View more photos in Anne Fishbein's “Fried in East L.A.” photo gallery.
It is late, and my family is asleep in the car, and I am leaning against a chain-link fence on a sleepy Eastside street. At the shuttered bakery on the corner, some of the night crew has just shuffled into work, but I am here for the makeshift line of folding tables along the sidewalk, the line of folding chairs, the bowls of salsa teetering on the oilcloth. A woman bent over blue flames prepares to make my dinner.
She fries tortillas in hot oil for a second or two, just long enough to soften them, dips them in a dish of ruddy sauce, and splashes a few drops of oil onto a second griddle. Tortillas fly onto the hot metal. A moment later, the air is thick with the dark, musky scent of toasting chiles. She inverts the tortillas, flips them around a bit of cheese, and maneuvers them onto a plate in what seems like a single motion. They are the best enchiladas I have ever tasted.
Until recently, the center of the Eastside street-food universe was located in a small parking lot on Breed Street in Boyle Heights, a nocturnal band of vendors drawing customers from as far away as Riverside and San Diego, serving sticky, sizzling, crunchy, meaty snacks from all over Mexico; salsas hot enough to burn small, butterfly-shaped patches into the leather of your shoes; and quart-size foam cups of homemade orange drink. Over here were huaraches; over there Mexico City–style quesadillas; crunchy flautas; sugary churros; gooey tacos al vapor. The vendors never stayed open quite late enough, but Breed Street had become something of an institution, a place to take out of town visitors, a great quick dinner before a show. Sometimes there were even clowns.
The Breed Street experience was not exactly dependable — you never knew if a visit was going to result in a delicious bowl of barbacoa or a desolate patch of asphalt — and after local officials rousted the gathering for good a couple of months ago, it looked as if the party was over. To some of us, luxury dining means being able to find your favorite tamale vendor two nights in a row. But this is 2009 — the tools of social networking are no farther away than the cell phone in your back pocket. A few weeks ago, some of the scattered vendors from the old parking lot began broadcasting their locations on Twitter, one of them as @antojitoscarmen, another group of them as @BreedStScene, and as with the introduction of Kogi merely one year ago, the intersection of technology and street food enabled something new. With Twitter, it doesn’t matter if that tamale vendor has set up at the corner of Olympic and Soto, at a Maravilla service station or in front of a nightclub down on Whittier.
So a weekend taco crawl might begin with a visit to the @BreedStScene guys, chiefly Nina’s, whose gorditas and huaraches were the stars of the Breed Street gatherings, and whose scarlet pambazos, chorizo-and-potato sandwiches dunked in chile and fried until the sauce hardens into a crackly gloss, are among the best in town. (Nina’s dry salsa of toasted seeds and chile is the perfect condiment.) Somebody will slip you a tiny pill cup filled with the hominy stew pozole, and you’ll probably have a bowl of that too, as well as one of the Mexico City–style quesadillas, which are like demonically good Hostess Fruit Pies filled with squash blossoms and melted cheese. Kids run around glugging orange soda, teasing their little sisters with Mickey Mouse dolls.
Lupe’s Crepes, the next stand over, specializes in sweets: bubbly pancakes or fried bananas dressed with caramel sauce and condensed milk. Rodolfo’s Barbacoa sells soupy lamb stew. The rogue cart around the corner does street dogs and tacos al vapor, scooping soft, unctuous masses of cow’s head from steam-table bins hidden under a clean, white towel. A block away are those enchiladas, part of a smaller, quieter scene, another entrepôt of huaraches and quesadillas. If you ask for tamales, somebody fetches them from a silent man in a car.
When you approach Antojitos Carmen, several blocks north and east, the first thing you may notice, once you get past the woman selling purses, are the big griddles dotted with chalupas, tiny tortillas smeared with puréed beans, drizzled with cream, and moistened with red or green salsa — the green chile is the spiciest thing you will eat tonight, unless you dipped into the sauce labeled “muy picoso” at Nina’s, in which case you’re already back home, recovering. And you can eat a dozen chalupas in a flash. Once you abandon yourself to the magnetic chalupa forces you will be lured across the river again and again — the CIA could learn something about mind control from antojitos masters.
And Antojitos Carmen itself? Homemade walnut atole, fluffy pambazos and the best Mexico City huaraches on the street: crisp-edged surfboards of toasted masa sluiced with an ink-black stew of huitlacoche, painted with red chile, crema and green chile to resemble the Mexican flag. The scion of the family that runs the stand, Abe Ortega, perpetually wearing an outsize Dodgers jacket, hands you a raisin-studded gelatin dessert and grins.