A popular treat offered by Los Angeles push cart vendors, fresh fruit sprinkled with salt, chili powder and fresh lime juice makes a quick, healthy snack or a vibrant side for a barbecue. Recipe below.
A story in the current Chicago Reader reminds me once again that Los Angeles just gets street food. In “Legalize It,” Claire Bushey reports on the plight of Chicago’s mostly Mexican push cart food vendors, who face fines and other legal problems because the city won’t license them. Even though it already issues licenses to the same kinds of vendors in Chicago’s parks. And even though it would allow the city to regulate sanitation and collect license fees and taxes.
By contrast, LA embraces street food as part of its culture. Mama’s Hot Tamales Cafe, for instance, is more than just a charming, welcoming place to enjoy an everchanging menu of regional tamales from all over Mexico and Central America. According to the Institutes for Urban Initiatives that operates Mama’s, it’s a training ground to help low-and-moderate-income residents “begin a career path toward success in the culinary world.” For many, the road to success leads back to the street, operating their own street food business. Significantly, Mama’s is “approved by the County of Los Angeles Department of Health Services and the City of Los Angeles Building and Safety Department.”
Street food is everywhere in LA, available in a dazzling array of flavors and cultures. From all stripes of Latin American to fiery curries, tamales, tacos, chicharrones and the latest sensation, Kogi BBQ, Korean fusion tacos sold from a truck that announces its locations via Twitter. And then there’s this fresh, slightly spicy fruit salad that Marion first discovered outside a fabric store in LA’s fashion district. But it is truly ubiquitous, sold on random corners all over Los Angeles County.
And we even see it here in Chicago, especially in Pilsen and sometimes in our Logan Square neighborhood, albeit without the city’s blessing. Here’s how to bring a little street cred to your own table.
When you buy Mexican fruit salad on the street, it’s assembled right then. The fruit is put in whatever container the vendor uses, most often a cardboard french fries kind of cup. Then lime juice is squeezed over it and salt and chili powder sprinkled on top. When you make it at home, assemble it at the last minute like this—the salt begins leeching juice from the fruit right away.
A quick note about this recipe. I’m usually very careful about giving specific ingredients, measurements and instructions. This time, I’m not even giving you the number of servings. Consider this more a guide than a legitimate recipe. But don’t let that deter you. Making this is brainlessly easy, and you will love the results. It’s delicious and healthy as a snack, and it makes a wonderful side for just about any kind of grilled meat, poultry or fish.
Mexican Fruit Salad with Chili Powder
Choose 1, 2, 3 or more fruits and/or vegetables—here are some that work well:
- pineapple [see Kitchen Notes]
- cantaloupe or other melon
- cucumber or fresh pickles [see Kitchen Notes]
- jicama [see Kitchen Notes]
chili powder [see Kitchen Notes]
salt, to taste
Prepare the fruit. Slice up the fruits [and vegetables, if you're using them]. For the salad you see here, I used pineapple, mango, watermelon and cucumber. Slice them into big chunks and spears—this is street food, often eaten with your fingers. You can make the salad ahead, up to this point, and chill the fruit until you’re ready to serve.
Assemble the salad. Place the fruit in a large, shallow bowl. Squeeze lime juice over it [for a generous salad for two, I used the juice of one lime]. Season generously with salt and chili powder. Stir gently with a rubber spatula to avoid damaging fruit and taste. You’ll probably want to add more chili powder; keep adding, stirring and tasting until you pick up the flavor of the chili powder and a little heat. Add as much chili powder as you and your dinner guests can comfortably take—that’s a key part of this salad’s charm. Serve immediately.
First, a couple of quick general notes. There are countless variations on this theme. Coconut was one ingredient that turned up on occasion, as was lemon juice, but some recipes warned that the latter would be overly tart. I agree. A couple of fruits that were called out as not working well in this dish were bananas and berries. Feel free to experiment.
Picking a pineapple. This was the surprise hit of the version we made. Here is Marion’s no fail tip for picking a nice, ripe pineapple: Pull on one of the leaves at the top. If it pulls out easily, the pineapple is ripe. Period.
Cucumbers: Peel or no peel? Cucumbers add a particularly nice palate cleansing taste. The cucumber I used was relatively thin skinned and not waxed, so I didn’t peel it—the skin added an extra crunch and a nice dark green to the salad. If the skin is waxed, or if it tastes bitter [sample heavily as you make this salad], peel it. If you can find “fresh pickles”—also referred to as pickling cucumbers, smaller than salad cucumbers or, well, cucumbers—these work well in this salad. They can also be served alone with the lime juice, salt and chili powder as a refreshing salad or side dish.
What the heck is jicama? Pronounced hee-kah-ma, it is often referred to as the Mexican potato, according to Epicuirous.com. It is a large, bulbous root vegetable with “a thin brown skin and white crunchy flesh. Its sweet, nutty flavor is good both raw and cooked. Jícama is available from November through May and can be purchased in Mexican markets and most large supermarkets.” It is a particularly popular ingredient for Mexican fruit salad.
Chili powder, pure and simple. Every recipe had a different opinion on chili powder. Some advocated mixes meant strictly for fruit and found in Mexican markets. I’m sure it’s wonderful, but the brands vary and so do their sodium levels—and other ingredients, for that matter. One source called for grinding your own chiles; if you can find them, this sounds like a great idea. But honestly, I say go for the best pure chili powder you can find. Make sure it doesn’t contain cumin or other flavorings and you’ll do fine.