Sunday, May 3, 2009

A moveable feast

Detail from mural, Bank of America parking lot, Breed Street at E. Cesar Chavez Blvd., East Los Angeles, CA.

A while back I read some accounts on L.A. food blogs about a regular weekend collection of street food vendors that converge around the intersection of E. Cesar Chavez Boulevard and Breed Street in Boyle Heights. Every Thursday through Sunday evening, from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m., food vendors gather in the parking lots across from the Best Buy food store, offering a menu that ranges from the ubiquitous bacon dog to barbecued goat. The gathering appears spontaneous, although it has become institutionalized - supporting the theory that capitalism thrives where customers can depend on a reliable supply of goods and services.

Saturday night, The Man I Love went to East L.A. to check it out. We arrived at about 7:30. The sidewalks were lined with vendors and lots and lots of people. There was a mariscos taco truck on the east side, and on the west side by the supermarket, a lady with a cart with fruit and cups of jello or flan.

I've provided links to the blogger posts below so you can read more about the food and see photos - and I encourage you to go visit. Because, oddly enough, I can't tell you much about the food on the evening we went - read to see why.

We strolled through the gathering before standing in line to order anything. One man sold tacos al vapor - or tacos filled with steamed meat - he kept the pan of chopped meat beneath a damp towel - he lifted the corner of the cloth and the savory-smelling steam rose up in the air.

We passed a table of vitroleros filled with agua frescas - pale pink fresa, or strawberries and milk, orange cantaloupe, pink watermelon, and pale creamy horchata.

Beside it was a cart with two huge aluminum stock-pots, and a table with chopped condiments. I asked the lady if I could see inside, and she lifted the lid. Posole, one pot white - blanco - and one with chiles, or rojo in the other. She brought up a ladle full of meat and hominy in the broth. It smelled heavenly!! "We'll be back," I said.

We passed a vendor with blinking carnival toys, and then went into the parking lot. There was a lady making pupusas, a guy cooking thinly sliced marinated beef and chorizos on a round convex griddle, and a lady making tacos beneath a gaily-colored beach umbrella.

A man bustled around, stringing an extension cord from the base of a lamppost to one of the stands, laying flattened cardboard cartons over the cord for safety. Another man brought folding plastic chairs from the back of a van for diners. All around, people held paper plates of delicious-looking food.

"I'm going for a chorizo taco," I said, and approached the vendor with the round grill. He forked up a sausage, split the casing and finely chopped the meat. Then he took a stack of small tortillas and dipped them into the fat and juices. He shook the fat onto the flat griddle and laid the tortillas like shingles onto the popping, sputtering surface to sizzle.

After a bit, he slipped a tortilla onto a plate, mounded on the chorizo, and offered it to me. "How much?" I asked.

"One dollar."

I had a ten. He asked, "Do you have a single?"

"Sorry, this is the smallest I have now."

"Okay, well, you come back later when you get change."

Wow. Nice guy! I piled some chopped onions and cilantro on my taco, a dollop of deep brick-red chile sauce, and went back to share the taco with The Man I Love, and bummed a single from him for the vendor.

There were three tables pushed together, offering assorted sopes, huaraches, quesadillas, gorditas and pambazos. This was Nina's, the chef celebrated in the blog-posts. "I'm going to get a sope with tinga," said The Man I Love. I ordered one with huitlacoche. We watched the cook as we waited. The cook took a handful of dough from a huge mound of masa on a tray, and using a wooden tortilla press, flattened it into a disc, which he put on the griddle. This was a quesadilla. He tucked a handful of filling beneath the disc - right on the griddle surface. After a few minutes, he flipped the quesadilla in one deft motion, folding it over and scooping the hot filling inside. It was fascinating to watch.

Sometimes he mixed filling with dough into a rough fat oval, and put that onto the grill. Other times, he folded the filling into the freshly pressed tortilla and slipped it into a pan of hot oil, sizzling above a propane burner, where it bubbled away before rising to the top of the oil delicately browned.

For a sope, he flattened the dough between his hands into a thick disc, making rough indents with his fingers, and dropped it into the fryer. He scooped the finished food onto a plate, and handed it to the woman, who dressed each item with condiments.

We watched and waited for our number to be called. A nearby van displayed beach blankets printed with Disney characters. Children clutched plastic cups of sweet pudding. People laughed and talked. "After this," said The Man I Love, "I want to check out the barbacoa." We watched what we hoped was our dinner sizzling on the grill.

Suddenly, as if a wind had blown through the parking lot, the festive mood changed. The lights clipped to the umbrellas went out, plastic lids snapped over tubs of ingredients. Cooks and vendors scrambled, extinguishing burners. Chairs and tables were folded. People hauled coolers and bottles of propane to the parked vans nearby. There was a kind of controlled urgency in the voices, just verging on panic. "What's happening?" I asked a guy standing nearby.

"There's a rumor the Department of Sanitation's going to raid," he said. "It happens sometimes. Wait a half hour, they'll be back."

People lugged hot grills and heaved them up onto truck tail-gates. Someone dumped a vat of washing water that flowed down to the gutter. Doors slammed, headlights flashed on, and engines raced.

In two minutes the lot was deserted - except for a few bewildered customers.

What now? I had a brief flashing moment of complete selfishness. All I'd had was half a taco! Hey, people! We're hungry! Can't we at least get our sopes? But those feelings fell away at the amazement at what we'd just witnessed. An entire vivid scene, full of families and laughter and smells and food - disappeared in two minutes?

What to do now? The night seemed dead. The blog posts had mentioned that there was another collection of vendors a couple blocks away. Should we check them out? We drove south, to the corner of Breed Street and First.

Here, in a parking lot between a tire shop and a muffler shop, were two taco trucks. There were about a dozen people at each truck, other people sitting in parked cars or leaning on the tailgates of pickup trucks, eating from paper plates.

We ordered two fried quesadillas. One with chorizo, one flor de calabaza.

The muffler shop parking lot was not as hospitable as the other place, darker and less cheerful. We walked back to our car, near a little pocket park. A memorial stone with a flagpole was the right height for a table, so we ate standing before it. Our crispy quesadillas were served with slices of radish, big chunks of marinated cucumbers, pickled red onions and a choice of three salsas.

Chopped lettuce, cotija cheese and sour cream were drizzled over the top. The quesadillas were perfectly fried - crisp and delicious, the filling savory and the melted cheese inside creamy. Although the circumstances were less festive than what we'd been hoping for, we ate well.

"What do you think, ready to go home now?"

The freeway entrance was off Chavez. "Um, maybe - let's just drive back to Chavez and Breed and see what's going on...."

As we arrived at the corner of Breed Street we were stunned. There were the vendors, crowded with customers. It was as if nothing had happened. We shrugged. "Well, maybe we can get some posole after all." We found a place to park.

While I waited for the posole lady to finish setting up her condiment table, a familiar voice spoke up. It was the guy I'd talked to before. "I told you they'd be back, didn't I? They come back," he said, "cause people like the food."

Yeah. I smiled at him. They sure do.

The Man I Love and I both plan to go back again to Breed Street and experience all the food on another night. Due to the reluctance of vendors to have their pictures taken, I got only a few photos. If you want to read more about the food offered by these vendors, go visit the blogs Exile Kiss, Street Gourmet LA, and Pleasure Palate. If you're a serious foodie in L.A., go here to sign up for Abby's next Pleasure Palate meet-up at Breed Street - she's taking a group next Saturday night.

We took our posole home, and warmed it up Sunday night for dinner. Here's what it looked like.

Posole is a rich soup/stew with pork and hominy. You can see the big chunks of pork in the bowl. The pork is boneless, probably pork shoulder, and deliciously tender. When posole is served, it's offered with garnishes of shredded cabbage, chopped onions, and sliced radishes - the vendor included a generous amount of all. A good squeeze of lime helps cut the fattiness of the pork, and a dollop of red chile salsa adds some fire.

It was delicious and full-flavored and tingled with chile heat. It was one of the most satisfying things I've eaten in a long time. For $6, we got a container that served us both to satisfaction, with another serving leftover for lunch tomorrow.

If you live near L.A. and you're an explorer - check out this happening place when you can. Or join Abby at her meet-up next week.


Exile Kiss said...

Great post. :) Thanks for the interesting and entertaining writeup about your visit to Breed Street. It can be hectic at times, but the food is *so* good! :) And most of it is just $1 which is ridiculous. :)

Robin said...

What a fascinating look into a scene most of us will never have a chance to see - sadly, because it sounds wonderful, not to mention delicious!

Gilly said...

It all sounds bewilderingly delicious! I haven't a clue what half of those things are - obviously LA is a foreign land! ;)

I'd love to go there, just to smell the food, and try all the different things.

But if the lA version of our Health and Safety rules is much the same, then it must be a nightmare for the officials! No wonder the vendors pack up! Do the official know they return, they must do! Perhaps its just a nod towards the law.

Gary's third pottery blog said...

wow, quite amazing!

mo.stoneskin said...

You know you are the cause of my taco addiction don't you?

*munch slurp munch*

cactus petunia said...

Between yourt post and Cinco de Mayo, I am missing California in a big way!

JANN said...


Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

I have a friend who lived in China for 8 years. The vendors there would also close up shop and scatter when the alarm went out. And like your experience, the food was excellent and inexpensive.

This is the perfect post to read on Cinco de Mayo. I'm hungry now!

Barbara Hansen said...

I've heard about this. Thanks for explaining it so well that I know exactly what to expect. Now I want to go.