Street food in LA

Los Angeles has seen many food trends in the past few years- wine bars, gastropubs, burger wars, Top Chef contestant restaurant openings, temporary dining events, molecular gastronomy, mixology and food trucks .  Last year attracted much talk with the surge of food trucks galore, starting with the ever popular Kogi BBQ truck famous for their kalbi tacos, to others serving ‘gourmet’ delights like Vietnamese bánh mì sandwiches and Peruvian saltado.  A little over a week ago on February 13th, the very first LA Street Food Festival in downtown gathered a massive crowd of food truck enthusiasts who endured an unusually hot day and 2 hour lines to get their street food fix.  It was an incomprehensible mayhem of snaking lines and piles of trash, which I don’t think that I would have had the patience to tolerate if it weren’t for having a bit of an insider’s edge and some kindness from strangers.

On board for the big festival that day were already popular trucks like Baby’s Badass Burgers, Fishlips Sushi, CoolHaus, The Grilled Cheese Truck and Gastrobus.  There were a few that were about to make their LA debut, like the Dim Sum truck and a cart selling freshly fried baby donuts in the upstairs VIP lounge.  My favorite chef Ludo Lefebvre, in his now signature pop-up guerrilla style, overtook the spotlight of the festival with his LFC truck.  Decked out in bright red and white colors, his truck, which served his succulent Ludo’s Fried Chicken, proved to be the most popular truck on the grounds.  Hungry patrons were known to wait in line for more than 2 hours and an additional 1 to collect the food.  I cued in line for LFC, but after 10 minutes gave up at the insanity of wasting that much time for a couple of bites of food, even though it was Ludo’s food.  And then a miracle happened.  As we were eating savory shrimp har gow with a sesame soy sauce, and an awful peking duck taco served on a dry corn tortilla from the Dim Sum truck, a friendly group of people who sat on the lawn next to us offered to share their LFC.  They waited for 2 hours, yet they shared these golden morsels with us for free.  The dark meat chicken, which was brined for 2 days, was juicy and plump with a crispy rosemary crust that complemented the home made BBQ sauce.  Ludo, je t’aime.

I believe in reciprocating good gestures and random acts of kindness, so I quickly ran up to the VIP lounge to fetch all of us some hot mini donuts seasoned with confectioners sugar and cinnamon sugar.  They were delicious, especially shared with our new friends.

My friend and fellow food blogger Bill Esparza from Street Gourmet LA took me around this chaotic street fest.  He was responsible for recruiting the 2 food stands which to me really depicted the true meaning of street food. Sabor de Bahia served Brazilian street food like acarajé, which are beautiful ground black eyed pea fritters deep fried in red palm oil, then stuffed with chopped tomatoes, a creamy shrimp paste and topped with a tangy chili sauce called pimenta.  This was my favorite item of the day.

We also tried coxinha de frango, Portuguese for little chicken legs.  These small but dense deep fried dumplings were made with flour dough and filled with shredded chicken, chopped vegetables and cream cheese.  They’re formed into their classic tear drop shape before they’re battered and fried up.  The coxinha were the size of a golf ball, but they deceptively weighed heavier than a dumbbell.  Packed with power and savor, these balls delivered.  With a squeeze of ketchup right out of the bottle in true Brazilian style (according to Bill), we thoroughly enjoyed these Brazilian delights.

Antojitos de la Abuelita came strong with their tlayuda, the Oaxacan version of thin crust pizza.  3 types of succulent meats lay atop a  generous slab of beans, tomatoes, onions and shredded cabbage.  Chili marinated pork called cecina and salted beef called tasajo were both mouthwatering and delicious, but my favorite morsel of meat was the homemade chorizo.  We also had a fantastic plate of chicken in green mole sauce.

As we finished our day at the street food festival with some Hawaiian style shaved ice which wasn’t anything like the refreshing cups of shaved iced that I’ve had on the islands, I pondered once again over this food truck craze in LA.  Although I am not a big fan of this so-called ‘gourmet’ food truck phenomenon as previously posted in my blog, I accept its popularity and presence all over the streets of LA.  I think it’s great that there is something food related that people can get excited about, but just like the economic bubble, this food truck bubble is bound to burst very soon.  It’s impossible for these trucks to keep multiplying at the same pace.  Sooner or later, the really bad ones will be weeded out and only a few will remain.

What I have more of a problem accepting is for these young food trucks, serving outrageous new food combinations, to be called ‘street food’.  Street food to me depicts regional cuisine and local flavors which have been painstakingly protected and honored by its people.  It doesn’t matter where it’s sold- out of an apartment, a street corner, a food truck or a restaurant- but it should reflect a long history of tradition and culture that has remained untainted by modern trends.  I got a taste for real street food in East LA a couple of weeks ago when Bill took me on a food crawl to meet some of his trusted vendors.

Our first stop was a food truck on a street corner close to Olympic Boulevard and Dakota.  There were actually 2 similar food trucks in close proximity to each other.  One had a long line of customers, and I assumed that this was where we were going.  These customers don’t know what they’re doing, Bill muttered under his breath, as he escorted me to the one with no line called Mariscos Jalisco.  Hailing all the way from San Juan de los Lagos in Jalisco, these vendors specialized in Mexican seafood delights.  You can get shrimp and octopus cocteles, and even some fresh oysters by the dozen, but we were here for one thing- the shrimp tacos, taco dorado de camaron.  The deep fried morsels of shrimp were so tender they were almost creamy, contrasted by the crunchy texture of the fried taco shells.  The taco was topped with a generous heap of buttery avocados and a tangy salsa with chopped cabbage, cilantro, onions and tomatoes.  Simple.  Comforting. Delicious.

Our next stop was at Tamales Elena in the deep ghetto neighborhood of Watts.  As Bill told me about the history of gang violence in the area, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were talking about the same place.  Granted we went in broad daylight on a beautiful sunny LA day, but there was a sense of peace and chill on the streets as we pulled up behind this unassuming food truck on the corner of Wilmington and 111th.  We were greeted by the patrons of the truck with bright welcoming smiles as we dug our forks into their fantastic pork tamales.  Should we go with the red or green salsa?  No need to make a decision, the friendly patron brought out another complimentary tamale for us to enjoy.  I loved the hearty consistency of the masa and the smoky flavors of the succulent pork filling.

They even let me inside the truck for my very first food truck tour.  It’s not a big space, but just big and comfortable enough to create culinary wonders to please the mass.  A big pot of tamales was quietly steaming away in the far corner, while a pot of stewed meats seduced me to take a peek inside.  Again, delicious and satisfying food for such a low price.  Can you believe that these tamales are only $1?

My favorite part of the food crawl was when I met Rodolfo, who had a food stall on the sidewalks of Soto and Michigan.  This was real street food in the literary sense- it was just a grill and a table on an otherwise vacant sidewalk with a handwritten ‘Barbacoa’ sign hanging on the chain linked fence.  When we commenced our food crawl, I told Bill that I was a big offal lover, so he made this compulsory stop for me to get my pancita fix.  Pancita is lamb’s stomach stuffed with all kinds of offal with chiles and spices, and cooked for hours until the meat becomes tender and flavorful.  It may not sound like your cup of tea, but when Bill started describing this dish to me, I got pretty hot and sweaty.  This is the kind of stuff that turns me on.

The pancita that day was stewed with guajillo peppers, and contained a cheerful assortment of heart, testicles, tripe, lung, liver and stomach.  It wasn’t that gamey but it had just the perfect amount of iron undertone, and the luscious pieces of juicy organ meats made me flutter my eyelashes in ecstasy.  It went particularly well with a splash of chopped onions, a smidgen of cilantro, a squeeze of lime and a dollop of Rodolfo’s red salsa made with habanero, chipotle and chile de arbol peppers and some tomatillo.

We also got to try the lamb tacos, made this particular time with a young 1 year old lamb.  The meat was surprisingly tender with a light flavor, and again went well with all of the condiments.  I loved the comforting and soothing flavors of the lamb consommé, made from the meat drippings of the braised lamb and served with chick peas.  We enjoyed this warm cup of delicious lamb juice in its simple and unadulterated state, but Bill told me that some people add onions and cilantro to it.

Although I really enjoyed the food here, what was most memorable for me was the interaction that I had with Rodolfo.  Rodolfo immigrated from Michoacan, and has been in Los Angeles for many years in order to pursue a better life for his family.  He has been cooking food for as long as he can remember, and really loves what he does.  Since his lamb dishes were so divine, I assumed that he had been doing this for his whole career, but he divulged to us that his specialty is actually seafood.  He looked truly sad when he told us that he wasn’t doing that anymore because he couldn’t find good quality seafood here that was worthy of his dishes.  We talked about his family, his life, his struggles and his passion, all on this street corner in the middle of East LA as cars and buses whizzed by.  I was starting to see the real meaning of ‘street food’.  It’s definitely about the food, but it’s really about the human spirit creating the food.  I was so touched by this man’s humility and dedication, and I didn’t want to leave that street corner.  I wanted to keep talking to him and finding out more about his life, but we had to go to our next stop.

Our next stop was Antojitos Carmen Restaurant on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue.  This is a true rags to riches story, as they used to be a food stall but became so successful that they opened a restaurant.  We started with their pambazo, a torta drenched in chile and fried to a nice black sear.  The one we had was filled with potatoes, lettuce and chorizo.  This, Bill taught me, was real street grub.  This Latin hamburger of sorts was hearty and filling, and the kind of food that would satiate any late night cravings.

They gave us a special salsa to augment our meal.  I don’t think this is on the menu, and it’s something you have to ask for if you know about it.  It was a decadent and heavenly salsa made with different types of seeds and nuts, and brought together with a fiery chile de arbol paste.  It was really delicious, and reminded me a little of Korean gochujang. The mezcla of different textures and flavors in each powerful spoonful was intense and inspiring.

Everything that I tried at this restaurant was new to me, including the huarache with a half portion of huitlacoche and half of chicharrones. Huaraches, named after sandals which resemble its shape, are oblong deep fried masa tortillas with any number of toppings.  I had been dying to try huitlacoche, corn fungus, and I’m glad that I entrusted Bill to guide me to the best place in town.  These tender silky pieces of corn fungus had an earthy and smokey flavor to them that was almost like eggplant.  The other half with chicharrones was fatty and crispy, and evenly tempered by the fresh ribbons of lettuce.

I also got to try a bowl of migas, a pork soup with soaked bolillo bread.  The pork bits, in all its meat, cartilage and fatty glory, had been braised for hours and hours, rendering the cartilage into a soft gelatinous delight and the meat into a tender fall-off-the-bones wonder.  The smokey and intense flavors of the soup reminded me of the heartiness of Taiwanese beef noodle soup.  This wonderful bowl of soup that I had at Antojitos, is something that I would crave when I’m feeling sick, hungover, or even sad.  I can see myself gulping down this entire bowl in silence as the comforting and loving essences of the soup circulate through my body and permeate my cells.

Although my street food crawl, so wonderfully orchestrated by Bill Esparza, taught me the real meaning of street food, I know that I only grazed the surface.  I cannot claim to know the first thing about the Latin street food culture in LA, which penetrates deeper into the veins of this city than anybody can imagine, but I can tell you that the genuine feeling that I got in my heart as I ate this wonderful food and met the even more wonderful people behind it was real.  The so-called ‘gourmet’ food trucks may appeal to the trend seeking part of the brain, but it doesn’t grab your heart or embrace your soul.  Go explore the streets of Los Angeles and experience for yourself the true spirit of street food.  Take the time to talk to the vendors, and you will be sure to hear an inspiring and brave life story that spans many generations and crosses many borders.  Go taste the traditional foods that are all lovingly prepared by hand and let these flavors open up your heart.

Random trivia: Did you know that huitlacoche is a type of fungus that grows on corn and destroys it?  Also known as corn smut or corn fungus, these blue-black spores are considered delicacies in many Latin cultures, and are harvested specifically for human consumption, hence its other name which is Mexican truffle.  Huitlacoche, in Nahuan culture, means ‘raven’s excrement’.

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10 thoughts on “Street food in LA

  1. another superlative post, Tomo. and so heartfelt! this was one of my favorites.

    i really believe that foodies -especially food bloggers- sometimes get so wrapped up in analyzing what they’re eating -how it was prepared, the ingredients, etc- that they overlook Heart.

    hmm now that i just wrote that out, that previous sentence sounds awfully cheesy, but i really believe it. :)

    no matter what food -gourmet or street- when someone cooks from the heart with lots of skill, gusto, passion, and love… it really comes out in the food and thats’ really what resonates with me the most! food almost turns into this special medium where a diner can interact with the chef.

    i’ve felt it in restaurants like lazy ox, angelini’s osteria, and urasawa. i’m sure you’ve felt it all over tokyo just as you did at those street stands today. lastly, you’re very lucky to have a friend like bill– he really sounds like a stand up guy

    • Thanks! That means a lot. It’s easy for bloggers to get wrapped up in the latest trends, celebrity chefs, restaurant openings, etc but many times they forget that food is, first and foremost, nourishment. It’s meant to feed our bodies and nurture our souls. Street food is where the heart is. And Bill Esparza is, yes, an absolutely amazing man. Too good to be true.

      • Totally agree!

        Speaking of street / working class food, most of the English food blogs I’ve come across that cover Japanese cuisine usually cover the high-end. Would you happen to know of any good English food blogs that explore the working-class-food / street food of Japan?

        Almost like something streetgourmetla for Japan if that makes any sense :) I want to read about things like a great hole-in-the-wall okonomiyaki shack, an awesome hitsumabushi restaurant, etc. I wonder if such a blog in English exists.

      • I don’t know of any such blogs, but I imagine there would be. Actually, heck, I should be doing that! I haven’t covered such places in LA because there simply aren’t any really good places here, despite what people think. Since I grew up in Japan, I’m especially picky about that. There are tons of great hole in the wall places in Japan, obviously- even though I go back once a year for at least 3 weeks, I end up going to my usual favorite joints. I’ll make more of an effort to cover Japanese street food!

  2. Thanks Tomo! Given your upbringin, I’m curious to hear what your favorite non-sushi Japanese joints are here in Los Angeles– street food or not. Personally, I’m a fan of Santouka for ramen and Kokekokko for their yakitori. And if we’re really splurging, Totoraku for yakiniku.

    • Santouka’s shio ramen is pretty good. Nanbankan’s thigh cartilage, kubi (neck meat) & bonchiri (butt meat) yakitori are great, and Shinsengumi’s bite sized gyozas are delightful. Musha’s fried chicken (MFC) is good, and everything on Torafuku’s lunch menu is stellar. Happy Japanese eating!

      • i’m a huge offals eater and those deep fried giara sound awesome! i’ve never been to asian-ya but now will have to make a pitstop soon.

        if you’re ever in little tokyo, kokekokko’s seseri, kawa, bonchiri, sunagimo, and hatsu yakitori are quite good. interestingly enough, the owner/grill master’s name is also tomo :)

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