It’s 5 p.m. in LA’s Little Central America and a slight man is inching a weighty food cart up Bonnie Brae Street, nearly parallel to the sidewalk, dug in like an offensive lineman as he muscles his way up to 6th street. Others arrive with shopping carts filled with containers of prepared food, disposable utensils and napkins, and special shopping carts fitted with the bottoms of rectangular barbecue grills for cooking Guatemalan-style carne asada over charcoal.
On a Sunday there are as many as 30 vendors spread all over the intersection of Bonnie Brae and 6th street, just a few blocks away from the lively street vendor strip along Alvarado in Westlake that stretches from just north of 6th street down to the Guatemalan food trucks parked around 8th street.
On Alvarado there are hot dog vendors and some other Central-American foods but mostly it’s a place to shop for clothes, shoes, toiletries, perfume, phone chargers, and sundry items. Bonnie Brae is where jornaleros (day laborers) go to have a satisfying meal of hilachas (stewed shredded beef), beans and macaroni salad for $5, paches (potato tamales) with atole or grilled steaks and longanizas after a long day of backbreaking odd jobs.
There are regular vendors that one can find on any given night but others are sporadic, coming to make an extra buck or showing up when they can. “I’m not here on some nights because I go to the church,” says a woman while she plates hard-boiled eggs in a flavorful tomato sauce over chao mein, a popular Guatemalan dish which is actually a lo mein with sautéed vegetables, often chayote (called güisquil in Guatemalan Spanish), and chicken, but here on Bonnie Brae it’s more of a simple noodle dish to accompany tasty Guatemalan stews.
On this same corner is where to find the ambulant Guatemalan barbecue grillers preparing carne asada, longaniza, chitterlings, chicken, and pork ribs gathered under a plume of smoke reminiscent of a night in Panajachel, a popular tourist destination in Guatemala. There in Panajachel, many churrasquitos (little barbecue grills) vendors have the words “humo en tus ojos” or “smoke in your eyes” painted above their logos — just like at the churrasquitos in the small town on the north shore of Lake Atitlán, the souvenirs from this Westlake night market will be stinging eyes and clothes smelling of smoke.
The vendors represent many Guatemalen pueblos like Quetzaltenago, Mazatenango, San Pedro La Laguna, Escuintla, Aguacatán, and Santa Cruz del Quiché, but others have not missed out on this feeding frenzy, either. A Cambodian woman sells pollo y papas fritas and skewers of meat and seafood out of the back of a donut shop; on the corner opposite the grilling carts, there’s a Peruvian woman making pupusas and Central-American tacos (like taquitos) and several Mexican street vendors making tacos that include Guatemalan longaniza as one of their cuts of meat.
Not since Boyle Height’s Breed Street (a massive Mexican street food market that was shut down in 2009) has there been a more exciting place to eat street food in Los Angeles at night. And while the busy intersection goes seven days a week, weekends are best to catch the biggest variety of dishes. Be sure to bring friends to share the bounty, plus cash in small denominations. Here’s what to find at the Guatemalan Night Market in Westlake’s Little Central America, where chapines cook their hearts out.
Find a variety of atoles, which are hot masa-based beverages that are a traditional pairing with tamales like sweet arroz con leche (rice with milk) or atol blanco, a savory atol with black beans.
These delicious Guatemalan soups brim with vegetables like güisquil (chayote), yuca, the staple tuber of the Guatemalan diet, and chipilin, a flavorful leafy green that’s essential in the Guatemalan kitchen. Look for vendors with food containers in their carts calling out caldo de res (beef stew, aka cocido), caldo de gallina (young hen soup) and caldo de pata (beef hoof soup), made with squash (ayote) and güisquil. Corn tortillas come with the soups and it’s suggested to add white rice to the caldo de gallina and beef hoof soup; if there’s no avocado, buy one from a street vendor to supplement the order. About $5 for each caldo.
So as to not confuse the other Spanish speaking customers, these are referred to as empanadas, but they are Guatemalan dobladas, a fried masa turnover filled with shredded chicken and covered with tomato sauce, shredded cabbage and a sprinkle of dried cheese. One order comes with four dobladas to share.
These are incorrectly identified as chile relleno, but there are no stuffed chiles. Instead, vegetables like green beans, güisquiles and pacayas (edible inflorescence of the pacaya palm) are wrapped in an egg batter. Pacayas are available at most stands and are served with a choice of frijoles molidos (ground and refried beans aka frijoles volteados) or frijoles colados (stewed whole beans) and white rice, macaroni salad and chao mein, a Chapin-ized version of lo mein.
There’s something for everyone here: grilled steak, pork ribs, chicken, chitterlings and Guatemalan-style longaniza, cooked over charcoal and served with a choice of beans and white rice, macaroni salad or chao mein. Find the shopping cart churrasquitos on the northeast corner of Bonnie Brae and 6th St, just follow the smoke.
Small fried corn tortillas are topped with ground meat and finished with tomato sauce and served with pickled cabbage. These come with four to six garnachas in an order to share with friends if planning a food crawl here.
Pollo y papas fritas
This will be an unexpected surprise of the evening, a plate of fried chicken and French fries cooked in oil seasoned with a mix of paprika and other spices (it also could be Lawry’s) and dressed with squiggly patterns of mayonnaise, ketchup, and picante, a mild green hot sauce. Perhaps it’s the blending of picante with the sweet ketchup and added fat from the mayo that creates a magical flavor with the seasoned chicken and fries, but get this dish. There’s a Guatemalan man north of Bonnie Brae just past the first tree that is constantly making fresh batches of fries and chicken due to his demand — go there. It’s the best meal for $5 or under anywhere in LA.
The typical plates in Guatemalan cuisine are called recados, what Mexicans refer to as guisados, and the offerings are constantly changing given the day of the week and the casual manner in which vendors come and go. For $5, get a full meal with tortillas, frijoles colados or molidos (volteados), a choice of macaroni salad (yes please), white rice or chao mein (pronounced cho-meem) and the recados of the day. These are some of the selections from a few of the vendors.
Frijoles blancos con carne: A delicious stew of slow cooked white beans with beef.
Hilachas: One of Guatemalas most famous dishes comes from Salamá, which consists of shredded beef, potatoes, green beans and carrots stewed with tomatoes and mild dried chiles.
Huevos en salsa: Egg lovers rejoice. Who doesn't want hard boiled eggs in a tangy red sauce?
Pepian: Pepianes are regional dishes made with pumpkin seeds — similar to Mexican pipian — mild chiles that vary in their preparations and ingredients. Red pepian is the most typical in LA, and like Mexican mole, get this with white rice and tortillas to eat the pepian; there’s a piece of boiled chicken with the meal, that’s also for enjoying the pepian.
Chuchitos: Called “little dogs”, these tamales are steamed and wrapped in corn husks, mostly filled with chicken on the streets of Westlake. Have them toasted over charcoal for a little smoke.
Paches: A regional tamal from Quetzaltenango traditionally wrapped in banana leaves and hojas de maxán (calathea leaves) made with potatoes colored with achiote and dried mild chiles guaques and pasas instead of corn masa and filled with chicken. Here in Westlake, they will just be wrapped in banana leaves and are boiled instead of steamed.
Tamal de arroz: Rice tamales are also boiled tamales and here they are filled with stewed chicken.
Tostadas are the dominant street food item in Guatemala. They’re Guatemala’s answer to Mexico’s taco, where a variety of spreads like guacamol (avocado bread), pasta de pollo (chicken spread), picadillo de carne (ground beef and vegetables), ensalada rusa (potato salad), carne molida (ground beef) frijol (black bean spread) and more bread atop a thin, warped tostada. On Bonnie Brae they serve pasta de pollo, guacamol, and picadillo consistently.
Enchiladas: The enchilada is the mother of all tostadas stacked with ground meat, lettuce, a salad of pickled beets and cabbage, chopped cilantro, tomato sauce, dried cheese and hard boiled eggs. The vendors on Bonnie Brae omit the hard boiled egg but it’s easy to get one in the area of the churrasquitos to add to a heaping tostada.
Guatemalan Night Market, around the intersection of Bonnie Brae and 6th in the Westlake neighborhood of Los Angeles, runs 7 days a week after 5 p.m..