Farley Elliott has been writing about the food of L.A. for years, appearing in the pages of L.A. Weekly and many other publications. Now a senior editor at Eater L.A., Elliott has just released a guidebook to street food in our city, called Los Angeles Street Food: A History From Tamaleros to Taco Trucks. The book, part of Arcadia Publishing's American Palate series, covers the history of L.A. street food as well as a guide to the food and culture you can find on L.A. street corners and parking lots. We sat down with Elliott to talk about the book, the ethics of writing about street food and what a fair regulation system would look like.
Besha Rodell: When you set out to write the book, what did you think it would be? Did it turn out to be that?
Farley Elliott: My original idea was more of a straightforward guide book. Ultimately my publisher, they tend to work in more of a historical space, something that has a little bit more of a deeper focus on background — that’s where they come from. So it was going to be a few pages on history and then a pretty big guide book, but it just started to blossom from there. With the focus they wanted and the kind of detail I wanted to give, ultimately, it did become this kind of 50/50 of history and places to go.
Most interestingly I think, it’s not a guide book in the sense that it’s got an index that tells you which neighborhood and what’s there. It maybe leans a little bit more toward the history, and I’m pretty happy with how the balance worked out. I learned a lot on the historical side.
Yeah, I was going to ask you what you learned in the process of writing the book.
The biggest thing for me is how so much of the way that people who are unfamiliar with street food talk about street food is preordained. It’s 150 years old. When people say “roach coaches” or they talk about getting sick, that’s a specific campaign by the city of Los Angeles, pretty overtly and sometimes behind the scenes, for more than 150 years: There were attempts to portray Chinese street vendors as dirty since the 1900s. And especially now, it’s so interesting to me to see something like Grand Central Market, which came together almost 100 years ago as a way for the city to collectively organize every white vendor to the exclusion of vendors of different races. You look at it now as such an inclusionary place, but it has this crazy history.
You talk a lot about regulations in the book. How do you think L.A.’s street food scene would change if we got more permissive regulations?
I think the best-case scenario for everybody involved is to create a relatively low but satisfactory barrier of entry — so that vendors who don’t have a ton of money can still pay for a permit, check in with somebody, allow themselves to be subjected to random inspections and all that. Putting too high a barrier, making it cost-prohibitive, is not going to help anybody. I think everybody wants to see a system that brings more money in by taxation and also keeps everybody healthy. Without being inclusive of the small-time vendors, that’s never going to happen.
So how do you think that would change the landscape of street food in L.A.?
I think it would look pretty similar to what we have today. There might be a small reduction. But there’s not many people in this game who don’t want to deal with any regulations whatsoever. Of course there are immigration fears, or money fears, so any barrier to entry whatsoever is going to weed some people out. The people who are doing good work and want to continue to do good work are going to step up to the plate. So instead of five bacon-wrapped hot dog carts at the front of your local club, you’ll have three. But you’ll know that all three of those are safe and regulated.
I think it’s an interesting tack you took, of really trying to give people a cultural entry point. I was just in Paris and I went to that famous falafel place in the Marais. And all the guide books were like, “This is good falafel, you’ve gotta get this falafel.” But none of them were like “This is the culture of this place: You’ve got to stand in line, unless you only want a falafel, and then you can go to the window instead. These are the toppings that automatically come on it, this is what you need to navigate.” I think a lot of what people find intimidating is that they don’t know the culture, don’t know what they’re supposed to ask for. And I do feel like that’s the barrier for a lot of people with street food — they don’t know what they’re supposed to expect, and it makes them uneasy. Was that your goal, to give people a cultural entry rather than talking about the when and where and what of the food?
Absolutely. Yeah, if you look at the different places I’m talking about, there’s a day and time and location, or whatever, but most of the heavier parts of what I’m getting into is exactly what you’re talking about, because that’s how I came to street food. I came from a small town, I didn’t speak Spanish, I didn’t know what to expect. And I decided I’d just bang my head against the wall until I figured it out. But the best way to get people into street food is not to tell them it’s delicious. They already know it’s delicious — every Anthony Bourdain show tells them that. It’s to demystify, let them have the experience so they feel confident when they walk up to that stand.
There’s been a big debate recently about writing about street food, the legal and moral issues with exposing people in print who are operating illegally. How did you navigate that? Do you think as a writer you have a responsibility to the vendors, or is your only responsibility to the reader?
A lot of the stuff that’s in the book is stuff that I’ve already covered elsewhere in various publications. In those instances, somewhere along the process when I was there, I would be sure to say, “This is who I am, this is where this story is going to go up and live.” If there was ever a scenario where people weren’t comfortable, I either wouldn’t do it or you’d see it bundled in kind of vague terms. For instance, I’ve written about the taco trailers and tables that exist along Pico Boulevard. A lot those folks are small unlicensed vendors who don’t want to be individually pointed to but are happy to be talked about in the collective.
So when it came to the book, yes, there’s this ongoing debate about what it means for people who are existing in that world and what it means for people who write about them. I fall on the side of: It would be a disservice to not talk about street food in Los Angeles. If I’m going to go out and say, “These are family-run opportunities by people who want to serve the best thing possible,” to not highlight them as culinary masterpieces … I wouldn’t be doing my job well. So it goes back a little bit to the culture. If I can teach people to approach these things with respect, I’m doing a better job.
Do you have some kind of nightmare scenario where the health department takes your book and uses it as a guide to find people and shut them down?
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I mean, I suppose it’s possible. What I’ve been saying is: Anyone who’s deeply embedded in the street food scene already, this book isn’t teaching them anything new. Maybe there’s a couple of places they haven’t been to just because of the volume the book presents, but for the most part these are well-known places. The closest might be Mercado Olympic, which I cover pretty extensively, but that’s already getting busted by the cops and it has been for years. People already know about it.
I would absolutely hate and be forlorn to see a cop holding my guidebook in one hand and throwing a cart into the trash with another. But overall it’s the cost of doing business, and I’m not teaching anybody anything that doesn’t already exist out there. And by not talking about it, we’re never going to push regulations forward.
On a purely service journalism front, were there any great discoveries made during the writing of the book, things that you were just so excited to have found?
There’s a couple of photos in the book of a place that didn’t make it into the writing of the book because it’s a backyard Burmese restaurant in Monterey Park. And that’s something where I kind of drew the line. This isn’t a street-food thing on the corner, you’re invited into these people’s homes. And if they’re not comfortable with it, then I’m not going to write about it, but I can at least show you some photos and get you excited about what street food is. Otherwise I think it’s just a lot of classic favorites that I just hadn’t experienced before. I was really happy to get the word out about Tire Shop Taqueria, places that get a lot of love in the small community but deserve a wider audience. Talking about places in South L.A. to help people understand that there’s a vibrant community down there. It’s not all gangs and strip malls, it’s people who are making really high-quality food.