On May 9, 2022, then Los Angeles City Councilmember Gil Cedillo had the sidewalks of Vermont Avenue in Koreatown fenced off from West 11th Street to West 12th Street, citing street cleaning as a reason. The closure shut down the densely packed rows of street food and grocery vendors on a busy section of the El Salvador Corridor that had flourished for decades.
Angela Barrientos, who sells cheese, fruit, beans, and other foods, had been vending on the sidewalk for about 30 years, while others, like Marisol Fuentes and Ana Sanaberia, had been in business for more than a decade, selling popular foods like mango verde, Salvadoran sweets, nances, salted shrimp, and live crabs. The closure deprived these vendors of the financial means to pay their bills, and for the mostly Central American community that shopped and ate here, it meant the loss of a vital cultural center.
The corridor is a 14-block strip of Vermont Avenue that runs from West 11th Street down to Adams Street, just below the 10 freeway. It was formally recognized by the state in 2010, and in 2013 Councilmember Bernard Parks signed a resolution making it an official neighborhood of Los Angeles. Businessmen Raul Claros and Oscar Dominguez were co-founders of the movement to create the corridor. Though El Salvador has 14 departments, LA’s El Salvador Corridor is often affectionately called Departamento 15, a reference to the greater diaspora of Salvadorans that also makes up the second-largest Latinx community in Los Angeles.
Claros points out that the lively street vending area that runs south from 11th Street almost to Pico Boulevard is called El Mercado Salvadoreño, which includes rent-paying vendors inside the Two Guys Plaza parking lot, as well as the sidewalk vendors just outside the plaza, referred to as Street Vendors on the El Salvador Corridor. “They operate within the El Salvador Corridor,” says Claros. “Before the pandemic, we had around 35 before [Gil] Cedillo shut the vendors down.”
“I think the closure was motivated to score points for Cedillo’s reelection, but what he got was a huge backlash in the media,” says Claros. Cedillo was later disgraced after an audio recording of a closed-door City Council session revealed a racist conversation between councilmembers and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor president while Cedillo was present. Despite multiple calls to resign, Cedillo refused. What followed was a series of events that would lead to a reopening of the expanded market, which now supports well over 50 vendors.
In June 2022, Councilmember Cedillo lost his Council District 1 reelection bid to Eunisses Hernandez. At the end of July 2022, within a month of Cedillo’s concession, the sidewalk in El Salvador Corridor was once again alive with jubilant vendors relieved to be back at work, albeit with set regulations intended to improve the organization of the market.
Since then, Claros says, Councilmember Hernandez has been supportive of the corridor’s street vendors and committees. While the various factions of vendors, neighbors, Salvadoran business leaders, and Hernandez all have different concerns, the market has been reinvigorated. It swells with enterprising stands gathered to meet the growing demand for Salvadoran antojitos, seafood, and groceries. “I think the biggest thing is that we’re trying to find solutions instead of just letting it grow and grow without any support or infrastructure,” Councilmember Hernandez tells me in a conversation over freshly made coctél de conchas and comforting riguas (griddled corn cakes) inside the market.
For anyone who has traveled in Latin America, the market is a thrilling reminder of fresh fruit, lively barkers, and the mingling scent of regional street foods. “This is the tianguis — you go to Oaxaca, you go to Mexico City — these places are destinations, and I see it as an opportunity to make it a safer place [and] create more entrepreneurship so our families start thriving instead of just surviving,” Hernandez says. While the market was closed last year, it has bounced back with an expanded menu of Salvadoran foods. In fact, there has never been a better time to explore the best Salvadoran cuisine in Los Angeles. Support these vendors by grabbing a plate and a seat at one of the many picnic tables on the ultimate Salvadoran street food tour.
Here are a few tips to know before going
- Bring cash to pay for meals.
- Consider bringing a reusable tote to shop for cheeses, sweets, regional breads, produce, pickled vegetables, and tamales to enjoy at home.
- Before you grab a seat at a table, make sure it belongs to the restaurant you are patronizing when dining inside the Two Guys Plaza, since each stand at El Mercado Salvadoreño rents its space.
- Watch for seasonal items, like flor de izote (yucca flowers) from May through September, brought in by local gardeners.
- When vendors are shelling red beans on the street, stock up on the freshest beans in town.
- Be respectful to the local residents by finding parking on main streets, not on residential streets.
- Salvadorans say “my love” casually, which makes for the perfect icebreaker to get you in their seats for these tempting foods. So be ready for that love: ¿Qué le va a llevar, mi amor? (What are you taking home, my love?) ¿Para comer aquí o para llevar, mi amor? (To eat here or to go, my love?)
- Pulgarcitos are good places to shop for some clothes.
- Do not bring alcohol, don’t litter, and be thoughtful as you interact with vendors and regulars in the space.
All the Dishes to Try at Mercado Salvadoreño
Coctél de Conchas
Coctél de conchas is a blood clam cocktail that is the most requested seafood dish by Salvadorans at the market, given the bounty of stands specializing in the ark clam. There are plenty of solid seafood stands that serve coctél de conchas negras, which use fresh blood clams brought up through Ensenada. The largest business, occupying three spaces with ample seating, is El Puerto, owned by Jennifer Pérez from the Salvadoran city of Puerto de la Libertad, a destination for surfing and seafood cocktails. She also sells fruit, including mamoncillos, which look like clusters of Key limes with harder skin and are a favorite fruit for Salvadorans to snack on.
Ceviche chef Gerardo Zavaleta shucks blood clams to order, and gives them several squirts of lime juice before tossing them with diced purple onion, tomato, and cilantro. The most important condiment in this dish for Salvadorans is salsa Perrins (Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce), which mellows the brininess of the blood clams and enhances its strong umami taste. Seafood cocktails come with Club Extra soda crackers. To complete this beachy experience, add one dozen bold, minerally oysters to the order. Top with a squeeze of lemon juice, hot sauce, and salsa Perrins and be transported to La Libertad.
Antojitos are the popular regional street foods of El Salvador that are largely corn masa-based snacks like pupusas, tamales, and riguas. Antojitos also include deep-fried corn and yuca dishes.
Rita Castillo’s Antojitos 503 Salvadoreños stand is known for light, airy nuégados con chilate, which are yuca fritters dressed with honey. They’re paired with a spiced, toasted corn drink, pasteles (fried empanadas), and sweet plantain empanadas filled with cream or beans. Castillo’s stand serves riguas as well, offering them with a Salvadoran crema that adds salinity and acid to the fried corn cakes.
One of the stars of the market is Sandra Yanira, a warm, charismatic figure who runs Platillos Típicos Salvadoreños Sandra Yanira. Expect hefty versions of sweet, plump empanadas con leche y frijol and pasteles. The heaping plates of yuca con chicharrón — deep-fried chunks of yuca and pork — come paired with curtido (pickled cabbage) and tomato sauce. Another variation is yuca con pescaditos, which has small, silvery fried fish spooned on top of the deep-fried tuber for a sharp, briny kick. The stand will run out of these crispy treats if you’re late to the party. First-timers should ask Yanira for recommendations, and whether she has any dishes made with garrobo (iguana), typically consomé de garrobo or sopa de garrobo.
Many stands sell sweet corn tamales and tamales de pollo (chicken tamales); among them is Antojitos 503 Salvadoreños, also notable for its hot griddle covered in riguas. Outside of the Two Guys Plaza parking lot, sidewalk vendors along the Street Vendors on the El Salvador Corridor area offer irresistible tamales pisques (bean puree tamales) to go.
Keep an eye out for enredos de yuca — deep-fried fritters of grated yuca formed into extra-crispy torpedoes that look like fried ramen noodles. They’re typically eaten with curtido and tomato sauce on the side.
Elotes locos are El Salvador’s take on corn on the cob, where ears of corn are brushed with mayo, coated in grated Salvadoran cheese, then painted with wavy streaks of ketchup, mustard, and salsa negra (Worcestershire sauce).
Angelenos may be obsessed with spicy Mexican-style elotes, but Salvadorans are just as devoted to their own unique version of this dish. Minutas 100% Natural makes elotes locos that deftly balance the sweet, vinegary, and umami condiments.
Pupusas are El Salvador’s quintessential antojito, a thick, stuffed corn masa or rice flour tortilla packed with fillings like frijol, queso, loroco (flower), chicharrón, revuelta (a blend of chicharrón, frijoles, and queso), and more. Except for the seafood stands, most vendors at the market offer pupusas, and a few, like Pupuseria Mary, Pupusas Eli-Metec, and Pupusas Ashley, specialize in them. Some of the best are at Pupusas de Olocuilta, offering the famous rice flour pupusas from Olocuilta, La Paz Departamento, as well as classic corn masa pupusas that are made to order on a hot comal.
In addition to standard fillings of chicharrón, queso, frijol con queso, loroco, and revuelta, Pupusas de Olocuilta offers special fillings that one wouldn’t find at other pupuserias. Try hierba mora con queso, packed with a leafy green that’s less bitter than loroco and then mixed with cheese. There’s also camarón con queso (shrimp and cheese) or spicy jalapeño con queso in either rice flour or corn masa pupusas. Pupusas are eaten with curtido and tomato sauce.
To keep your pupusas from getting soggy, eat them like a Salvadoran would. Place the curtido and some sauce on the side of the plate, then tear off a piece of pupusa to pick up the toppings, eating flavorful dressed morsels one bite at a time.
These griddled sweet corn cakes typically aren’t found on the menus of LA’s Salvadoran restaurants but are prominent in this market, which makes them one of the reasons to visit. The beloved dish is a favorite of Salvadorans of all ages, and is especially popular near schools and universities in El Salvador.
Riguas are an indigenous recipe from the Náhuat-Pipil Indigenous group of El Salvador. (Pupusas are also an Indigenous invention.) The griddled corn cakes are cooked on a comal on top of a banana leaf, flipped to cook evenly on both sides. Once the oval cakes are cooked through, they are given a final griddling directly on the comal. They’re served with Salvadoran crema or quesillo, a medium-soft cheese that’s used in pupusas de queso.
Yanira, of Platillos Típicos Salvadoreños, is the market’s queen of antojitos, and she makes some appetizing riguas as well. Yanira offers sizable sweet corn cakes with quesillo at her stand, along the same row as Antojitos 503 Salvadoreños. 503 also has a steady line for its smaller but nicely crisped riguas. Take a stroll along the Vermont Avenue sidewalk outside the parking lot, where some other vendors can be seen toasting up riguas on flattop grills.
Tortas and Panes
Tortas are Salvadoran sandwiches served in long French-style rolls, also known as tortas mexicanas. (Ironically, they have nothing to do with Mexican cuisine.) The most famous recipe is called the torta Hula Hula, which originated in Parque Hula Hula in downtown San Salvador.
Panes are sandwiches on soft rolls brushed with mayo and filled with shredded chicken, or hen cooked in a tangy sauce of tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and relajo (Salvadoran spice mix). Panes come packed with romaine lettuce, raw watercress, thinly sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, and radishes. Panes mata niños are mortadella sandwiches on skinny rolls.
Unfortunately, one of LA’s best tortas mexicanas vendors stopped serving during the pandemic, but at the El Salvador Corridor there are two solid options. The first is a stand inside the market, and the other is a truck that parks on 12th Street. The Tortas y Panes Santanecos truck makes solid beef patty and ham tortas on French rolls dressed with mayo, mashed avocado, curtido, and salsa dulce (ketchup), while the panes mata niños are made with grilled mortadella on a skinny roll served with curtido and salsa dulce. Inside the market, Deliciosas Tortas Estilo Hula-Hula prepares excellent tortas Hula Hula, packed with flavor, and panes mata niños, both of which are substantial. The Mercado Salvadoreño stand has several picnic benches to sit down and enjoy these storied sandwiches.
Caldos, Sopas, and Consomés
Visitors to the market will find a variety of terrific hot soups simmering in pots, like sopa de gallina india, in which a whole free-range hen is used to make the stock. The bird is then removed and finished over a charcoal grill. The soup comes with thickly cut carrots, potatoes, zucchini, and sections of corn, and is served with white rice, salad, a piece of barbecued hen, and thick Salvadoran corn tortillas. Humo En Tus Ojos and Pupuseria Jazmin #2 are two of the several stands advertising this dish. Just look for the hens perched in an upright position roasting over barbecue grills, or, better yet, head to the back row of vendors for a stellar array of soups and stews.
Comedor y Pupuseria Olocuilta is unparalleled when it comes to soups. Its sopa de gallina is a delicious meal, as is the rich, aromatic sopa de pata (beef hoof) packed with mondongo (beef tripe); both of these dishes are lunchtime favorites. All soups come loaded with cabbage, corn, zucchini, carrots, and potatoes, all tinted light brown by achiote paste—the kind of home-cooked soups Salvadoran customers and workers in the market crave. In addition to those standard offerings, owners Noel Antonio Rodriguez and Yesi Araujo have a pot of sopa de mariscada, a seafood and vegetable stew, that can be savored with or without cream. However, the stall’s most unique offering is garrobo, or iguana. Legal iguana arrived in Los Angeles a few years ago, brought in from Puerto Rico, and Salvadorans couldn’t be happier.
Rodriguez prefers the natural, lean flavor of iguana — somewhere between game hen and shrimp — in his stand’s consomé de garrobo. In contrast, the earthy garrobo en alguashte is a lightly grainy stew made from a blend of alguashte (toasted pumpkin seed powder with salt), corn, green chile, charred onions, and tomatoes; a rare Indigenous dish that’s reason enough to include this stand in your Salvadoran food crawl. Both Platillos Típicos Salvadoreños Sandra Yanira and Comedor y Pupuseria Olocuilta, among other vendors, offer various garrobo preparations, such as consomé and caldo, especially on weekends.
Minutas are Salvadoran-style shaved ice treats topped with traditional syrups of tamarindo, coco, nuez (nut), nance (sweet yellow fruit), fresa (strawberry), and more. Mexicans call them raspados, but the minuteros (shaved ice vendors) use both terms to make it easy on everyone. There are a pair of minutas stands selling fruity shaved ice on Vermont Avenue adjacent to El Mercadito Salvadoreño y Panaderia, a mini-market that’s located inside Two Guys Plaza.
The busier one is Minutas 100% Natural, more a claim of quality product than a business name, set up in front of an eye-catching orange and yellow banner adorned with all 35 flavors and flavor combos. Try a pairing like tamarindo con guayaba (tamarind with guava), tamarindo con nance, or just maracuya (passionfruit) with a shot of lechera (condensed milk), all made with real fruit, except for the jarabes (syrups). This same stand also sells delicious elotes locos, as well as traditional drinks like atol de elote, atol de maíz tostado, and poleada.
Frescos are fresh drinks made with fruits, seeds, and other regional ingredients served in large jars at restaurants and street food stands; one can easily find colorful jars of well-spiced frescos to pair with your Salvadoran foods. Those more familiar with Mexican aguas frescas know that they’re made with water, fruit or vegetables, and sugar, but the addition of spices adds body and complexity to frescos.
Fresco de ensalada is a fruit salad made of diced pineapple, marañon (cashew fruit), green apple, mango, mamey (or other fruits), and watercress or iceberg lettuce, macerated for a few hours with sugar and salt before water is added. Unmistakably bright yellow, it features pieces of fruit floating on top. The fresco de cebada, which translates to barley water (though it’s typically made with flour), comes loaded with clove, allspice, cinnamon, vanilla extract, sugar, and Esencias Castilla (strawberry concentrate), which gives the drink its pink color. The drink is layered with sweet essences and spices that show the range of Salvadoran flavors. Frescos de piña, arrayán, tamarindo, and marañon are more straightforward drinks demonstrating the sheer abundance of tropical fruit in El Salvador.
Another bold recipe, Salvadoran-style horchata de morro, is made with the seeds of a fruit from the morro tree and given complexity by adding cacao, sesame seeds, alguashte (ground pumpkin seeds), and rice. A bit of sweetness from some sugar and vanilla extract amplifies its ingredients. All food stalls carry frescos, as well as Salvadoran sodas like Kolashanpan, an eye-popping sugar bomb that’ll surely resonate with cream soda fans.
Atoles are traditional Salvadoran beverages served hot. They’re thickened with a base of corn or rice flour and traditionally drunk with tamales, riguas, and other corn-based foods. In the market, many vendors serve atol de elote (corn atole), atol de shuco (fermented corn atole) cooked with black or purple corn, and atol de maíz tostado (toasted corn atole). Poleada is a sweet pudding of cornstarch, milk, and egg yolks seasoned with sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla at Minutas 100% Natural.
Los Angeles is far from being a safe city for street vendors, who are still dogged by local police and politicians, unruly customers, theft, and increasing incidences of violent crime. For now, Councilmember Hernandez supports a sustainable future for street vending in the city’s Council District 1. From the outside, the market is full of life, and inside, it’s easy to find a treasure trove of Salvadoran street food.
The Mercado Salvadoreño’s fame lives beyond the corridor, reaching Salvadorans living throughout the United States, as well as back home in El Salvador, evidenced by the many YouTube videos created by Salvadorans visiting from out of town. The other day, a Salvadoran woman messaged me on Instagram, inquiring where she might take her mother who’d been craving coctél de conchas, so I sent her to the Mercado Salvadoreño. In return, I received the gift of a photo of her mother joyfully slurping up blood clams dripping with lime juice and Worcestershire sauce, accompanied by a note: “Here’s my mom in her happy place.”
Mercado Salvadoreño and El Salvador Corridor is located along Vermont Avenue in front of Two Guys Plaza in between 11th and 12th Streets in Koreatown, Los Angeles. There are also some vendors across the street in front of Bank of America. Vendors will often operate from morning until late afternoon every day of the week. The Mercado is busiest on weekend mornings.