Photos: LA street vendors

The last couple of years, we’ve all heard a lot (maybe too much) about Los Angeles’ hipster gourmet food trucks and how the trucks have made the city the tastemaker of the American street food scene.

But what’s gotten much less attention is L.A.’s other street food community, the thousands of mostly poor immigrants who sell food from sidewalk pushcarts and small portable kitchens around the city. These are the street vendors you see selling tacos, tamales, fruit cocktails, Salvadoran pupusas and bacon-wrapped hot dogs across town. The vendors are found in particularly high numbers in Los Angeles neighborhoods like Highland Park, South L.A., Koreatown, Boyle Heights and Echo Park, all places where the constitute a shadow culinary scene. Like immigrants of the past, people turn to selling food from pushcarts because the investment in equipment is so much less than opening up a brick and mortar restaurant or buying a food truck.

But unlike selling food from a truck, selling food from pushcarts on the sidewalks of Los Angeles is illegal. In fact, it’s illegal even if you’re a vendor who’s paid for official street vending permits from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and your cart is completely up to snuff when it comes to sanitation.

Because of L.A.’s street vending ban, the city’s population of street vendors plays a constant cat and mouse game, both with the police and inspectors attached to the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services, which is charged with policing the sidewalks. Vendors who are cited can face fines of several hundred dollars, the confiscation of their carts, and even jail time.

That situation has gotten so intolerable for street food vendors that many are organizing themselves with the help of the East Los Angeles Community Corporation, a non-profit community development organization. In a series of evening town halls held across the city, vendors are coming together to voice their complaint and develop a strategy to get City Hall to overturn the city’s street vending ban. As every vendor I met told me, they don’t want to do anything wrong, they’re just trying to survive and their pushcarts are key to that. You can hear my story on vendors below:

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For more information about the Los Angeles street vendor campaign, go here. 

In response to problems with police, L.A. street food vendors are starting to organize by attending a series of town halls. They hope to convince City Hall to legalize food street vending in Los Angeles
Luis sells freshly squeezed orange juice in L.A.’s MacArthur Park neighborhood. He says he’s been fined multiple times for street vending and always keeps an eye peeled for police and city inspectors.

People turn to pushcart cooking and selling because of the relatively low-cost of buying the equipment. A pushcart can be bough from just a few dollars to over $2,000.

There’s lots of different different food sold from pushcarts on the streets of L.A., from tacos and tamales to fruit salads sprinkled with chile and bacon-wrapped hot dogs.
Juan Antonio Hernandez and his wife Sofia own a fruit cart usually parked near USC. They have all their permits from the Department of Public Health and don’t understand why they can’t legally sell their products in the City of L.A.

 

Some sidewalk vending can get very elaborate. This is a man who sets up shot every weekend in L.A.’s Highland Park neighborhood and cooks dozens of roast chickens an hour.
Some streets in L.A. turn into virtual food courts because of the prevalence of sidewalk pushcart vendors. This one is under a bridge of the Santa Monica 10 Freeway. It’s popular with the vendors because customers gather on this block in the predawn hours to catch buses to go to work.