In the catacombs of Grand Central Market, beyond the chain-link fence at the loading dock, past the plastic slats of the employee gate, down the steps toward the toilets, at the end of a subterranean gangway thick with pipes and wires and grime, where wood pallets splay like discarded mattresses and padlocked walk-ins hum with refrigerated air, I loop my head through a denim apron and wriggle my fingers into latex gloves.
All of the articles and photos from our special Immigration Issue are available in the October 2016 issue, on newsstands now.
To descend this way in the morning darkness, when the market is cool and hushed, the stalls unsecured, the neon signs dimmed, is to feel Grand Central’s age. Ninety-nine years of immigrants, Germans and Italians in the beginning, then Japanese and Armenians, later Mexicans and Koreans, have planted their dreams in this basement. Generation after generation they have chilled and thawed down here, washed and chopped, spilled and stained, feeding their adopted city until time—slow and sentimental for decades at a stretch, swift and restless of late—brings their term to an end.
Upstairs some of the old guard—what Grand Central calls its “legacy” tenants—begin to trickle in, their rituals still defined by the countries they left. In the style of his native Michoacán, Tomas Martinez melts the lard that will turn hundreds of pounds of boneless pork butt into carnitas at Tacos Tumbras. Hong Kong-born Rinco Cheung simmers the broth for the heaping bowls of wonton soup that, combined with $4 beers served two at a time, keep the crowds elbow-to-elbow at China Cafe. The sunrise shift at Ana Maria’s supplies the soundtrack, a steady diet of hip-swaying cumbias. By 6:30 a.m. the security and maintenance crews have gathered at Jose Chiquito for coffee, dispensed from a cafeteria-style spigot.
RELATED: It’s Our Business
They are a dwindling tribe, though, survivors of a makeover so thorough that what just a few years ago was a struggling discount bazaar now ranks among the most celebrated eating destinations in Los Angeles. Since 2013, the market has recruited 23 new vendors to the open-air concourse between Hill and Broadway—60 percent of the 38 stalls—from food truck sensation Eggslut to barista champ G&B Coffee to the purveyor of old-school Jewish soul food that has agreed to take me in as an apprentice, Wexler’s Deli. In my Protective Industrial Products apron and powder-free Diamond Gloves, I will immerse myself in Wexler’s tradecraft, alternating between the gloom of the cellar, where I try my hand at the lost arts of lox and pastrami, and the glare of the kitchen, where I field orders in Spanglish (“Un Reuben, señor… Dos bagels, everything…queso on the side…”) while NSFW hip-hop commands me to shake…shake… shake that ass….
My backstage access gives me a front-row view of Grand Central’s complicated renaissance, the market a private, for-profit business that Angelenos have come to regard as a public trust. Few civic spaces here are imbued with as much nostalgia and symbolism: perhaps Dodger Stadium, maybe Griffith Park or the Hollywood Bowl. Grand Central has been called the people’s market, L.A.’s crossroads, downtown’s living room, our belly button. For much of its history those labels have stood for the rhythms and textures of an immigrant city—the market as our origin story.
Now when the chain-and-pulley doors are hoisted open, Grand Central offers a window into a different, unlikelier chapter of the city’s evolution: the downtown throngs richer, hipper, and hungrier for things locally sourced and sustainably farmed. The market is not a sterile facsimile; it has not been airbrushed like San Francisco’s Ferry Building or mallified like Boston’s Faneuil Hall. But its rediscovery speaks to the collision of commerce and community throughout central L.A.—cultural tug-of-wars that have jostled neighborhoods from Silver Lake to Highland Park to Boyle Heights—which is why Grand Central’s transformation continues to be both cheered and scrutinized, mimicked and lamented, and in a courthouse just blocks away, litigated.
“Los Angeles is very much experiencing a moment right now of OK, what’s the city that we really want to be?” says my boss for a week, Micah Wexler, the deli’s cofounder and namesake. “Like, what are our public spaces, our gatherings and our events, our arts and culture, our restaurants and our food—what do we want that all to be? Right? Who do we want to be collectively?”
When Grand Central Market debuted on October 27, 1917, “the largest and finest public market on the Pacific Coast,” it filled the ground floor of the Homer Laughlin Building, downtown’s first steel-reinforced, fireproof structure. “People in Los Angeles have not acquired the market habit to the extent that people in most other large cities have,” announced Homer Laughlin Jr., whose father had made a fortune in tableware. “We are trying to build up an institution.”
Los Angeles was in its infancy, barely the tenth-most-populous U.S. city, and downtown remained the epicenter of civic ambition. It was home to the loveliest movie palaces, the swankest millineries and haberdasheries, and what had been the most fashionable residential district, Bunker Hill, where L.A. society surveyed the basin from ornate Queen Annes.
This was the clientele Grand Central banked on—the “carriage trade”—except that the conveyance ferrying patrons to the market’s doorstep was even more direct: a funicular. The curious 300-foot railway known as Angels Flight had already connected Bunker Hill to the Laughlin Building’s previous tenant, the French Consul-owned Ville de Paris department store, and it became an instant pipeline to what was a Jazz Age version of Whole Foods. Among the 90 vendors then sandwiched under one roof were 22 produce stands, 15 butchers, 15 delicatessens, six bakeries, six dried fruit and nut brokers, five seafood counters, a candy shop, a soda fountain, and a drugstore. You could smell flour being milled, peanuts being ground, butter being churned. Stall D-4 boasted of the “finest and most complete line of bread, rolls, cakes, and pastry in the city”; stall A-5 offered the “best fresh meats, smoked meats, poultry, and game in the state.” The market’s opening-day ad, sketched in pen and ink, showed an ostrich-plumed matron shopping alongside a manservant in a peaked porter’s cap.
As the city boomed in the post-World War I years, its population fueled by persecution in Eastern Europe and revolution in Mexico, downtown grew more congested and the market more ecumenical. A Los Angeles Times reporter in 1926 marveled not just at the persimmons and guavas but at the “heterogeneous mass of humanity” crowding the aisles—40,000 on weekdays, 110,000 on Saturdays. “The market appeals to the comfortable middle-class housewife quite as much as to her less fortunate sister,” the newspaper observed, adding that the merchants, like their customers, encompassed “all nationalities and all classes of people.” Behind the stalls were Cebrarios and McGurks, Chans and Suzukis, Rosenbaums and Shemovonians.
In a pattern that would become the blueprint for 20th-century L.A., the city then began to spill outward, its new identity defined by mobility and space. Bunker Hill faded, the old manors partitioned into boarding houses, while on the Westside a bucolic new grocery village, the Original Farmers Market, was born. Grand Central still thrummed, but as supermarket chains followed the freeways to the suburbs, it became a bargain-basement alternative. Savvy shoppers arrived after 4 p.m., when prices dropped by half. Shifty vendors displayed their best produce but reached under the counter to slip rejects in. Shrewd politicians came to press the flesh with the common man.
By the 1960s, Grand Central was such a model of working-class diversity, the U.S. Information Agency featured it in a propaganda film. Shot by an Oscar-winning cinematographer, the nine-minute movie captured a mosaic of welcoming faces: Asian grocer, African American deliveryman, Latino butcher. It was commissioned, according to federal records, to introduce a world riven by the Cold War to “the melting pot that is America.”
City hall had less use for Grand Central’s proletarian virtues. Guided by an urban renewal philosophy that equated density with dysfunction, bulldozers were busy razing Bunker Hill, an architectural calamity that displaced thousands of laborers and pensioners, many of them market regulars. On the barren hilltop a slick corporate skyline sprouted—a parallel downtown towering over the old downtown—and in the process, the historic link between Bunker Hill and Grand Central, Angels Flight, was severed. It was as if L.A. had pulled up the drawbridge between its future and its past, the fortress above safely decoupled from the market and the masses, poorer and browner, it served below.
Are we ready to do this or what?” Micah Wexler asks on a cool March morning. He issues me my apron and tells me not to lose it. “This is yours, now and forever.”
Raised in a kosher household, the middle child of a North Hollywood adman and a UCLA-educated homemaker, Wexler projects an easy, often sardonic confidence, part culinary prophet, part jester bro. A graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, he is 33 and pudgy in a reassuringly chefy way, with a wardrobe that seems to consist mainly of his own merchandise: a “21st Century Lox” cap and a “Smoke Fish Every Day” T-shirt. He has a big, round, old-fashioned face, framed by a tight sandy fro and woolly beard, and hazel eyes that dart between the motley bustle beyond his ten-stool counter and the strict protocols he demands behind it.
“One of the things that I always tell my guys is, Yeah, we’re just making sandwiches and bagels and whatever,” says Wexler, whose résumé ranges from Spago in Beverly Hills to Joël Robuchon’s L’Atelier in New York, “but we’re trying to apply a fine-dining mentality to what we do here.”
He ushers me through the Star of David-stamped door that separates his stall from its older neighbors—the kaleidoscope of dried peppers and ground spices at Valeria’s, the muggy barnyard of lengua and cabeza at Roast to Go—and into the deli’s 350-square-foot interior. We follow the snug path, shaped like an inverted J, from the crocks of homemade pickles at the service area, past the shellacked bagels decorating the floor-to-ceiling pillar that, like a protected redwood, forces everyone to work around it, and into the kitchen, as cramped and breezeless as a food truck. There is a griddle, a toaster, a steamer, and what Wexler calls “the piece of machinery we can’t do without”—a stainless-steel Nu-Vu cabinet smoker— whose seven dials and three switches could pass for a Fender amp.
Four generations removed from the Yiddish-speaking shtetls that spanned from Russia to Romania, Wexler has secured a place on the gastronomic map by smoking all his fish and meat in-house. In the early 1900s, when Boyle Heights was the hub of L.A.’s Jewish life and delis lined what was then Brooklyn Avenue, Wexler’s methods would have been commonplace. Resurrected in the 2000s, they border on the avant-garde. To transform a salmon into lox (and, to a lesser extent, a brisket into pastrami) is an exercise in impracticality: tedious, exacting, repetitive, a respiratory hazard, easy to bungle, and hard on a marriage. Making lox in a century-old downtown market—where refrigeration is scarce upstairs and ventilation is scarce downstairs—adds to the folly.
Virtually no other deli bothers to do it, not L.A. landmarks like Langer’s and Canter’s, not even the East Coast’s most acclaimed gourmet markets and specialty shops, like Zabar’s and Russ & Daughters. The dirty little secret of lox in America is that nearly all of it comes, packaged and sliced, from a handful of unseen fish-processing wholesalers; the biggest of them has the perfect industrial-strength name: Acme.
“To be honest, before I met Micah, I didn’t know a lot about deli food,” says the half-Guatemalan, half-Nicaraguan chef de cuisine, Christopher Requena, who grew up in the immigrant burbs of Cudahy and graduated from Pasadena’s Le Cordon Bleu. In below-the-knee Dickies shorts and Dodgers cap, Requena gives me my first order.
“OK, I need a plain bagel,” he says, nodding at the supply that Santa Monica’s New York Bagel and Deli makes specially for Wexler’s every morning.
Only minutes earlier I belonged to Grand Central’s civilian population, shuffling over the scuffed cement floor alongside jurors and cops, skaters and suits, and the luggage-wheeling folks who could be either tourists or vagabonds. Like them, I was halting and swiveling, each aisle a new set of contradictions: organic, grass-fed filet mignon…spicy, gummy watermelon rings… sunflower-seed ramen…burritos the size of footballs. Now, with no testing or training, I have crossed a threshold, from the audience of the fed to the stage of the feeders.
With a long, straight knife I prepare to cut the bagel in half, a familiar task, except I am suddenly conscious of the need to strike the equatorial center. Requena suggests that I lay it flat, rest my palm on top, and draw the knife through on a horizontal plane. That feels awkward, so I resort to homegrown tricks: cradling the bagel in my left hand and sawing with my right. This earns me my first reprimand.
The cream cheese, regular Philadelphia, goes on sparingly. Wexler’s is all about rebutting the overkill that has come to permeate deli cuisine, the gluttony and guilt of the mile-high sandwich. I sprinkle a pinch of capers on each schmeared half, then reach into a fridge tucked below the cutting board for a tray of lox. The fish reminds me of butterflies somehow, the way the translucent wisps of tangerine-colored flesh, with their fatty veins, curve and droop. Again I am told not to stack—to merely cover the bagel, a gossamer layer. It takes about three slices.
“It was drilled into me,” Requena says reassuringly, “what he’s looking for, the certain kind of finesse he’s trying to bring to something so simple.”
On the shelf separating cooks from servers, I slide my creation next to a call bell, the kind hotel desks once had. It feels presumptuous to ring it, to announce to everyone at Wexler’s Deli, employees and customers alike, that I have performed such a rudimentary function. The proportions may be harmonious, the composition appetizing, but the real work—the whole business of making the one ingredient indisputably yours—that had already been done.
The first time she set foot in Grand Central Market, Adele Yellin was hunting for chiles. It was the 1970s, a time when affluent L.A. was in the thick of its own migration, to the canyons and beaches, and many Angelenos liked to crow about how long they had gone without venturing downtown or even east of the 405. “I wanted to make some Mexican food,” she says when I visit the Yellin Co. offices. “You know, in those days they didn’t have poblano chiles at Ralphs.”
She recalls that Grand Central “felt very good,” its dizzying colors and bracing smells reminiscent of open-air markets she had toured in Europe and Latin America. A decade later, though, when her husband laid out plans to buy the place for $5.5 million, “I basically thought he was crazy,” she says. “I kept saying, ‘Can’t you go to the Valley, do something simple like build apartments?’ ”
Harvard-educated attorney, former U.S. Marine, son of a Polish-born, Canadian-raised Talmudic scholar, Ira Yellin announced that his 1985 investment in Grand Central was “an act of love.” He saw the market as the centerpiece of a resurrection that would finally reverse the city’s sprawl, of a future that would learn to embrace the treasures under our noses. He formed a partnership that also bought the adjoining Lyons Building and Million Dollar Theatre—a project, dubbed Grand Central Square, that would include rehabbed apartments and a new parking structure. “Ira was such a true believer, one guy called him the Jesus Christ of development!” Adele, a feisty 69, says with a raucous laugh. “He understood that you must reinvest in your inner city, or the city starts to rot, in a sense, from the inside out.”
Although the market would get a modest facelift after Ira’s purchase, there was little public consternation over what new ownership, just the third regime in its history, might spell. It was not merely that talk of a downtown renaissance sounded illusory but that downtown had already been reborn. Abandoned by the professional classes, Broadway was by then the commercial heart of Latino L.A., buoyed by a historic wave of Mexican and Central American immigration that would ultimately redefine vast swaths of the city. No streetscape looked more like another country, a rollicking stretch of bridal shops and botánicas and stereo stores that tumbled into the Jewelry District’s warren of mostly Armenian- and Persian-owned outlets and Grand Central was its mess hall. On floors caked with sawdust, it offered a taste of home—overstuffed gorditas, aguas frescas ladled from glass vitroleros—in portions that satisfied immigrant longings and budgets. “It will not become Westside cute,” Ira vowed to an interviewer. “I want it to remain an authentic old food hall.”
No bank wanted to sink money into the market’s rickety infrastructure, so Ira turned to local government. The Community Redevelopment Agency, which had presided over Bunker Hill’s destruction, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which was seeking to lure riders onto the newly opened Red Line, gambled. In 1993, they loaned Grand Central Square $44 million.
Almost immediately L.A.’s postriot economy slumped. Meanwhile, with Latinos fanning out from their longtime neighborhoods—and approaching 50 percent of the county’s population—what they wanted to eat could be found just as easily in Huntington Park or Compton or Panorama City. In 1997, Ira defaulted on his $2.4 million annual obligations. The agencies devised a rescue plan—only to watch Ira, in 2002, default again.
The second bailout allowed Ira to pay just interest for 30 years, on average about $1 million a year, while deferring the principal until 2033. Then Grand Central would face a daunting balloon payment: $69 million. It was a huge public investment in a privately held passion project, one far ahead of its time, but Ira was not around to see whether the deal would bring vindication or more hardship. Weeks before the refinance, he died of lung cancer, a 62-year-old nonsmoker.
Without its visionary, the market fell into an even deeper funk. Angels Flight had returned after three decades in storage only to go dark again—a braking mishap killed an octogenarian Auschwitz survivor—and then came the Great Recession. The market’s vacancy rate surged to 40 percent, more than a dozen empty stalls, and much of what remained was hard to romanticize: Corleone Pizza, “A” Check Cashing, Express Eyebrow Threading.
Unwilling to watch her husband’s dream fizzle, Adele Yellin put herself in charge. Petite and elegant, she knew that she was likely to be underestimated, to be reduced to “the widow Yellin,” as she puts it. But after years working in interior design and serving on philanthropic boards, she also knew business. She timed her takeover, in 2011, just as downtown was reaching acronym-worthy mass, its lofts and studios home to nearly 50,000 people.
Their arrival was an opportunity for Adele, maybe even a lifeline, but also a quandary. The newcomers this time were not the recently immigrated but the upwardly mobile, their median income close to $100,000. “They were living downtown, but they weren’t coming into the market,” says Adele, who thought it only logical to offer “food that locals—literally locals— would be eating.” That meant returning Grand Central to something it had not been since its earliest days.
One minute micah Wexler was a semifinalist for a 2012 James Beard “Rising Star Chef of the Year” award; the next he was pulling the plug on Mezze, his Mediterranean-inspired restaurant on La Cienega, forced out by construction next door. To shake his disappointment, Wexler enrolled in a cheese-making course at the Institute of Domestic Technology, founded by Eagle Rock-based vegan cookbook author Joseph Shuldiner. “I saw his name on the roster,” says Shuldiner, “and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I know who you are!’ ”
The adulation came with an agenda: Shuldiner had just been hired by Adele Yellin to help curate Grand Central’s overhaul, to comb L.A. for interesting, enterprising chefs and convince them that the market could be their incubator. Shuldiner invited Wexler on a tour, to reflect on what Grand Central once was and picture what it could be again.
“It was, like, full of crackheads and homeless people peeing in the corners,” says Wexler. “We just looked at each other,” adds his business partner, Michael Kassar, a New Yorker of Lebanese descent who handles the deli’s front-of-house duties, “and said, ‘This place is a joke.’”
“Oh, it was a shithole,” says Shuldiner. “But that was also one of those boxes that you needed to be able to check—that you understand the unique quality of what this place is, that you get it.”
By that point, early 2013, Shuldiner and his consulting agency had reeled in a cadre of pioneers, starting with the Thai lunch counter Sticky Rice. Wexler passed. (He appeared instead on Iron Chef, losing to Bobby Flay in a striped bass showdown.) Then came other announcements, from small-batch confectioner Valerie to farm-to-table butcher Belcampo Meat Co. to the tenant that would do more than any to tip the scale, Eggslut, which introduced L.A. to Instagram-ready coddled yolk and potato puree cups.
“I always wanted to do a project that was part of reinvigorating something that had a story behind it,” says Wexler, who took most of that year to come around.
The 11th vendor of the makeover era, he invested $150,000 in a buildout of stall D-5, an unfurnished coop in the market’s geographic center that had most recently housed Alex’s Produce (run by Mexican-born Alejandro Torres, who still operates Torres Produce in D-7 but had to relinquish the neighboring spot to Wexler’s) and, before that, Malaysian-run Win Produce. Although Grand Central was open to whatever Wexler wanted to serve, the conversation soon narrowed to the food of the Jewish diaspora. He had strong opinions on the decline of deli culture—the over-long menus, the outsourced staples—but he was also wary of the neo-deli movement that has brought “haute kosher” to cities on both coasts. By going back to smokehouse basics, Wexler hoped to avoid both institutional blandness and precious innovation. “Our philosophy,” he says, “is to take something that’s gotten a little bit lost and just try to do it better.”
As Wexler prepared for a spring 2014 opening, he received a Twitter message from @chokinfuckers. The handle belonged to Peter Wojcik, a former army cavalry scout who had left the Irish-Polish enclaves of suburban Chicago to train at Acme Smoked Fish Corporation, the Brooklyn megaprocessor, and was looking to strike out on his own. A union-certified master smoker, Wojcik had Googled “smoked fish” and “Los Angeles”—Wexler’s name kept popping up. “Pete’s a freak,” says Wexler. “I knew that I was going to need somebody like him, but I was like, Such a person probably doesn’t exist.”
Several of my mornings begin underground with Wojcik, who is 37, his arms inked with skulls, flames, and serpents. As the only non-Latino on the deli’s kitchen staff, he tends to work in isolation, often to an alt-country playlist that stays securely within headphones. I find him studying a binder of plastic-sleeved recipes, preparing to mix the dry rub. “You’re not going to copy this, right?” Wojcik warns. He later apologizes, explaining that the precise blend is “like the secret scrolls” and never shared without a nondisclosure agreement. “If everyone knows everything you know, then you don’t have a spot,” says Wojcik, who tells of having been exposed to so much smoke at Acme that his sinuses sealed shut and had to be surgically reopened.
He applies the rub by hand, patting the granules onto damp fillets. The deli goes through 500 pounds of salmon every week, all sourced from an antibiotic-free farm in Denmark’s Faroe Islands and delivered by Ocean Jewels, an artisanal fishmonger in skid row. After two or three days “on the cure,” the salmon are washed and returned, naked, to the walk-in. They will spend another two or three days drying under swirling fans, to trap oils and distill flavors. The next stop is the Nu-Vu, which means Wojcik is technically not making lox—a salted, never-smoked, old-world delicacy—but Nova salmon, a milder iteration that American palates have come to expect.
To get the fillets upstairs, Wojcik has to wheel them, dozens at a time, on an upright metal cart, adding a dash of choreographed absurdity to his craft. The journey takes him from the bowels of the market, up a balky freight elevator and out onto the loading dock, then back across the Grand Central arcade—a few thousand dollars of lox-in-progress clackety-clacking down the aisles—as sparrows dart under the rafters and shoppers step aside to gawk. Behind the deli’s counter, Wojcik loads the salmon in the smoker, where they bathe in a cool fog of oak and apple, which he monitors at 15-minute intervals, upstairs and downstairs, back and forth, for several hours.
“It’s just fish I do,” says Wojcik, who also makes a denser, earthier sturgeon and, occasionally, trout. He leaves the deli’s equally renowned pastrami to the line cooks. “I try not to be shit-talky about meat,” Wojcik explains, “but meat you can just put in the smoker and smoke.”
In the basement again, Wojcik teaches me to debone the salmon with needle-nose pliers, which he purchased across the street at Ross Cutlery, the same shop that sold O.J. the 15-inch dagger that briefly tantalized prosecutors. Then, with a wide, flexible, foot-long Henckels, he trims off the tangy rind known as pellicle and hands me the knife. “You want to pull the blade through,” he says. “Don’t saw.”
To slice lox for the first time is to appreciate the zero-sum math of a tailor or carpenter. A proper cut—low and flat, to capture as much of the smooth, uniform interior as possible, and thin enough, as they say, to read the newspaper through— calls for equal measures precision and artistry. I err on the side of less, to avoid the blunder of a gauche slab, only to watch the fish tear and dissolve. Little by little I make deeper, more deliberate cuts, guiding the knife through the flesh like I am skinning a mango, until I have filled a tray that appears to meet Wojcik’s standards.
Somebody will eat these slices on a bagel, probably the next day, and pay $13 for the experience. I wonder how my small contribution will shape their impressions: if they will rave or shrug, proclaim it the city’s best lox, as both the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly have done, or post a snarky appraisal on Yelp. My reverie is interrupted by Wexler, who has come down to check on my progress. “Do you have the lox stink yet?” he asks.
If you are new to Grand Central Market—perhaps inspired, as Ira Yellin hoped three decades ago, to seek out the marvels in the center of our city—you will almost surely delight in what you find. Time and again I saw people having those moments, that great L.A. holy crap thing of stumbling onto something that feels quintessential, that both reaffirms and expands your conception of the city, and wondering how you could have missed it for so long.
On the other hand, if you have any history with Grand Central—if it stands in your memory for something more utilitarian, the kind of place where foreign-born entrepreneurs translated their culinary traditions into an American livelihood—then what you find today can feel like the front lines of L.A.’s new demographic wars. The meat, the coffee, the produce, the seafood, the booze, even the falafel: the market’s updated stalls tend to offer exactly the product their predecessors sold, only bougier, the replacement aimed at a clientele more concerned with aesthetics than efficiency. And if you happen to be one of those former tenants, an immigrant shopkeep ousted in the makeover, the feeling runs even deeper.
“It’s humiliating,” says Soo Hwan Kim. “If I was younger, maybe it would hurt a little less.”
Born 68 years ago in South Korea, Kim came to the United States at 19 and earned a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Pacific States University, but like many educated immigrants facing language barriers, he opted for an entrepreneurial life. In the 1980s, he invested in a Mexican grocery-restaurant in Long Beach—he had learned Spanish during a year in Argentina before arriving in America—and renamed it Kim’s Deli & Market. The business helped raise three children: an actor, a movie producer, and a deputy district attorney. After 20 years, hoping to scale back his hours, Kim obtained a $469,000 loan and in 2005 bought Grand Central Liquor, its ceiling-high wall of alcohol near the Broadway entrance a fixture of the market for decades.
As Grand Central’s transformation took shape, with a different upscale merchant seeming to arrive each month, many of the legacy tenants began to fret. “My dad wanted to be part of it,” says Lana Kim, a prosecutor in the L.A. County District Attorney’s White Collar Crime Division. He made repeated inquiries about extending his lease, she says, even offering to pay more rent and remodel his storefront. But according to his daughter, who regularly serves as his advocate and translator, Grand Central shined him on. The market’s management team first told him not to worry, that new paperwork would soon be ready; then they insisted that he stop selling Lotto tickets and single-serving beverages, part of an effort to weed out what the market considered “an unwanted element”; and then they claimed to be so busy with the reboot, they had not even begun to plan for his space. Finally Lana Kim snapped: “I told them, ‘Stop treating my dad like a dumb immigrant!’ ”
The same uncertainty hovered over another Korean-born merchant, 76-year-old Bo Soo Jo, who had owned the holistic apothecary Jones Grain Mill since 1982 but was renting his stall month to month. “I was so proud to work there—downtown L.A., a historic area,” says Jo, who also studied to be an engineer.
At the end of 2014, Grand Central circulated a memo describing a new fee schedule. Starting in 2015, legacy tenants would have to pay a percentage of their sales on top of their base rent—an arrangement that had already been imposed on the makeover-era tenants. “We do appreciate your tenancy,” the memo concluded, “and hope you appreciate the exciting changes taking place at Grand Central Market.”
Their ouster was part of a “concerted effort and business plan to ‘gentrify’ the tenant base at Grand Central Market by ejecting long-term and ‘legacy’ tenants based on their race, color, national origin, and/ or ancestry, in order to replace them in the substantial majority of instances with Caucasian tenants,” the two merchants allege in a complaint pending in Los Angeles Superior Court. They contend that of the approximately 15 vendors the market displaced, only two were not ethnic minorities; and of their replacements, all but two were white-owned businesses. The case, which has not previously been reported on, seeks $8 million to $16 million in economic and punitive damages.
“I lost everything,” says Kim, who moved in with his children last year, stuck with months of inventory. His composure cracks as he speaks—we meet in the office of his Beverly Hills attorneys—and tears drip from behind rimless glasses. He wipes his cheek and runs his hand through a striking mane of gray hair. “Emotionally,” he says, “I lost everything, too.”
The defendants, including Adele Yellin and most of her development team, deny the allegations. In court papers they argue that to the extent Kim and Jo suffered anything, their own “intentional, negligent and/or poor business practices and/ or other culpable conduct” were to blame. “I’m happy with the decisions we’ve made about replacing certain vendors that, you know, the quality wasn’t there,” says Yellin, speaking generally, before I had learned the details of the case. “I don’t regret losing anybody.”
From the beginning of the makeover, Grand Central watchers have played an anxious parlor game, fretting over which favorite was the most vulnerable, debating which should be deemed safe. At the end of 2012, L.A.’s preeminent omnivore, Jonathan Gold, tweeted, “If they touch Roast to Go, I will be down there with a machete.” The conspicuously shabby Mexican stewed meat specialist, which is billed as the market’s oldest business, has not been touched. But that does not mean its quantity-over- quality approach has meshed easily with Grand Central’s new chef-driven principles.
— jonathan gold (@thejgold) December 27, 2012
Founded in 1952 by a Mexican American family from Whittier, Roast to Go has been owned for the past decade by another Korean entrepreneur, Sunnee Chung. What was once a find—soft tacos brimming with the anatomical diversity of a carnicería in the ground beef, hard-shell era—its steam counter today, in L.A.’s age of taco enlightenment, has the look of a relic. “I’m not going to say anything about it,” says market consultant Joseph Shuldiner. When I ask Yellin, she insists on going off the record. During a break from my deli duties, I mention Roast to Go to Wexler’s partner, Mike Kassar, who suggests that its mythic status is inseparable from that of Gold, the food critic who is the subject of a documentary premiering that same week, City of Gold, in which he pays tribute to the deliciousness of Grand Central.
“When the whole market transformation was going on, he was like, ‘Oh, I hope it doesn’t become gentrified or whatever,’ ” says Kassar. “Literally I think the only reason they’re not getting rid of Roast to Go is because of Jonathan Gold.”
Looming over all the market’s decisions, both cultural and culinary, has been the colossal debt Yellin inherited. The year she took charge, Grand Central Square stopped making annual payments on its loans again—a default just now coming to light— and did not resume until 2015. Without another financial restructuring, it is “unlikely that the project would survive,” the CRA/LA (the since-disbanded CRA’s successor) concluded in a report this summer.
This time, Yellin has proposed her own bailout plan. Using a commercial lender, her partnership is offering $32.5 million to escape the debts that have three times now pushed Grand Central to the brink of foreclosure. The CRA/LA (which would get only $7.8 million of the $24 million it is owed) approved the deal in August; the MTA (which would get only $24.4 million of the $44.8 million it is owed) is still negotiating. Grand Central declined to comment. It is astonishing to think that the market, even newly resurgent, is this fragile, its fate hinging on two public agencies taking a $37 million loss.
Back with the line cooks for my final shift, I seesaw between immersion and contemplation, from the fierce urgency of the Star SP700 receipt printer, which spits orders as if it has trapped me in a fever dream, to abrupt interludes of stillness, the kitchen an island amid the weekend crush. When the lulls come, I peel off my gloves and take in the faces streaming by, visitors new and old trying to decipher what Grand Central has become.
I enjoy seeing the market so full of life, the city’s exuberant food scene converging with downtown’s comeback, but I also find myself feeling uneasy about how much I like it. I liked the old market, too, but maybe I liked the idea of it more than the reality. A food hall that does not feed the imagination is at risk of becoming mummified. And yet if I like today’s reality more—I join friends here, I bring out-of-towners—I am perhaps less than enchanted with my socioeconomics having been the catalyst for the upgrade: the market reengineered to appeal to people like me, our expectations and tastes.
The shorthand for everything happening at Grand Central is, of course, gentrification, a term whose meaning has been muddled and politicized. It can stand for dislocation, the loss of control that has piqued working-class communities of color across L.A., where moneyed interests have been pressuring rents and disrupting folkways. It can also stand for the regeneration of communities that have suffered isolation and neglect, undoing white flight, making them more diverse, not less. Befitting a city built largely by people from somewhere else, both versions on occasion happen in the same place, at the same time.
In its two years at Grand Central, Wexler’s Deli has made the leap from test kitchen to brand name, a DTLA startup ready for expansion. During my apprenticeship, plans were under way to open a larger sit-down Wexler’s in Santa Monica, and within a few months much of the crew I had trained with would relocate there. That meant lox-smoking duties at Grand Central would fall to a shy and earnest line cook named Victor Sifuentes, who had been hired a year earlier as a dishwasher. Before that, he had worked as a butcher in a Koreatown market, and before that, on a plantain farm in Tecomán, Colima, on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. On his phone he shows me a YouTube video of his previous life: sandal-clad laborers, yoked to human harnesses, lugging green bananas over muddy earth.
One day, standing together by the griddle, Sifuentes asks me for advice. The new position will come with more money but also more responsibility—a mostly Spanish-speaking kid, just 28, will be entrusted with a Jewish deli’s signature dish—and he is worried about letting Wexler down. “What do you think I should do?” he asks.
I try to dodge the question—it is not for me to decide. Sifuentes looks at me with disappointment, his uncertainty about the future genuine. “Just your opinion,” he asks again. I think of what so many immigrants before him have done and say, naturally, to take the chance.
Jesse Katz is a contributing writer for Los Angeles. He is the author of a memoir, The Opposite Field.
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Los Angeles magazine