man who can take an animal from pen to pot in a few deft moves—Martín grew up around meat, and it shows. “We call this arrachera,” he says, lifting a coil of lean yet subtly striated flank from the refrigerated case. “It’s the very best cut for carne asada.” His aim is to provide one-stop shopping for all meaty requirements, and the contents of the small, crowded corner store each play a role. Those potatoes, chayotes, ears of corn, and onions might look like a produce section, but to Martín they are the necessary fixin’s for a caldo de res, or beef broth.
As the afternoon stretches on and the phone keeps ringing, as the butchers trim away and the housewives searching for lomo are replaced by schoolkids buying candy, it is clear that Vail Market serves a dual purpose. Just as a great panadería is more than a business that sells bread, a great carnicería is more than a place to pick up protein. It is a cultural institution firmly planted in the needs of the everyday, and at times—like when you must make a birría—a comforting reminder of a communal past. »1701 Olympic Blvd., Montebello, 323-887-8110.