Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Los Angeles Street

On Los Angeles Street, in downtown L.A.'s Toy District, the wholesale merchants deal in a range of products. It's arrayed somewhat like a spectrum, but instead of orange giving way to yellow, yellow to green, and green to blue, it's a different gradation.

At the northernmost blocks, near 2nd Street, merchants display hip, cool Japanese imports, like plush Hello Kitty toys and manga figurines. Sometimes it's a little more hard-edged than Hello Kitty - some stores feature a vast array of bongs, quasi-legal herbal stimulants, and rows of pleather belts with spikes and studs.

There's a block where restaurant supplies dominate. Did you ever wonder where to buy one of those statues of an Italian chef that stand outside the door at some cafes? Right here on Los Angeles Street.

There are electronics stores and jewelry stores - although this is cheap jewelry here, novelty jewelry, not like over on Broadway or Hill Street where it's the real deal. You can get hair clips, elastic bracelets, and phone cards.

There are a lot of stores selling items printed with crazy punk patterns of skulls, smiley faces, camoflage and cockroaches.

As you walk south, there are stores with toys, inflatables, wading pools, dolls and toy motorscooters. You come upon party stores, pinatas hanging from the ceiling; stores with quincinera decorations, Hannah Montana tablecloths for little girls' parties, and Bratz.

You can buy Kwan Yin figures, Buddhas, menorahs, cherubs, rosaries, saints' candles, and Native American-themed dream-catchers.

There are stores displaying underwear and socks and children's clothes. You can buy perfume and cosmetics. Stores sell fabric trims, such as braid, buttons, fringe, appliques. Then fabric and yard goods take over the street, and suddenly you're down in the Fashion District, near Santee Alley.
All along the street there's as much commerce going on outside the stores as there is inside. Taco trucks pull alongside the curb. Ice cream carts jingle along the sidewalk. Women push baby strollers with trays of cut fruit strapped on top.

I saw a shoe-shine guy, using a folding shopping cart for his set-up.

And then there's the bacon dog vendors.

L.A. bacon dogs. What could be more tempting? A hot dog, wrapped with bacon, grilled till the bacon is crisp. Sliced onions and peppers grilled alongside, your choice of ketchup, mustard or mayo as condiments; a grilled jalapeno on top, maybe. In the Toy District and the Fashion District you can smell them sizzling for blocks.

The county health department has been cracking down on bacon dogs. It's not just the illegal vendors that are being targeted. According to this L. A. Weekly article, the county's beef, so to speak, is about grilling the bacon. The county only allows boiled or steamed dogs to be sold from street vendors. So even otherwise legal vendors get cited, fined, or even jailed.

Yet the demand for good bacon dogs is high, so the illegal trade flourishes. Here's one vendor with a nice cart parked at the curbside, with signs and racks with clips for bags of chips; an umbrella to shade from the sun. Her fancy cart means she's probably licensed, but today she was selling bacon dogs.

Another vendor hid her cart behind the screened fencing of a parking lot - you could see and hear her from the sidewalk, and pass through the gate to grab a bite, but the screening kept visibility down.

At least 4 other vendors were selling bacon dogs from carts that could not possibly have been legal. All the vendors strongly discourage photos, but I managed to snap one as I drove by - the photo shows the basic design. A wheeled cart holding something that burns fuel, a cardboard box to conceal the burner, and a rimmed baking sheet on top on the box, absorbing the heat and grilling the delectable bacon dogs and vegetables.

These contraband bacon-dog carts are lightweight and easily moved. The vendor I watched had a friend who stood watch for her. At his signal, she'd move the cart into the store, or back out again to serve customers.

Even so, she was doing a brisk business - as I watched 4 or 5 customers waited for her to come back outside, paid her and then headed off down Los Angeles Street with their bacon dogs.

In this part of town, people try to make a living any way they can, and there's a darker side to it, too. If you go through the arcades that open onto Los Angeles Street, you end up in a T-shaped alley, where it's easier to hide from the authorities. It's suspected that the vendors in the alleys sell what is pirated or stolen merchandise - CDs and DVDs, watches, electronics. And although I've never seen it, I hear that some vendors sell animals like turtles, lizards, rabbits - whether for exotic pets or exotic meals, I'm not sure. The police routinely raid these narrow bazaars. A shaved-ice vendor was doing pretty good here, but about 30 minutes later, I saw him getting busted.

Although the bacon dogs smell delicious, they can be a pretty serious gut-bomb. I'm also a little leery of buying something that's been cooked on top of a cardboard box. I headed for the taco truck in the alley. There were 3 older ladies sitting on resin chairs in the shade, eating something that looked delicious. Were they quesadillas, or tostadas de tinga? I opted for a taco al pastor, and while I waited watched what everyone else got. A man who was mute came to the window and pantomimed his order. He was clearly a regular customer, because the cook and the cashier mimed it back to him and they all laughed together.

My taco was delicious! Next time I'm going for a taco dorado de papa - crispy fried tacos filled with potatoes and covered with a green salsa.

On another side street, a taco truck belonging to Juana La Cubana was parked. Her menus featured an assortment of tortas, and listed exotic ingredients like nopales and others I couldn't translate. But she was very popular, with a line of at least 8 customers.

Hunger abated for now, I stopped on Los Angeles Street to watch a guy play a shell game on the top of a cardboard box, using 3 Carmex lip-balm lids and a marble - he saw me watching and invited me to join in - I laughed and shook my head. "You're way too good for me!" I said, and moved on.


M. Bouffant said...

My head spins! Don't you ever just sit around the house & do nothing? There's a gas crisis on, you know.

SUEB0B said...

I love this little slice of LA life.

Unknown said...

We moved to the Chicago area about 18 months ago from L.A. This post made me miss the downtown area (fashion district mostly!) and all its quirkiness. Great post. :)

Kathy Rogers said...

There used to be a truck specializing in birria (goat stew) near my parents' old neighborhood. It had a lovely hand-painted picture of a leaping goat on the side. I was never brave enough to approach it.

Jason, as himself said...

Very thorough coverage! I love going downtown though I don't do it much.

Anonymous said...

It's a perfect place for shopping. Too I used to go online at JeGem for Jewelry & rare gemstones.