By Saúl Soto
A “melting pot” of tourists listen attentively to a deli worker as she explains the different flavors and spices in each type of mole that decorates the little shop located inside Boyle Heights’ Mercadito.
The shop at El Mercadito is one of seven food stops on Melting Pot’s East LA Latin Flavors Tour. For many it is not just about exploring new food, but also learning about the neighborhood.
“The seasoning, the seasoning together, developing new tastes…” comments German journalist Pascal Haan on the experience.
The tour, one of the several put on by Melting Pot tours, consists of a three-hour visit to Boyle Heights and East L.A. restaurants. It includes stops at Un Solo Sol Kitchen, Lucero’s Bakery, and the International Deli inside the Mercadito.
“I think it made me appreciate [the Eastside] even more,” said Rachel Porges, a foodie on the tour with her husband. “There’s so many great pockets of things to see and do….We’ll totally come back.”
Tour participants meet at the Metro stop at Indiana and 1st Street and begin the short walk to Lucero’s Bakery and crowd into the small space to get a taste of their signature tres leches cake.
This Saturday’s group consisted of four couples of different ages and ethnicities, including journalists from Germany. Many were tasting mole, a classic Mexican sauce made from chili and chocolate, for the first time, along with other foods including birria, pupusas, and cucumber ice cream.
At Tamales Liliana’s, visitors sample the pork tamales and champurrado, a thick Mexican hot chocolate made with atole, a corn masa drink. The store owners and staff are happy to accommodate the tourists and hope it will bring them more business.
“I feel [our relationship] has been really good. We’ve been really compatible. They are happy with our product and we are happy with the clientele,” says Juan Santoyo, owner of Liliana’s.
Nick Salata, a Melting Pot tour guide for three years, began giving tours in Old Town Pasadena before the Eastside tour. He knows the Eastside, and likes giving insight about the area near his old neighborhood as a child.
“We used to come here a lot, almost every Saturday growing up in junior high school. My dad and I would go to El Tepeyac,” he says.
As the tourists walk around the neighborhood to other stops, Salata offers insight on landmarks of the community such as Evergreen Cemetery, El Mercadito and La Casa Del Mariachi.
The tourists arrive at the stone-walled tortilla shop, La Gloria, where Salata gives background on the owners and the shop’s opening. Upon entering, store owners greet the tour with a table laid out with tortilla chips and a guacamole.
Tour goers take the Gold Line to Mariachi Plaza next where they visit their last three stops at Un Solo Sol Kitchen, Birria de Don Boni, and La Monarca Bakery.
Melting Pot Food Tours got its start right before the recession of 2008 when the Scalia sisters, Diane and Lisa, decided to combine their skills in real estate and dining with their love of food. Melting Pot Food Tours opened up with their original farmer’s market tour in Downtown Los Angeles.
The newer East LA tour was mainly put together by Diane, who grew up in Alhambra, which was largely Hispanic at the time. She felt a special connection to the area because of its food and culture. “It’s like stepping into another world…it’s really special, ” she says.
What started off as a much larger tour, heavily relying on the Gold Line to take participants to Little Tokyo, ended up focusing more on the Eastside when it finally came into fruition in 2011.
The Scalia sisters seek a strong connection with each restaurant and target small independent restaurants, ideally run by families. The tour aims to bring out the culture of the area through the food, expose visitors to exotic dishes, while helping restaurants gain potential new customers.
“It is exposure for them…they do prosper because people do go back,” says Diane.
The company offers several food tours ranging from their Original Farmer’s Market Tour to the more recent East LA Latin Flavors Tour. According to the owners, the tours’ demographic is usually adults over 30 with a higher education. Many are Los Angeles, who seek flavors south of the border.
Tour-goers vary from foodies to business people who are on the tour as a team building exercise. Summer and holidays are the busiest times. The cost of the tour is $75 for adults, $50 for children from 5-12, and free for children under 5 years old.
While some might think the tour is expensive for the amount of food you taste, Scalia says the tour leaves its imprint on the majority of customers. Many want to go back for seconds from their favorite stops along the tour. “We’re gonna go back and get mole for dinner,” says Porges.
Other Melting Pot Food Tours
Original Farmer’s Market:
$59 per person
$45 children 5-12
Old Pasadena Tour:
$75 per adult
$50 children 5-12
Thai Town Tour:
$175 per person
For more information contact:
(323) 306-0131 or (888) 425-6144
Photo above: Participants in the tour approach La Gloria Tortillería in Boyle Heights. All photos by Ernesto Orozco.