The worst thing about the L.A. Street Food Fest was something neither the young organizers or vendors could do much about. The heat. We can deal with the combination of steady blazing rays and no breeze that renders any attire save basketball shorts and a tank top uncomfortable at the height of the afternoon.
On such days we prefer to stay in the air-conditioning and drink gin-and-tonics. We don't feel like eating warm Kobe sliders and cheese-covered waffle fries while marinating in our own sweat. The fact that we stopped thinking about the heat a few minutes into the event was testament to the quality and consistency of the food served at the fourth annual L.A. Street Food Fest, held at the Rose Bowl this past Saturday.
We started with the Taste of Mexico detour, a sharp left past the Starry Kitchen stand (chili-crab gumbo, puffy beignet balls, bad "balls in your mouth" jokes) and Short Order's set-up (pickles, pork belly BLT sandwiches, a high Pabst can-to-cook ratio). This detour turned out to be the highlight: in between the mariachi band saying "hello" to "Miami" and thanking the crowd for clapping well before the crowd clapped and a woman spilling an tall stack of loaded plates and splatter-painting my shoes with yellow-green avocado salsa, we ate the best bites of the event.
Tijuana's Sinaloan-style Mariscos el Mazateno had great shrimp tacos enchilada -- spirals of seared marinated shrimp to fold into fresh corn tortillas oozing cheese -- but the pulpo was spectacular: hunks of octopus a quarter in diameter, charred, spicy, salty, sweet and just soft enough, a slice of avocado, and the same slightly crisp cheese-filled tortillas.
Pablo Salas of Amaranta in Toluca served up downy heaps of shredded oxtail on tortillas that required only a splash of lime, some cilantro, and a sprinkling of raw onion. John Sedlar of Rivera was offering toasty, thoroughly blistered corn tortillas with pepper jelly and edible flowers.
Eventually, taco-logged, we made it to the rest, picking wisely as we progressed: to name a few, a fine fried pig's ear and rice pudding pairing courtesy of Lazy Ox, La Flor de Yucatan's relleno negro with pickled red onions, and Currywurst's little cups of sausage, 'kraut, and mustard.
At the end of the path lined with trucks and carts and populated by enthusiastic gluttons (we saw more than a few attendees piling sample plates into large plastic tupperwares), we encountered the ice cream social, a welcome finale. There, we enjoyed a "red cow," Float's strawberry-birch soda float, and a scoop of dark chocolate ice cream from Peddler's Creamery.
Then, as the sun started to ease up and the next wave of attendees milled outside the gates, and sensing an impending flood, we made our exit.
In all, the festival experience was pleasant and well-orchestrated. Getting a drinking wristband required waiting in a long line, so we didn't bother -- which probably helped us avoid the glassy-eyed semi-heatstroke that seemed to affect half the people we saw by 5 p.m. Furthermore, water was readily accessible at numerous points, as were bathrooms. The festival could easily have allowed hundreds of more people to buy tickets, but having been to a few of these factory-farm-style, elbow-to-elbow-while-balancing-dishes-and-drinks-and-dodging-chefs-bearing-hot-things affairs, we know how much of a difference a relatively mellow atmosphere makes. Plus, if people had been forced to stand any closer together, we'd all have been cooked like carnitas.