Picture it: open-air carts under bare bulbs where men and women chop meat and fashion dough into breads. Savoury steam escapes from mostly-covered pots kept warm on flat-top griddles. Children run around playing games and there's a quiet roar of banter and joking, punctuated by sounds of "mmm!" and "ah!".
Kowloon? Maybe a night market in Chiang Mai? Oaxaca?
How about East Los Angeles?
Just five minutes from the skyscrapers and gleaming palaces of upscale Occidental cuisine in Downtown, just off the corner of Breed Street and Cesar Chavez, one block west of Soto, is a nightly feast of Mexican -- REAL Mexican -- street food.
I met up with streetgourmetla, who took me on a tour of the Breed Street vendors. They set up around 7 PM in the parking lot behind the Bank of America, a dozen or more vendors hawking everything from white posole to cemitas to barbacoa de chivo.
On streetgourmetla's recommendation, I asked for two barbacoa tacos ($1.50 each) "sin pancita" -- with no innards. I don't love pancita on the best of days anyway, and streetgourmetla said he didn't like their pancita. I passed on the cup of consomé (that's the Spanish spelling for you spelling sticklers), though they moistened the tacos with some of the consomé. You add green or red salsa and onions and cilantro. They were very good, tender, moist meat, spicy salsa, a little crunch from the onion.
It took me less time than I expected to get the tacos and so I went back over to La Jarocha, which is the "front" stand. You'll know this stand because on the flat-top is a small hotel pan of hard-boiled eggs and rice, which you can have in a taco if you like. She also had cecina (the Mexican answer to beef jerky) and birria de res, which is basically a savoury, umami-laden beef stew. streetgourmetla handed me a birria taco which I dressed up with some pickled onions (probably untraditional, but delicious). I actually didn't add salsa to this because the meat was so soft and tender and wonderfully BEEFY that I just wanted to eat it with the onions.
Directly behind La Jarocha is Nina's, which you'll know because it's the biggest line and the only one where they call out numbers (in Spanish, though if you are obviously non-Spanish-speaking they'll just keep an eye on you). This place also differs in that you place your order and pay first.
They had mise-en-place pans of at least half a dozen toppings. Last night there was picadillo with green beans and corn peeking out of it, huitlacoche (fresh -- not canned! ah, September), flores de calabaza (squash blossoms, also fresh), regular mushrooms, cheese, beef tinga (simmered with tomatoes and onions, no chiles)... and a gigantic pile of fresh masa (tortilla dough). Depending on what you ordered, they'd lop off a chunk of masa, form it into whatever they needed, and either fry it or grill it on the flat top, then stuff it.
You read that right -- this place makes huaraches, mulitas, sopes and Mexico City-style quezadillas (which may or may not have cheese in them) -- with the bread made A LA MINUTE, to your order.
I ordered a sope de huitlacoche. She winked at streetgourmet and asked him in Spanish if I knew exactly what that was. (I do, and its usual translation, corn smut, is absolutely disgusting. It's basically black mushrooms that grow on certain ears of corn.) The cook grabbed a hunk of masa, formed it by hand into a big sope, fried it and then stuffed it with a HUGE spoonful of huitlacoche and a sprinkling of cheese.
Nina's has a salsa that I've never seen anywhere else called salsa seca, which is a dry, crumbly mix of chile bits, pepitas (pumpkin seeds), peanuts, I think sesame seeds. Given how goopy the sope was, it was a PERFECT match, dark and earthy and not nearly as spicy as I was expecting. I'm going to have to become a regular so I can Delilah the recipe out of them, because it was CRAZY good.
Insane. Palate-changing. Stunning. I'm telling you, that sope was the best food I've put in my mouth in MONTHS. Dressed with a little crema, a little marinated lettuce, a little queso cotija (kind of like a sharper pecorino), I stood there making little gasps of happiness until every speck of food was gone off that plate while streetgourmetla laughed at the foodgasm face I was making. Messy to eat but so, so, SO worth it. And the best part? It was $2.75!
I walked past the other stands -- one was selling cemitas poblanas (big sandwiches), there was a vendor selling red and white posole, there was someone with enchiladas and rolled tacos (we white folks call those taquitos), there was someone frying up some, um, chicken parts. (Let's just leave it at that, shall we?) All around there were amazing smells, tlacoyos and pambazos and all sorts of street food.
I can't wait to go back. There were half a dozen things I desperately wanted to try -- the much-vaunted churros, street crepes, white posole, the amazing-smelling nopales simmering on someone's griddle -- but I had another place to head to.
One of the things that really made this was the happy, open conviviality. Any question elicited responses not only from the vendors but from the patrons. I didn't see a single frown. Disputes were usually about "you go first" "no you go first" rather than the other way round. People brought folding chairs and plunked them right down and ate in the parking lot.
It makes me happy that such places really do exist in LA. I could eat four times at Breed Street for the price of one awful combo-glop plate from an Acapulco or an El Torito or a Don Cuco... and I'd eat a lot better, and a lot healthier.
Breed Street Vendors
Breed Street just north of Cesar E. Chavez Ave.
East Los Angeles
7 PM to 11 PM
There have been reports, incidentally, that this is no longer in operation. Those reports are lies. Occasionally the police come by and everyone scatters, but according to the man at the barbacoa stand, they usually just lie low in the vans until the coast is clear and set up again. If I can be forgiven for editorialising a bit, I'm sure that worse things are happening in East LA at any given moment than a food fair -- it would be nice if the vendors were left alone.
A note about logistics -- at most stands that serve tacos, you order and eat, and if you want more you order more. When you're done you tell them what you had and you pay for it. The honour system, sort of. You can park in the Big Buy grocery store parking lot or drive (CAREFULLY, PLEASE!) through the vendors to the B of A and city parking lots. There are also metered spots (which aren't metered at that hour) out on Cesar Chavez. You don't need to speak Spanish -- SOMEBODY will translate for you if you are having trouble -- but it does help and it helps you in being part of the big party.
A note about street food and sanitation: I have never, incidentally, in all my years of eating street food from Hong Kong to New York, from Tijuana to Russia, ever, EVER gotten sick from street food. Stop and think about it -- it's not some faceless corporation, so if there's an outbreak of foodborne illness, that person's livelihood is gone. It is a POWERFUL incentive for them to be scrupulous about cleanliness. Get over the oh-god-it's-a-scary-neighbourhood, get over the oh-god-there-are-no-fridges and get over there to eat. You won't be sorry.