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Dinner at Vallarta

You know, I'm a huge fan of ethnic food, ethnic markets -- a child of the 80's and all its "WE MUST STAMP OUT PREJUDICE" multicultural awareness campaigns.

But I'm also a total food snob. Grocery stores, for example, almost always have really terrible prepared food, and they're always just a little bit older than I want them to be.

I was in my local market this evening (that'd be the Vallarta on Victory and Ethel in... uh... well, we CALL it Valley Glen, but I think it's east of the wash so it would be North Hollywood), shopping for various things.

The intoxicating smell of carnitas called to me, and I headed over to the hot foods counter. A pound of carnitas with two large cups of salsa, two dozen fresh corn tortillas made to order (or near enough -- they were actively making tortillas and grabbed two dozen off the just-made pile for me), a bucket of rice, a bucket of beans, limes, carrots and jalapenos in escabeche cost me $10.

Then I decided it was time for dessert, and was planning on heading up to Bhan Kanom Thai for black rice with coconut, when I saw someone -- at 9 PM, mind you -- putting out fresh slices of tres leches cake.

"What the hell," I thought, "so I'll waste a few dollars if it's terrible."

It was fantastic. Light, springy, spongey, floating in a pool of one of the leches, covered with another of the leches, filled with the third leche, with fresh (!) strawberries on top.

And the best part? A ridiculously huge slice -- 6 oz. by weight, easily enough for two -- was $1.50, tax included.

Oh, and they have agua de mamey on the aguas frescas bar, along with banana, strawberry, watermelon, jamaica and horchata.

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  1. Das Ubergeek - I enjoyed reading about your dinner adventure. These are the kinds of experiences that you can't plan; you just sorta' bump into them! Memorable, huh!

    I, also, love ethnic markets. I find a kind of energy there that just doesn't happen in my local Vons or Ralphs. Thanks for sharing your Vallarta dinner.

    1. I was drawn to your posting because not many people have heard of or mention Vallarta. coincidentally, my only experience with that place was a piece of their tres leches cake which someone brought to work. even as a left over, it was incredible (and my past experience with tres leches has been not so hot...)

      and so I was very pleased to see that you share my enthusiastic reaction! that cake is ABSOLUTELY worth every mile it takes to get to Vallarta.

      5 Replies
      1. re: amandine

        It is really good -- and I'm told that the chongos and the arroz con leche are really good too. Fortunately it's only three blocks away from me, so it's the closest market.

        Latino markets in LA are actually really good about not stepping on each other's turf -- so you won't find Vallarta in Northgate territory, or Northgate in Superior territory. The only interloper is El Super, and their tres leches is horrendous.

        Perhaps Dommy! can chime in on the tres leches at Northgate or Superior -- that's really not my area of expertise.

        1. re: amandine

          You are right about their tres leches cake... WONDERFUL! I also love the one from Northgate. Surprisingly, the best one I've had recently was from a Salvadoran Bakery near where we used to live on Centinela inbetween Culver and Jefferson.

          I have not been too impressed with the Tres Leches at Gigante, I've never tried it at Superior... but the great news is that Vallarta is seemingly expanding at a better clip than the other chains. I LOVE their ELA store... And my cousin just got one in Victorville... LOL!! Here's their website:

          http://www.vallartasupermarket.com/ma...

          --Dommy!

          1. re: Dommy

            Dommy,
            Would you please let me have the name (and nearest cross street maybe?) of this Salvadorean Bakery on Centinela? There's been so much talk lately of Tres Leches Cake and I've never had any. This one sounds like right on the way home from work. Thanks!

            1. re: sweetTooth

              It's called El Quetal Bakery, it's in a tiny strip mall, so parking is kinda tight in there (There is residental parking of course)

              4804 1/2 S Centinela Ave,
              Los Angeles, CA

              --Dommy!

        2. I love the Vallarta in my neighborhood, I do take out quite a bit as it's on my way home from work. The Agua de Frescas are very good at the location on Victory and Woodley. My fave is the watermelon or agua de frutas which is a combination of many fresh fruit juices served ice cold and delicious. They also have excellent chile relleno's, really good rice and excellent caldo de pollo and albondigas soup. Everything is freshly made, delicious and very inexpensive. In the bakery I'm fond of their pastries, very good.

          1. Vallarta is a good supermarket and has such great bargains on produce (four medium size avocados for a $1!). I usually get their bag of limes and stuff for guacamole but never tried their hot foods, although I've always meant to. Thanks for posting! will have to try next time.

            1. Had a similar experience @ Liborio Market on 3rd & Bonnie Brae. The same warm feeling, the same great prices on the meats, avocados, the tortillas, limes...And, the fresh tortillas, the homemade tamales, the carnitas, the mmm, tres leches...there's even a Wells Fargo ATM in the place so if you're short, which would be hard considering the prices. Hispanic markets, the unsung heroes of the hungry.

              1. I love me some Vallarta supermarkets!

                They're one of the best places for cheap, good Mexican meals.

                The only other store I've been to that had better food was a Numero Uno, but only because they had a Gallo Giro inside it.

                1. my DH works near a Vallarta and I BEG for fresh corn tortillas...
                  I can't even eat supermarket or restaurant tortillas anymore

                  we usually get stuff from the meat counter-
                  carne asada- they squeeze the oranges over the meat and wrap it up for you to take home and grill
                  also, the chicken milanesa- get them to put the same marinade and take home and grill

                  and I LOVE the pieces of tres leches cake

                  1. Tried the TAMALES at the NoHo Vallarta last night. They're frickin' huge and only $1.49. Not the best around, but hard to beat for the price. Best filling, IMO, was beef. Chicken and pork were good as well. The cheese-filled were weird, with rubbery steamed cheese in one chunk inside--pretty unappetizing. All the meats were seasoned and/or marinated. Very tasty. Add some fresh Mexican Cream from the salsa counter, and it's a nice feast, on the cheap.

                    1. OK - Das Ubergeek - you got through to me! After reading your tres leches post, I couldn't wait to get to one of the Vallarta Markets to try it! Last night we stopped by the one at 10859 Oxnard Street in NoHo; they had three different versions: one with a strawberry, one with perhaps banana, and a third with canned peaches that had the cake cut-up. We opted for the strawberry one. We have yet to try it (it was too heavy of a chowing day yesterday and the Pinkberry yogurt was a nice finale to the day...no room left!). It calls my name every time I open the fridge, so I know today is the day!

                      However, I also purchased some of the dulces in the little cabinet at the check-out counter at the end of the conveyor belt. I bought one dulce de leche (vanilla fudge), one yellow macaroon, and one white coconut bar with a pink edge. I also purchased one dulce de leche that was wrapped separately in cellophane. They are all really, really delicious; my favorites are the yellow macaroon and the unwrapped dulce de leche.

                      So, what are these candies? Are they loaded with chemicals that have lots of unpronounceable vowels and consonants? If I am just consuming sugar, I am not so concerned, but I would like to know what these dulces are made with?????? I am glad that the Vallarta Market is not closer to my home!

                      Does anyone else like these candies? Do you think they are sanitary in this cabinet? I do hope someone else will log in their experience, knowledge and opinion!

                      1. These fresh mexican dulces are mostly caramelized fruits and milks so they're pretty shelf stable without needing preservatives. As for being sanitary, is it any different than buying fudge from a candy store cabinet?

                        12 Replies
                        1. re: ozzygee

                          Thanks, ozzygee, for your response. So, you don't think they're full of chemicals...you know, the kind that I try to avoid as I get older and wiser and more paranoid about what I really don't know about my food!!

                          To address the sanitary issue, the cashier was very careful not to let me serve myself. She also used a serving utensil and carefully placed them in a bag. However, I don't know if this is SOP (standard operating procedure!).???

                          1. re: liu

                            I'm almost certain that about as chemically as it gets is the food colouring they use (the same kind that comes in the little droppers). The calabaza ones are just pumpkin and sugar. They're traditional candies, and they didn't have diethylofluorophosphobenzylene or whatever in Aztec Mexico.

                            You can ask the front-end manager if he knows what goes into them, but I'm pretty sure they're just tons of sugar. They're really, really paranoid about cleanliness at Vallarta, which is nice -- I've never had a problem and they, unlike some grocery stores (DO YOU HEAR ME, RALPHS?) have enough people to provide good service everywhere.

                            Dulce de leche, by the way, is just milk cooked with lots of sugar until it caramelises.

                            The Vallarta on Oxnard is actually one of the smallest ones -- the new ones are MUCH larger (Victory and Woodley, Victory and Ethel, Vanowen and Woodman, Vineland just north of the airport runway) and have full-on counter-service restaurants within.

                            1. re: Das Ubergeek

                              Das Ubergeek - Again and again you have given me really good information! And...yes, it was YOU who made me chase there at 8:30 last night to get the tres leches cake! I will let you know.

                              "...diethylofluorophosphobenzylene..." I am laughing out loud! I do appreciate all your information: sugar, sugar and more sugar! Are these candies YOUR thing? Each one was quite delicious. The dulce de leche melted in my mouth with no gritty residue; these were the long, rectangular sticks.

                              I am looking forward to checking out the newer Vallarta markets that you have mentioned.

                              1. re: liu

                                Actually, I find the candies too sickeningly sweet to eat, but I was behind someone who bought quite a lot of them, and we struck up a conversation about them... I said that I had the usual gringo fear of candies out in the open that I couldn't translate. She bought me a piece of the calabaza candy and told me exactly what went in it.

                                1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                  Was this calabaza candy that you speak of the one that looked like an orange macaroon, or was it more translucent? What shape was it?

                                  If you like coconut, the orange macaroon is quite flavorful and moist.

                                  1. re: liu

                                    This was a rounded oblong chunk of orange candy, not translucent at all, but neither did it have chunkies in it like coconut.

                                    I'm actually not a big candy eater, but if I should be in the mood, I'll try the orange macaroon... thanks!

                                    1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                      I don't think I saw anything like what you describe; you are referring to the candy in the plexiglass case at the end of the conveyor belt at the check-out line?

                                      Perhaps there is a larger selection of dulces at the larger markets. I will try the one just east of Topanga on Roscoe. I think this is one of their newer stores -- yes?

                                      Did you try any of their fruit drinks? Did you try their horchata?

                                      1. re: liu

                                        It was in the candy in the plexiglass case at the end of the conveyor, yes... but I think the contents change occasionally. Like I said I don't really pay attention because it all fits under "this is too sweet".

                                        I have tried their horchata, their jamaica and the mamey. The mamey wasn't all that and a bag of chile-and-lime chips, but the jamaica was good and tangy (and full of vitamin C), and the horchata is actually a little spicy with cinnamon -- the stuff at the airport Vallarta is better than the stuff at the Victory and Ethel Vallarta, but it's far enough away that it's not worth the drive. They're both pretty good.

                                        1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                          I love horchata, but they do seem to vary greatly from place to place. I actually like the one at La Super Rica on the way to Santa Barbara (I also LOVE their green salsa with the coriander seeds, but that belongs in another post, I am sure!).

                                          If you say Vallarta's horchata is a little spicy from the cinnamon, then I can leave my Extra Fancy Vietnamese Cinnamon from Penzey's at home, huh? I think I will like their horchata, as you describe it.

                                          Can you tell? You have hooked me to Vallarta! Thanks, yet again!!! Das Ubergeek -- please do continue to post all your 'hounding adventures...I always read them with much interest!

                                          1. re: liu

                                            The horchata at La Super Rica is the best that I've tasted ANYWHERE! That said, Vallarta's is pretty darn good and available to far more customers with there many locations.

                                            The tacos and tortas at Vallarta are very good as well.

                                            Will they ever get their Valencia location open? They are taking forever!

                                            1. re: sel

                                              sel - Thanks for confirming what I thought to be: La Super Rica has really good horchata, with no "off" flavors! And thanks for pointing me to the tacos and tortas at Vallarta, my new favorite "hang."

                              2. re: Das Ubergeek

                                Yes, the food coloring is probably the only artificial thing you'll find in these candies. And the only ones that have it are quite obvious (like the coconut bar). Of course, the sugar doses are probably more lethal than any chemical preservative they could possibly put in it.

                                Still, candy is candy.

                          2. I just moved my business into that neighborhood with the Vallarta on Victory and I just recently discovered it. I have yet to try the prepared foods, but the smell is so intoxicating, my mouth starts to water just parking the car. I guess I missed the fresh corn tortillas but I'll check them out tomorrow. The downside is that it's next to the gym I go to and it's all too easy to wander over on my way to the car to try one of many pan dulce, even though they are always a disappointment (dry dry dry). One of the best parts is that even the produce and meat are cheap there and everything looks decent.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: Sugar Jones

                              Sugar Jones, even at 8:30 last night, the tortillas looked very fresh. Do give the dulces in the plexiglass cabinet in the check-out area at the end of the conveyor belt a try...I really like the one that looks like vanilla fudge.

                              I spent awhile grazing the pan dulces with my eyes, and they, too, looked very fresh. Please post if you find them beyond your expectations.

                              1. re: Sugar Jones

                                If there aren't any corn tortillas, ask at the tortilleria and they'll make more. If they give you crap about it, complain to management.

                                I agree, by the way, dry dry dry on the pan dulce, except the guayaba (squares with guava jelly in the centre).

                                If you don't mind my asking (and if the moderators will permit just the one reply), what business did you move into our little barrio? After all, we need to keep you chowing!

                                1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                  Das Ubergeek, I'm a caterer. Moved my kitchen from a tiny one to a much bigger, nicer one.

                                  Back to more important matters...the pan dulce at Vallarta. One morning they had a bread pudding in the case and since it's one of my fave desserts, I had to try it. It was actually the best thing I've tried there, but I haven't seen it since.

                              2. Das Ubergeek - The tres leches cake from Vallarta Market was a delicious treat! Ours was 24-hours soaked, but it was wonderful...yum!!! The overnight in the fridge did not seem to adversely affect it at all; perhaps it might have been a little lighter if we had eaten it immediately after purchase. Nevertheless, it was perfect to our tastes and almost a pudding consistency at its creamy bottom.

                                Thank you for this most "lucious" find!

                                8 Replies
                                1. re: liu

                                  It's a pretty heavy (in the sense of calorie-laden and fullness factor) cake in general, but yes, maybe a little bit lighter when promptly eaten.

                                  Glad you liked it -- it's one of those things that everyone should try once!

                                  1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                    Das Ubergeek - thanks for mentioning "calories." I was just researching this Pastel de Tres Leches online, and it is LOADED with calories and fat! The three milks are any combination of sweetened condensed milk, heavy cream, evaporated milk, perhaps coconut milk (in a variation on a theme)...well, you have tasted it and you know! I also agree with you that the Vallarta portion could be for 2 or even 3! I was sharing it, and by about the third bite I got the idea as the sugar and fat were kicking in!

                                    You hit the nail on the head, so-to-speak, by saying that it is a good thing to try once! I am grateful that there are no stores nearby in Westlake Village!

                                    1. re: liu

                                      Yeah, but it's a dessert, it's meant to be loaded with calories, sugar and fat! If you want a low-fat dessert, eat a piece of fruit. :-P

                                      And there's two Vallartas in Canoga Park (Sherman and De Soto, Roscoe and Canoga) and one in Oxnard on A St. and Wooley Rd.

                                      1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                        Are both of the Canoga Park stores equally fun? I like the juice-bar idea that you mentioned. Are both of these stores new-ish and large-ish? Do both of these stores have calories?

                                        1. re: liu

                                          I haven't been to either of them, I just looked on the website. It looks like the Roscoe branch is bigger and funner, and I'm sure that all the stores have millions of calories, if not billions.

                                          1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                            Silly...just silly!!!

                                            I will try the Roscoe branch, and then I will try the one at Sherman & DeSoto, probably in the same afternoon!

                                            I just have one more question: when you purchase an entire Tres Leches cake (am I obsessed or what -- thanks to you!), do they pour the third leche over the entire cake, or do they pack it separately for you to pour on each slice? When we were in the NoHo store, she tried to sell me the entire cake, but I remembered your posting about the huge slice.

                                            There was also a similar package that had cut-up pieces that were completely flooded with leche dulce and there was fruit (canned peaches, I believe) on top...I wonder how THAT is!

                                            Do you think we have sufficiently analyzed this? Thanks for "playing" with me...it's been fun!

                                            1. re: liu

                                              No problem at all.

                                              I assume that they pour the leche dulce over the cake for you and give it to you in an appropriate container, but I have to be honest that I've never seen anyone buy the whole thing, and I've never done it myself. Typically tres leches is made by poking holes in the cake and pouring the leche dulce over the top of it so it soaks in, but who knows how they do it at Vallarta.

                                              I love the peach one -- the only problem is that sometimes the pieces on top are dry. It's not really a problem, because you just swirl it around in the leche dulce like you're making French toast and it's all good.

                                              How much is the cake? I mean, if a six-ounce slice is $1.50...

                                              1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                                Good question, Das Ubergeek. I'll go there and check for you.

                                                And while I am there, I think I'll pick up one of their peach Tres Leches cakes, and "swirl it around in the leche dulce..." You are very funny!

                                2. Many, many, many years ago ... oh, about 20 years ago, there was a great Mexican grocery chain called Tianguis. They were located in San Gabriel, Montebello and various other spots.

                                  There were various sections of the market like a mariscos area, fruta frescas area, carniceria with meats and hot roasted meats. A deli with enchiladas to go cooked and uncooked. The refrigerator for beers and cold beverages was a walk in refrigerated room. AND there were strolling mariachis. A big caldron of oil in the panderia insured fresh fried and wonderful chips. Fresh tortillas et al.

                                  There were rolling carts with menudo and posole!

                                  This chain called Tianguis was owned and operated by Von's to service the Latino community.

                                  Sadly, Cesar Chavez and the grape boycott drove the chain into the ground. Google it for the facts.

                                  I'm anxious to try Vallerta. Is it owned by a large chain like Von's or Ralph's or an independent?

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: SilverlakeGirl

                                    Tianguis -- WOW! This certainly changes the definition of HAVING to go to the market! It almost sounds like an outing or a night out! Markets have such great potential to be more than they are...for another post, I guess.

                                    1. re: SilverlakeGirl

                                      Vallarta is its own company, not subsidiary to anyone. They started out as kind of the run-of-the-mill (in the Valley, anyway) corner grocery stores, the kind where "the black olives are behind the mayonnaise" due to space limitations... the one I went to actually used to be at Victory and Fulton and moved into the former Jons space next to Bally Total Fitness.

                                      They're growing rapidly, mostly because they're dirt cheap, they're scrupulously clean, they're smart enough to branch out a little bit from the "Latino grocery store" stereotype, so that gabachos like me can do our normal grocery shopping there (in contrast to 99 Ranch, where it's sometimes hard to get non-Asian things).

                                    2. I thought Kroger owned Vallarta, but that isn't the case according to their website.

                                      1. Roscoe and Canoga is smaller, but we've found their deli counter to be a bit better. The one on Sherman is newer and bigger. For lunch, we prefer the one off of Canoga. They have a simmered chicken with peppers and stuff that makes a killer burrito. And the rellenos are incredible.