Nickel Diner and Sarita’s Pupuseria
My birthday wish was to urban-hike and eat my way through downtown Los Angeles with my husband, Carlos. I woke early, drawn downtown by the sultry lure of a bacon donut. Surely there are dozens of fine establishments riding the bacon donut trend, but the only one I’ve heard of in L.A. is Nickel Diner. The place has the patina of a 1940s greasy spoon that lost its lease and remained shuttered until two broads reopened it last year. The murals advertising 20-cent cold beer and tamales are vintage, and, sadly, misleading. Music my grandmother danced to lilts from crusty vintage speakers.
The joint is staffed with friendly, attentive Bettys who brought much-needed cups o’ joe and an amuse bouche of donut-holes. We ordered the maple-glazed bacon donut and one coated in Nutella and dredged in splinters of hazelnuts. Both were classic cake donuts, lightly sweet, tender with a moist crumb. The first was dipped in a glaze that had a faint maple flavor, then liberally covered in crumbled bacon. Can you hear trumpets and angels singing? The salty cured meat was a delicious foil to the sugary frosting. The Nutella version stood up well to the competition, its hazelnut sprinkles added unexpected crunch to the thin coating of Europe’s favorite condiment.
Nickel Diner has my kind of menu. I wanted to sample everything: polenta with baked eggs and spinach, eggs served on a bed of sautéed leeks, cinnamon brioche French toast. But, the theme of the day was to be pork. We shared a plate of spicy bbq pork hash: juicy pulled pork piled on home fries with poached eggs and triangles of thick wheat toast. The juiciness of the meat made this dish surprisingly light. The sauce was spicy and tangy, easy on molasses. It was filling but not coma-inducing. We were fortified for a six-mile hike of downtown.
I love to walk in L.A., through neighborhoods that aren’t on my usual traffic routes. The sun is invariably shining. I stumble across architecture, gardens, spectacularly colorful murals, saloons and really good food. I feel like I’m being let in on a secret. This day, my goal was to explore some of downtown’s highlights that I had never visited: Union Station, Grand Central Market, Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral. Several other attractions happened to be on the route: the Bradbury Building, City Hall, The Times, Broad Plaza, Olvera Street. Carlos and I were tourists in our own city, ooh-ing and ah-ing, giggling and snapping photos, having a blast. But I’m here to talk food.
By three o’clock we had not eaten lunch and were famished. Time for Sarita’s Pupuseria at Grand Central Market! We wove through the aisles of fresh produce, dried peppers and beans, meats and herbal remedies. I’d seen Sarita’s featured on a travel show, and had read about the famous pupusa stand. Expectations were high. The blue and yellow neon sign squawked like a megaphone through the crowded market, “Over here! This is the place!”
I claimed the only two empty seats at the counter while Carlos placed our order. The pancakes of masa, stuffed and expertly patted into shape by Salvadoran women, were grilled before our eyes and served with shredded cabbage cortido and a squeeze bottle of orange salsa. Our intention was to order four different fillings, most importantly chicharron. Due to a malfunction of Spanish skills, we were served four pupusas revueltas, all stuffed with beans and cheese, a fan favorite. We washed lunch down with fresh horchata purchased from a nearby vendor. The vegetarian in me coveted a bite of a neighbor’s spinach and potato pupusas.
Sarita’s pupusas were just good. The man seated next to me asked the little woman behind the counter for a packet of salt, and he was right. I’ve never had a pupusa that lacked salt, but these were a tad bland and chewy. I missed the extra lard in the masa that lends a slightly crisp and oily exterior. I recommend this as a fun downtown lunch spot, and a great place to take out-of-towners. My favorite pupusa’s so far are made by Numero Uno on Vine.
Satisfied, but thirsty, our quest for a 20-cent cold beer, or even a $7 warmish beer, led us several long blocks. Casey’s Irish pub was closed for renovation. 7 Grand was just closed. The Library Bar was nowhere to be found. We learned on foot that a beer is not to be had in downtown during daylight hours, at least not by us. We headed for home by way of Pershing Square Metro Station to continue the birthday festivities and find dinner.