Sunday, February 14, 2010

L.A. Street food

Sweets and snacks for sale in Winston Alley

This week we've been hearing about a new event called the L.A. Street Food Fest. Two smart young entrepreneurs have gathered some of Los Angeles's most popular street food vendors at a local event space for a tasting festival. The event mingles traditional street food vendors, like Nina's and Carmen's Antojitos, who used to appear at the Breed Street Food Fair, and some of the new, young food vendors that serve the late-night crowds, like the Coolhaus ice-cream truck, the Kabob truck, the Asian taco vendors, the grilled cheese sandwich truck and the fried chicken truck.

The NomNom truck, selling Vietnamese sandwiches and fusion-style tacos, driving in Santa Monica

These new trucks are a true phenomenon - the new wave of food entrepreneurs, young creative chefs trying a non-traditional business plan. They plot routes that bring them near nightclubs and bars at night, and at busy workplaces by day - broadcasting their locations by Twitter so that their fans know where to find them.

We thought a festival of trucks sounded pretty cool, so we headed out for it. It was supposed to start at 11:00 am, and we got there around 11:30. Well, the traffic was crazy, and the sidewalk was packed with people. There was a line for the entry that wrapped around the corner. As we drove past the gate and turned left on 6th, there were scores of people walking up the hill toward the event location from the subway station at 7th and Figueroa.

Clearly the Fest had attracted a huge following. But we had no desire to stand in the lines and battle the crowds. It was time for Plan B.

We headed downtown, and went to Cole's Pacific Electric Buffet, for a French dip sandwich and an expertly mixed cocktail - a weekend indulgence, mind you, but you can't go to Cole's and not have a cocktail.

After we ate, we decided to take a walk around. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, and, besides, we needed to walk off those cocktails.

Cole's is on 6th just west of Los Angeles Street - chaotic, bustling Los Angeles Street, in the middle of the Toy District. This section of downtown where wholesalers of goods such as toys, electronic gadgets, party supplies and novelties mingle with pet stores, beauty supply stores, homeless shelters and lingerie dealers is a crowded, noisy neighborhood bordered by Los Angeles Street on the West and San Pedro Street on the East, between Third Street and Fifth Street.

And today it was in fine form - packed with people, everyone out in the street. Shopkeepers touted their prices and wares through microphones wired into tinny-sounding boomboxes. Music pounded out from passing cars and from other shops. People stood on the sidewalk waving merchandise to attract customers - lots of Valentine-themed things today, like teddy bears and helium balloons and even bird cages with parakeets, the bars twined with sparkling mylar garlands of valentine hearts.

The sidewalk also teemed with scores of street food vendors, ranging from conventional taco trucks to more makeshift efforts.

This vendor fans the coals beneath roasting ears of corn.

There were lots of vendors selling Los Angeles' favorite bacon dogs.

This woman was making homemade tortillas using a traditional tortilla press. She's also heating cecina, or salted aged beef, on her comal, or griddle as a filling for her quesadillas.

While just a few storefronts away, this woman was also making quesadillas, only with blue corn masa harina. Note her cart - it's fashioned from a folding stroller, with condiments and utensils in the trays and hanging in plastic bags tied to the push handle.

Another vendor was selling fruit smoothies from a cooler in the trunk of her car.

There's a little alley that goes behind Winston Street, and if you walk down it past a party-wares store - pinatas and toys glittering in the sudden bright sun - you end up in a wide courtyard where people have all kinds of things laid out for sale.

The old warehouse buildings with their boarded up windows are painted in bright colors - pink, blue, red - and the vendors who set up their ad-hoc shops in the alley have striped umbrellas to shade them from the hot sun of an uncharacteristically warm February Saturday. Valentines gift baskets wrapped in ribboned cellophane crackled in the breeze that fluttered the pink and pastel baby clothes hung out on display, and the tissue streamers of pinatas from the party store.

Lots of people lined up for the taco trailer that looks like its been here forever. There are CD vendors, socks and underwear vendors. People set up a box in the middle of the pavement and begin selling from it. There was a guy selling toasted nuts and seeds from small trays tied to a fancy wheeled walker.

This vendor is selling fried plantains, dressed with sauce and crema. They smelled amazing!

Here at the intersection of two alleys, there are several vendors selling all kinds of food, clothing, and jewelry.

Paleteros, or ice cream bar salesmen, roll their carts up and down the street, their brass bells jingling. On the corner of Los Angeles Street and Fourth this little boy is fascinated with the many pictures of flavored ice cream bars.

Here a woman is selling horchata and cantelope agua fresca from plastic vitroleros in a shopping cart.

The official L.A. Street Food Fest was too much of a success for us to deal with, but in a happy coincidence, our afternoon was spent at a Los Angeles street food festival that was a bit more authentic.

I applaud the idea of young entrepreneurs taking to the streets in catering trucks, to serve their own gourmet creations to late-night crowds, using social networking to gain followers, parking outside nightclubs to feed the hunger of those who party hearty. It's interesting to see the creativity behind these new trucks and their menus.

But I wonder if the popularity of the new trend will have unintended consequences on L.A.'s traditional street food vendors. If food trucks are being bought by culinary school graduates to sell snacks to nightclubbers, will the prices of such trucks soar, and access to permits and licenses become more difficult? Sure, it will become easier to grab a Korean taco, cupcake, or bento box at 2:00 am in West Hollywood after a night of bar-hopping. But will there still be trucks to serve daytime gardeners and construction workers $1.50 tacos for lunch at their worksites in the hills of Brentwood?

The downtown street food scene is a tier below taco trucks as far as mobility and earning potential is concerned. You can't stock much food in a shopping cart or portable cooler, and the Health Department will never countenance a propane burner mounted on a stroller. These food vendors are designed to be swiftly dismantled and hidden from the authorities if raided.

Perhaps the food cart is a secondary job taken on in addition to another job as a domestic or laborer. Or perhaps these vendors are undocumented, and can only earn money in this mobile and off-the-books manner. Even so, their families' well-being depends on their ability to stand on a sunny sidewalk on a Saturday, over a sizzling hot griddle. How much is a day's take after expenses, I wonder, for $1 quesadillas or ears of roasted corn?

The downtown street cooks are just as creative entrepreneurs as the architecture students who sell green-tea ice cream sandwiches from pink-painted catering trucks. They are inventive cooks, persistent salespeople, and improvise their means of production.

The other day I was wondering what I would chose to do, if I ever had to start a business. What product would I sell? What skill do I have that I could bring to such an effort? How much would I be willing to risk to make it a success - or just break even?

It seems to me that a woman who decides that people might buy fried plantains like her mother used to make, or quesadillas like they made in her home town deserves some applause for trying to make a go of it in a tough world.


Anonymous said...

What a rich opportunity you have there in L.A.!
I hope at least some of these entrepreneurs make it.

Gilly said...

The first things that come to mind after reading and looking at your fantastic photos are

1. LA is so colourful

2. It is warm and sunny

3. It must smell gorgeous with all those food carts

4. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves (though I expect there are unhappy folk too, somewhere!)

5. I'm sure those small food vendors would never be allowed in the UK

6. I wish I was there!

Sue (Someone's Mom) said...

This is my kind of fun! It looks so interesting and good food too! Perfect.


Jason, as himself said...

Well, you did it again!

I have a friend who tried to go to this but he said it was just too, too crazy and crowded.

I like what you did instead.

Pumpkin Delight said...

A friend of mine also tried to go to the FoodFest and found the lines horrendous. I love your photos. I agree, the truck phenom is crazy. I haven't been to one yet here, but when I was in college on the East Coast we had a guy (high on coke) sell burgers and fries out of his camper to the late night crowds. People who are hungry and liquored up will buy just about anything. :) Great post.

Life with Kaishon said...

I love that your plan didn't work out as expected but in some ways, even better : ). How wonderful.

I love that people are thinking outside the box. That is always so wonderful.

I have never had a friend plantain. I think I would like that : ).

We have 2 and a half feet of snow on the ground and it is snowing again as I type... so I just a teensy bit jealous of your sun and warmth!

materfamilias said...

You entertained me, you made me hungry, you made me want to visit LA again, and you made me think -- a great post!

Cloudia said...


Aloha, Friend

Comfort Spiral


You made me think too. I've been stewing on this for over a day. This topic is high priority for me and I truly don't want to come across as hateful or uncaring. This issue of illegal immigration is such an important one. I feel for those coming to the USA to try to improve their position in life. Really I do.

However, they have broken the law not only in immigrating illegally but in the things they sell. No sales taxes. No health inspections. No safety rules. I'm certain there is a long list of illegal activity.

Yes, they are trying to survive but so are the entrepreneurs who are legally trying to succeed. Those entrepreneurs are playing by the rules.

Although I enjoy your photos, having downtown LA look like Tijuana isn't appealing.

I have a solution that, at 1st, seems outlandish. Chew on it for a while and see what you think. Here it is:
The USA should buy Mexico. There are so many resources to be developed in Mexico, I think it could work.

Thank you for letting me add a voice here with no intent of battling anyone.

Elisa, Croatia said...

I have never been to L.A. but reading your post I felt like I was there.
It reminded me of my Mexico. The salsa Valentina and snacks, Los paleteros..awww and these women trying to make a living that's entrepenuership. and to use that stroller and convert it into something else well..

I know they are probably just trying to make a living (and most likely they are immigrants)and It makes me just a bit sad..because they are forced too,they too muust take care of the family..

Did you notice most of the vendors you photographed were women..wonder why not men? I think because they are more approachable?hmmmm.

Lovely post, I enjoyed reading about your day and sounds like you had fun. Did you try any from the street vendors?