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[Photo: Julia Reed]

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The History and Politics of Street Food in Los Angeles

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From the gold rush to mile-long Kogi taco lines, how street food came to define a city:
An exclusive excerpt from Eater LA senior editor Farley Elliott's new book
Los Angeles Street Food: A History from Tamaleros to Taco Trucks.

T

he first street food vendors in Los Angeles didn't rise to prominence until the latter half of the nineteenth century, following a rush of outside attention that hit the city in the wake of California's successful bid to become the thirty-first state in the union in September 1850. Until then, California as a whole was stuck in a bit of a legal and social holding pattern, particularly during and immediately following the Mexican-American War, which ran from 1846 to 1848.

When the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended all the fighting in 1848, the Mexican government was forced to hand over full authoritative control for what was at the time known as Alta California, a massive swath of land that hugged the coast from present-day Sonoma on down and ran east into Nevada and beyond. Within two years, California was born.

At the time, however, Los Angeles was not the powerhouse city that it is now. San Francisco was long seen as the coastal jewel of California, having experienced earlier successes with migration westward and all the money that came from the gold rush. Much of Southern California was, instead, a haven for agriculture—particularly citrus, which grew in abundance but was seen as a luxury elsewhere.

For Los Angeles, the cascading arrival of the gold rush, the rise of the transcontinental railroad and the newly achieved statehood couldn't have come at a better time. By the time the Southern Pacific railroad route fully linked Los Angeles to all points east in 1876, the medium-sized agricultural center was beginning to truly come to life. And so, too, were the first signs of street food.

Tamale men from Mexico and Chinese immigrants working pushcarts were the first to arrive in any real meaningful way. As Gustavo Arellano says in his seminal look at the movement of Mexican food into America, Taco USA: "The origins of the city's tamale sellers are murky, although newspaper accounts place them as far back as the 1870s." Within a decade, men selling the handmade masa treats were commonplace around what is now downtown Los Angeles, arriving early to stake out spots or pushing their two-wheeled carts through El Pueblo de Los Angeles.

Early efforts at street food regulation came swiftly. By the 1890s, there were city government-sanctioned attempts to either severely limit or curb these tamaleros altogether, by restricting either their movements or their window for being able to sell. Most efforts to crack down on the street vendors failed miserably because then, as now, Mexican street food simply proved too popular.

Most efforts to crack down on the street vendors failed because then, as now, Mexican street food simply proved too popular.

By the turn of the century, the city had agreed instead to force tamale cart owners to pay for operating licenses as a way to weed them out, but it only helped to de-stigmatize the market for tamales without slowing it down. Arellano points in his book to an Los Angeles Times article from the era, which notes that arriving strangers often "remark[ed] at the presence of so many outdoor restaurants," though nearby brick-and-mortar restaurants remained none too happy.

Much of this early action was clustered in and around downtown, due in large part to the expansive nature of Los Angeles even then. Vendors couldn't simply transport themselves across town to other small neighborhoods, and so the density of vendors in and around El Pueblo started to become a problem. An attempt to outlaw tamale carts altogether in the early 1900s failed, but within several years, the explosive growth of the city and the slow rise of the automobile had chipped away at some of that downtown dominance.

By the mid 1920s, L.A.'s street food landscape had at once exploded (thanks to the influx of Mexican immigrants into the half-century old state) and dissipated, with more vendors finding easier access to customers across a wider swath of the city. These new street food operators brought with them more than just the tamale, and by the 1930s, tacos were all the rage in Los Angeles.

A

t the same time historically, Los Angeles's fluctuating Chinese population was faring much, much worse. In her book Fit To Be Citizens, author Natalia Molina outlines the rough path that L.A.'s Chinese, many brought to America during the railroad boom, faced in becoming an accepted part of city society. Easily marginalized, Chinese immigrants were held to certain slums and ghettoized areas near the busy downtown, unable to move to quieter, more sanitary property. The unhealthy results then further propagated themselves, and by the 1870s, several large-scale attacks on Chinese homes and businesses had dropped the ethnic population to just a few hundred.

The turn of the century didn't help matters much, as a few waves of disease spread throughout Los Angeles, mostly (either correctly, thanks to the squalid conditions they were forced to live in or incorrectly and owing to some overt racism) attributed to the Chinese contingent. Still, throughout it all, enterprising Chinese vendors had begun to make a name for themselves, mostly as pushcart operators selling fresh produce and small snacks.

"There remains little doubt that public health officials considered Chinese street vendors unsanitary and unscrupulous."

By 1910, in concurrence with the ongoing attempts to regular tamale carts and other Mexican street foods, the city of Los Angeles enacted strict regulations on outdoor vending. One of the unofficial stipulations of the new efforts was segregation between white and non-white vendors, wherein whites were given access to downtown's newer, city-subsidized marketplaces. (The Grand Central Market, which was founded in 1917 and still stands today, was not far off.)

Chinese, on the other hand, were forced to vend on the move, selling in the streets and by knocking on doors, with the city undermining their efforts at every turn. "There remains little doubt," says Molina in her book, "that public health officials considered Chinese street vendors unsanitary and unscrupulous. They warned the public not to purchase any goods from them."

Despite facing government-sanctioned monopolizing by white vendors in order to undercut prices by sometimes as much as 50 percent, as well as near-constant harassment by regulators and police, Chinese street vendors continued to serve the neighborhoods that relied on them. It wasn't really until the middle of the 1920s, when the political decision to revitalize the historic Pueblo downtown by creating what is today Olvera Street came to pass, that much of the Chinese street vending culture disappeared.

The nearby Chinatown was forced to move and consolidate farther away from the designed historical site, and many of the carts faded away. By the time Olvera Street opened in 1930, just two years before the 1932 Olympics held in Los Angeles, much of the street vending in the area had been run off completely so as not to compete with the Americanized sit-down Mexican restaurants in the area. Similar stories befell Japanese immigrant farmers and vendors at the time, until eventually the only group that held on to its love of street food was Latin Americans.

Vendors at Grand Central Market, circa 1940. [Photo: Grand Central Market]


B

y 1917, downtown's Grand Central Market had arrived, giving the booming L.A. population a consolidated place to shop and eat (though at the expense of ethnic minority vendors elsewhere in the city). Seventeen years later, the Original Farmers Market opened far across the city at the intersection of what is today Third and Fairfax. In both cases, stalls were erected to house individual vendors, completely forgoing the need for mobilization. Very quickly, the dynamics of street food shifted, as customers began to cluster at markets and certain vendor points to seek out the best food, rather than waiting for someone to roll past their front door with a meal on a cart.

The skyrocketing expansion of urban manufacturing in and around Los Angeles, brought on by easy access to the ports in the South Bay and rail lines connecting downtown, led to another small wave of street food vending in the early 1940s. Sandwich makers and hot dog salesmen began to buy up fully mobile trailers, attaching them to cars and parking them near aerospace companies and automotive manufacturers. The idea of sneaking out of the plant in time to grab a quick bite to eat under the open sky was appealing and became commonplace by the 1940s.

Less than ten years later, Southern California would be rocked by the widespread advent of fast food, with its speedy service and drive-through windows. Given the appealing option to enjoy reasonable quality food at an affordable price point while not even getting out of the car, many Southern California residents chose to spend their money on burgeoning chains like McDonald's and Glen Bell's Taco-Tia, which became today's Taco Bell. What's worse: these fast food chains often co-opted the same meals that had previously been considered a street food staple, homogenizing and commodifying them until they looked a far sight from the original product. Hot dogs and tacos, long street food staples, were particularly hard hit.

The silver lining to all of this, surprisingly, comes from Taco Bell itself, which Arellano argues in his book used co-opted recipes from a San Bernardino Mexican restaurant to form the hard-shelled foundation of its growing taco empire. Though the growth of the fast food industry came in many ways at the expense of (particularly Mexican) street food, Taco Bell's nationwide roll out did help to promote at least a version of Mexican food. It introduced small-town America to the taco, the burrito or simple rice and beans, albeit in a very bastardized form.

Fifty years later, chefs like Roy Choi would use that familiarity to draw people in before playing on a much bigger concept: that street tacos can be as engaging and as important as anything served up inside of a high-end restaurant.

During the fast food boom and through the 1960s and '70s, street food certainly didn't disappear in Los Angeles, but it did largely move back to its cultural center. By letting Americans appropriate their cuisine into something altogether unfamiliar, Mexican and Central American vendors in particular were able to hold onto the recipes that had earned them recognition in the first place and keep those customers who could tell the difference in the process.


Excerpted from Los Angeles Street Food: A History from Tamaleros to Taco Trucks by Farley Elliott, published on July 20, 2015 by Arcadia Publishing as part of the American Palate series.
Farley Elliott is a senior editor at Eater LA.
Header photo: Julia Reed

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