Owner Toshihiko Seki completes a plate of sushi and sashimi at Toshi Sushi, not far from the Gold Line's Little Tokyo stop.

Owner Toshihiko Seki completes a plate of sushi and sashimi at Toshi Sushi, not far from the Gold Line's Little Tokyo stop. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

As the Gold Line train pulls into its last few stops along 3rd Street, we find ourselves in a bit of a food quandary. The Maravilla and Atlantic stops are close together, and bookend the East Los Angeles Civic Center station. Following one of the great laws of cuisine in America, the presence of government buildings seems to repel good food from the immediate vicinity.

But in a strip mall immediately north of the Maravilla stop, there's the East L.A. branch of La Chiva Loca, beloved vendor of tortas ahogadas. That's a sandwich soaked in tomato sauce, a Guadalajaran specialty. It's dense, chewy, crusty bread, plopped into a plastic-lined basket and drenched in a beautifully tangy tomato sauce. We're not talking a mild dressing here -- it's as if you dropped your sandwich into a bowl of soup and decided it was better that way. The tortas ahogadas are best had with Chiva Loca's equally dense carnitas, maybe accompanied by tacos dorados de requesón -- thick, crispy tacos, also submerged in the tomato sauce.

At the Atlantic stop, the end of the line, you can chill out at Maria's Corner, cater-cornered from the station. The restaurant offers a full menu of homey dishes and snack foods. As you wait for your train in the hot afternoon, munch on some camarones aguachiles -- a platter of raw whole shrimp, covered with tons of lime, cilantro and green chiles, served with tostadas for your crunching pleasure.

Third Street may be pretty quiet around here, but it's right in between two stupendous food thoroughfares: Cesar Chavez to the north and the great, heaving central strip of Whittier Boulevard to the south.

From the East L.A. Civic Center stop, head north on Mednik Avenue. The next major street is Cesar Chavez; turn left, and you'll find several restaurants along a relatively sleepy stretch of the road. Maybe the most important is Moles La Tia, offering the widest selection of traditional and experimental moles in town. Duck with tamarind mole? You got it. Scallops with hibiscus mole? Done. The restaurant's hidden genius: chayote soup, blended into a lush purée. It's a surprisingly deep, but delicate, experience of this Mexican squash.

From the Atlantic stop, go south on Atlantic until you get to the corner of Whittier. You are now at the center of the East L.A. universe. To the west stretches the busiest shopping stretch in East Los Angeles, populated by any number of bakeries, taquerias and snack shops, at least half of which are excellent. But a block to the east is one of East L.A.'s culinary treasures -- Tacos Baja, formerly Tacos Baja Ensenada and still the reigning champ for fish tacos. It's about a mile from the end of the line, but it's worth the hike for a bite of textural perfection -- tender fish, even more tender tortillas, silky crema and crisp cabbage, all sweet and aromatic and juicy. On weekends, you can sometimes get excellent skate tacos too.

La Chiva Loca, 4555 E. 3rd St., Los Angeles; (323) 264-4595

Maria's Corner, 5100 E. Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 262-2199

Moles La Tia, 4619 E. Cesar E. Chavez Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 263-7842; www.moleslatia.com

Tacos Baja, 5385 Whittier Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 887-1980