The Bacon-Wrapped Hot Dog: So Good It's Illegal 

Jailed for selling L.A.'s famed "heart attack" dogs, licensed street vendors are fighting back

Wednesday, Feb 6 2008

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But even the authorities understand the appeal of the bacon-wrapped hot dog. "They're tasty," says Andy Smith of the LAPD's downtown Central Division. Smith made a name for himself in the Fashion District for leading enforcement raids against illegal vendors, sometimes inviting along members of the news media. Merchants in the Fashion District sometimes ask for enforcement against illegal hot-dog vendors, Smith says, because the burning grease from their makeshift grills soils fabrics in storefronts.

"If somebody comes in with no overhead and no bills and no sanitary counters and starts selling hot dogs," Smith says, "you certainly can't complete with any of that."

Now a commander, he remains adamant in urging eaters to understand that when prepared on the street, bacon-wrapped hot dogs are illegal on several levels, and potentially hazardous to your health.

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"I've seen cockroaches just pour out of the bottom," he says. "I've seen meat sitting out in the sun for hours. We've seen hot-dog carts where the owner has a little bottle where he urinates, because he doesn't want to leave his cart. And he stores the bottle alongside his food."

Plus, unlicensed vendors are not above getting abusive with police and inspectors.

"Walking away, some of them get a little verbally aggressive," says Tampa. "My guys have had these things thrown at them."

Authorities also say that in some areas of the city, unlicensed vendors pay "taxes" to local gangs. In the Fashion District, the presence of a senior lead officer assigned specifically to tackle illegal street vending has prevented the encroachment of gang extortion among hot-dog vendors. That officer, Randall McCain, has been patrolling the downtown streets for more than 13 years, stopping regularly to chat and catch up with the hot-dog vendors, many of whom are on a first-name basis with him.

The irony of the situation is that because licensed vendors like Palacios are technically "on the books," they are easier to inspect and cite. Palacios says she pays daily parking tickets for placing her cart on her piece of Los Angeles Street for more than an hour, which is the allowed idling-time limit for a mobile vending cart. Permit fees have gone up. And a new, more expensive cart model has been approved by the health department for licensed use on L.A. streets, meaning any new vendors must pay higher fees and upkeep charges to start a business.

In addition, inspectors have been coming around more often. So have police. The LAPD recently said that it would step up enforcement of a junk-car law that will now apply to street vendors' carts. Fliers were distributed to vendors in the Fashion District announcing the change in English and Spanish.

The new atmosphere has led to more confrontations between vendors and authorities, and between vendors and each other.

One illegal hot-dog vendor in the Fashion District, who identifies himself as Manuel, says that sidewalk territories are fiercely contested among the unlicensed vendors who still defiantly hawk bacon-wrapped hot dogs. He tells stories of tire slashings and catfights in the competition for real estate and customers.

"Before, everyone used to get along, everyone had each other's back," Manuel says. "Now no one trusts each other."

Palacios says she sees a double standard.

"[An inspector] came to check me, and the piratas were there, in front of us, and I said, 'Hey, why don't they move them? What happened?'" Palacios recalls. "She said, 'Oh, they get aggressive,' and I said, 'Oh, you want me to get aggressive?' [The inspector] says, 'You know what? I have your ID. If you get aggressive, I put you in jail, and I can't do that to them, because I don't know who they are.'"

Neither do reporters. Unlicensed hot-dog vendors are notoriously resistant to speaking to the press or having their picture taken. L.A. Weekly photographer Greg Bojorquez tried doing so in MacArthur Park for this story and was accosted and threatened by a man who claimed the carts were "his."

Elizabeth Palacios had a blunt defense against gang members seeking to tax her.

"The cholos were coming here to charge us, the Fifth and Hill gang, but they've never come near me," she says. "Well, once, a cholo came and said to me, 'What if maybe I come and tax you?' And I said without thinking, 'What if maybe you go fuck yourself?' He started at me, then never came back."

"Plus," she adds, "I know them since they were little. Some of them are the children of the same ambulantes."

Becoming a street vendor here seemed like a natural decision for Palacios. A sidewalk merchant practically since birth, she sees her work as her trade, as honorable as the next person's. "This is my profession. This is what I like. I work. I pay taxes. I'm like anybody else."

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