Welcome to Dining on a Dime, a video series focusing on terrifically inexpensive food — and the cultures and stories of the people behind it — in Los Angeles. Beginning with the video above, the season's eight episodes feature places I've covered over the last 15 months of writing a column (the eponymous Dining on a Dime) for editor Matthew Kang and the team at Eater LA.
"Inexpensive" is relative, of course, and despite our national obsession with cheap consumables, there’s no value, per se, in something just because it’s cheap. And as Jonathan Gold, resident Los Angeles food oracle, said recently at the LA Food and Wine Fest, cheap is a state of mind. So, really, the price is beside the point. The food you’ll see on this show will speak for itself: tangy, fall-off-the-bone barbecue; impeccable tacos arabes; crispy fried chicken and fish; the best Taiwanese street food you can get outside of a night market in Taipei itself.
The true delight in writing the column and filming this series came from meeting and getting to know the people who own these businesses. A luxury of dining on the street and at small mom-and-pop establishments is the ability to get to know the people who make your food. On any given night at Tacos Arabes de Puebla, customers can speak to the Villegas family and, to an extent, get to know them and their lives: the parents’ recent trip back to Mexico; what the kids are studying at school; who’s camera shy and who isn’t; which piece of equipment on the truck just failed and needs to be replaced.
The purpose of highlighting these places isn’t for the price, or because street food is "hip," or to go on a cultural holiday. It’s because the food is genuinely excellent, and the people who make it are just as talented and industrious as the chefs behind more famous, expensive brick-and-mortar establishments. Fellow street-food maven Farley Elliott cites the value behind "the ability to showcase hardworking people who don’t have all the money in the world," and he’s correct. Street food and cheap food, no matter how good, rarely get the accolades or respect they deserve. Much of it is prepared by immigrants, minorities, and those unaccustomed to self-promotion or who have been taught to eschew the spotlight. Ideally, this show will give these chefs a sliver of the kudos they richly deserve while showcasing some truly outstanding food.