Monday, January 25, 2010

A Small Place

There's something about Los Angeles I don't remember noticing in other cities. There's a prevalence of little food shacks operating out of tiny, almost makeshift buildings. In downtown L.A. these are really common, and are almost always found in parking lots.

Tiny, almost playhouse-sized structures hug the side of venerable old Beaux-Arts style office buildings and hotels. There's room for a kitchen, and maybe a couple of lunch tables inside. Some places are so small they're just a lunch counter - you place your order and eat outside or takeaway.

They're not just downtown - Here at La Playita in Venice, people line up for seafood tacos, burritos, and ceviche tostadas. There are two makeshift benches next to the tire repair shop, if you want to have it "here" instead of "to go."

Photo from Yelper Pamela

There's a little place near UCLA that was so famous for its cheap sandwiches it was known as "Buck Fiddy" by hungry students. It's now under new management. I wonder if it will still sell sandwiches for $1.50, and an Orange BANG! for a buck.

Operating hours are usually tailored to the working population - that cup of coffee or breakfast burrito in the morning, or a burger at lunch. You can see office workers or custodians and hotel maids. In today's downtown, there are a lot of construction workers on residential loft remodeling jobs. Outside of downtown, the shacks cater to car wash and auto shop workers, and folks taking buses to work.

Photo from Los Angeles Public Library

Why are there so many of these little lunch joints? Unlike major East Coast downtowns, Los Angeles began tearing down its old downtown buildings and replacing them with parking lots as early as the 1930s. Some of the little food shacks date from those days - as seen in this news photo of a car accident right in front of the Snak Shak in South Central Los Angeles.

Does it have something to do with Los Angeles' climate? Maybe it does. Why spend money building a full-size joint with room indoors for tables? In our warm climate, the sidewalk can be your dining room.

The shacks are brightly painted, and usually reflect the creativity of the proprietor.

The prices are always cheap. Mai's Super Tacos recently had a new paint job, but the tacos are still just as good, and still $1.60 each.

Downtown can be a rough neighborhood, and the proprietors are serious about security.

You can usually tell a good food shack by the lines out front.

There's a wide range of ethnic menus.

Little food shacks. They're everywhere in L.A. There's something charming about these small, homey kitchens, in the midst of the big city.


mo.stoneskin said...

The little shacks beneath vast windowless walls are hilarious. To be honest, I'd find it a little scary sitting in the shade of a monster building while eating a dodgy street hotdog.

Gilly said...

They look so inviting - well, some of them! But don't you have Environmental Health people? Try that in a b ig town in England, and they'd have Inspectors round finding all sorts of things wrong, and close them down.

I get a bit muddled with US terminology - is Downtown what we would call City Centre, in which case how come it is a bit dangerous? Our city centres are full of posh shops, huge office blocks oozing money, and generally a safe environment. Dodgy areas would be just off the centre, and the old suburbs, or old areas swallowed up by the city, with poor housing, vacant buildings, warehouses etc.

Maybe I need to come to LA and see all these exciting things for myself.........

M. Bouffant said...

Gilly, our downtown has moved west over the yrs., & the former posh shops (Well, the shops mostly moved to the suburbs, or closer to the ocean.) office blocks & the like became down-scale.

So the actual seats of gov't., as well as of corporations & law firms, are ringed by dicier areas abandoned by these outfits.

Our Health Dep't. posts A-C letter grades on most eating establishments, so there's little health risk.

And g, I wonder if this isn't either something that's been here since here was Mexico, or has been brought back by recent immigrants. I've only been to tourist-y parts of Mexico (Tijuana & Rosarita) but there are certainly many similar shacks, though not necessarily in parking lots next to bldgs.

g said...

M. Bouffant & Gilly - I've been reading historical stuff about downtown LA, and there was a traffic/parking congestion problem quite early on, in the late '20s. This drove commerce west toward Hollywood, which drove down real estate values, and Los Angeles, much earlier than other big cities, I think, started tearing down its downtown buildings to make parking lots. M - you're probably right that it has a lot to do with the immigrant community - perhaps just economically. Poor mom-and-pop entrepreneurs selling to working people could have lower overhead costs in these tiny shacks.

Perhaps these little shacks are the ancestors of taco trucks?

Jientje said...

If I ever come to LA, I'll keep my eye open for them. That taco looks really delicious and only at $1,60? I loved reading the history of such places, not your everyday tourist stuff, but real life, that's what always interests me!

Beverly said...

And, these are just the kind of places that have such wonderful food. I miss some of the ones in Miami that I used to frequent.

Sue (Someone's Mom) said...

I think I could just eat from one to the other...the tacos look yummy!


M. Bouffant said...

Had both those thoughts.

Great way for an immigrant, no matter their ethnicity, to get going.

Roach Coaches, taco trucks, & now: Following one's favorite ethnic-food truck by its Tweets. What next?

Von said...

Stop it I'm getting hungry!!!

KathyR said...

I'm pretty sure that place in Westwood was a falafel hut when I was a Bruin. You know, a hundred years ago.

JCK said...

It is a neat signature, that makes where we live unique.