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Even on a day with no parades or festivals, the stretch of Whittier Boulevard that lies just east of the 710 freeway is teeming with life. The street is one the main arteries of East Los Angeles both in terms of geography and culture; home mostly to blue-collar workers and their families who, unlike most Angelenos, rely on transportation other than automobiles to get around. The crowds that linger at bus stops or walk the streets here give this section of town a vibrancy that is rare in LA. It is the feeling of undiluted city life where, for better or worse, the boundaries between public space and private life breaks down. Catering to this eager crowd is a wide array of Pan-Latino food vendors that, in LA at least, is unrivaled in it’s selection and multitude: from corner tortilleria’s decorated in day-glo orange murals to hobbled carts selling mayonnaise-slathered grilled corn. It makes for an exciting mix, and eating a bad meal in this neighborhood is a difficult thing to do.
A perennial favorite around here is Tortas Ahogadas El Guero, which shares the name of a famed sandwich shop in Guadalajara, a city where the ubiquitous Torta Ahogada is eaten regularly as part tradition, part rite of a passage. The hefty sandwich involves a thick sourdough-ish roll called a birote salado, which is filled with stewed pork and a thin layer of beans, topped with pickled onions, then literally drenched in red sauce. The last detail is the most important, as the sauce is a careful composite of two other sauces: one mild tomato and the other a searing chile de arbol salsa, which is reminiscent of Tapatio on steroids. The ratio of these sauces is determined by the bravado of the diner: some fire-hardened palates prefer their sandwich to be soaked purely in the hot sauce, but most opt for the “mita y mita” a blend of the two which results in a dish spicy enough to make your lips tingle without singeing eyebrows. The Torta Ahogada is intended to be eaten with your hands, staining your fingers red and leaving you with a distinct pepper odor despite the copious use of napkins. The specially made bread is chewy enough to hold it’s form, while softer rolls would have turned to mush under the heavy shellacking of sauce. As you would expect of a dish that is eaten with your hands, the sandwich is immensely satisfying, leaving your stomach with a feeling that does justice to the restaurant’s fire-breathing dragon mascot.
Luckily for those without a pack of Rolaids handy, a few doors down lies El Machin, a shop known especially for it’s chilled treats: bionicos, bowls of sliced fruit topped with sweet cream, honey, bits of coconuts and granola; and raspados, shaved ice flavored with fruit. For only $2.50 you can order a raspado whose size rivals any slushie you could find at 7-11. A wide selection of flavors are available, but one of the best is the blend of strawberry and mango: sweet, slighty tart and colorful enough to be worthy of a Jimmy Buffet song. The shaved ice is mixed with pureed fresh fruit, which becomes suspended in the ice, ensuring that the drink does not became a flavorless cube of snow once you have sucked all the juice out, a common fault in lesser blended drinks.
If you have a different kind of sweet tooth you may prefer Sonora Bakery, a few more steps down Whitter. The store bakes a innumerable amount of fresh Mexican pastries, or pan dulces, everyday and when you walk in a batch is assured to be coming straight from the ovens. Almost everything costs around $.70, from the large slices of sweet corn bread with a shocking pink layer of flan sandwiched in-between, to the long slices of soft baguette smeared with sweet and salty whipped butter. Ask one of the ladies wearing a flower-print apron what is fresh and, like most places around Whittier, you can be sure to be steered in the right direction.
Tortas Ahogadas El Guero Restaurant
4508 Whittier Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90022
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