Not long after sunrise on a weekday morning in August, stocky men in baseball caps and paint-spattered jeans gathered in front of food stands lining the entrance to a shopping plaza near Sixth and Union in Westlake. A cumbia played at low volume. Over the din of customers and passing cars, the women vendors intoned the items from the morning's menu: torta de huevo con espinaca, gallina chipotle, caldo de res. The young women who assist the vendors exchanged pleasantries with customers and ladled beans and rice out of steaming Coleman coolers onto Styrofoam plates.
The bustle of foot traffic and the aroma of home-cooked foods transform the dull corner of a parking lot into an open-air market worthy of a visit from Anthony Bourdain. But the modest assemblage of market stalls here — a poor man's Grand Central Market — has for decades been regarded by the city with something like contempt.
While apostles of street food have made hit shows that popularize street food as an uncensored entrée to other cultures and customs, sidewalk vending been an illegal practice in Los Angeles since a citywide ban took effect in 1980. As street food enjoys a renewed appreciation globally, Los Angeles finds itself in the peculiar position of being at once the only major U.S. city that does not permit some form of sidewalk vending and the one with more sidewalk vendors than any other.
“Many cities have permits that allow some vending, whether they set a hard cap like in New York City … or limit the places you can sell or the hours of the day,” says Mark Vallianatos, director of urban policy think tank LAplus, who has published extensively about the informal economy of sidewalk vendors in Los Angeles. “But no other very large city in the country has a strict ban.”
On any given day in L.A., an estimated 10,000 street vendors cater to the city's appetite for no-frills ethnic cuisine from pushcarts or centerfold tables set up on sidewalks or in parking lots. In New York City, by comparison, food carts are legal, and the number of permanent permits is capped at 3,100, with another 1,000 seasonal permits.
Far from eliminating street vending, L.A.'s ban has merely forced the industry underground, where it is unregulated and untaxed — and where vendors operate in fear of raids that strip them not just of their food and supplies but of their livelihoods.
“These hubs already exist where you can get the tastiest food,” says Rudy Espinoza, executive director of the nonprofit Leadership for Urban Renewal Network and spokesman for the L.A. Street Vendor Campaign. “It so happens that some of these vendors are amazing chefs. Imagine if these folks were actually welcome.”
Two City Council members are currently working to lift the ban and regulate L.A.'s street-food vendors. Their plan wouldn't instantaneously put Los Angeles in the same league as global street food capitals like Bangkok or Mexico City, but it would make the best street-food city in America even better — both for eaters and for vendors.
There is perhaps no more accessible way to start a small business in Los Angeles than with a food cart. Street food is the entry level below the entry level. As Mayor Tom Bradley said when vetoing a City Council attempt to ban street vendors in 1974, “Many people whom we now consider big-time businessmen had their start as street hawkers.”
Bradley added, “I believe we need to encourage, not discourage, the creation of new small-business enterprises, without which upward mobility on the socioeconomic ladder would become that much more difficult.”
To explore this entry-level point of L.A.'s food scene, I enlisted the help of chef Louis Tikaram, who trained in Sydney and runs E.P. & L.P. Asian Eating House in West Hollywood. Tikaram, 31, credits the street food he consumed during his travels to Thailand and Fiji as his reason for becoming a chef. “I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for people like this, cultures like this,” he says of the vendors. “I'm a chef because of my travels.”
Tikaram and I met on the sidewalk near the food stand of Sandra Galdamez, a jovial, fast-talking immigrant from El Salvador who on that morning ran the most popular table on the corner of Sixth of Union. Galdamez, a dark-haired woman in her early 40s, sets up shop before daybreak Monday to Saturday and serves hot plates of breakfast and lunch to the morning's steady procession of day laborers, construction workers, gardeners, garment workers and domestic workers. She smiles, she laughs, she coaxes, she calls everyone — including Tikaram — mi amor.
Galdamez says she has sold her food in the same spot for a decade. Her tagline: Barata la comida, casi regalada (“Food so cheap it's practically free”).
“This is why I gravitated to Los Angeles,” Tikaram explains. “I'm used to having to travel overseas for this, and here you have it on your doorstep: street food, chatting with the locals, learning to understand other cultures through cuisine.”
Galdamez served Tikaram his first pacaya, the slightly astringent flower of a species of palm tree. She prepares it in the typical Salvadoran fashion, boiling the plume of fronds and then golden frying them in an egg-white batter. Tikaram savored it as part of a plate of stewed beef shin in a tomato base with red salsa, black bean puree and rice; the price is $5. “Best thing I've eaten in a while,” he says, “and it's off the street — at 7 a.m.”Galdamez says she gets up at 1 a.m. to begin preparing the day's guisados, encebollados and tacos dorados. (“Good for the Saturday hangover,” she playfully advises a construction worker buying lunch.) Everything must be prepared for a two-hour window from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m. Many of the men and women who buy meals there take them to go, neatly wrapped and ready to eat at lunchtime.
“These people are the backbone of the city,” Tikaram says. “Everything about the food is geared toward wanting to work all day. These guys aren't going to stop for a meal.”
There was a grim undercurrent of chatter at the outdoor market. Suspicious looks and long faces. Fear of immigration arrests is widespread with Trump in the White House. But the vendors say the bigger problem lately has been crackdowns from the city, which they say have grown more frequent. They say men riding in pickup trucks with L.A.'s insignia have raided this corner twice in the past week. They arrived with a police escort and hauled away the food and supplies. “They come more often all the time,” Galdamez says.
“The way we treat street vendors has really become a race and class issue. That’s why this issue is not a priority to policymakers. It impacts people … who are not seen as important.” —Rudy Espinoza
When the city enforcement team arrives, the vendors flee the area, abandoning their belongings. They also activate what they call el pitazo, a phone chain of calls to vendors at other corners in the area, warning them the city is out on patrol. The unlucky ones who don't run away in time can wind up with several hundred dollars in fines.
Juana Son was one of the unlucky ones. Son, an indigenous K'iche' from Guatemala, is a small, soft-spoken woman in a colorful handwoven blouse and skirt and a violet cardigan. She runs a food stand at the same corner as Galdamez, and the city has written her two citations in the past week, she says. “They took away the coolers and food and left me with nothing.” She estimates she lost $400 worth of merchandise and supplies.
The vendors returned the next day. Some of them say that after so many raids they have learned to keep supplies in reserve. “We come back,” Son says, “because we need to make a living.”
Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino became well acquainted with the city's ban on street vendors in the years when he was a police officer in the Harbor Division, tasked with enforcing it. Buscaino says he answered many complaints from neighbors or business owners, wrote many citations and even made a few arrests. It came to nothing. “I was frustrated with the enforcement because it didn't work,” Buscaino says. “Clearly it seemed like a waste of time. They were back out there the next day.”
Political support to legalize street vendors in Los Angeles has bogged down for decades. Time and again the pushback tends to come from councilmembers who want the power to exempt areas of their district from the plan and from brick-and-mortar business owners who view the vendors as competition.
Then Donald Trump was elected president. Spurred by fears of a pending immigration crackdown, the City Council in February downgraded street vending from a misdemeanor to an administrative infraction similar to a parking ticket. (It remains a misdemeanor to sell in city parks.) As the L.A. Times wrote in an editorial, “The decision means city inspectors or police can issue citations and levy fines for peddling goods on the sidewalk, but sellers won't face criminal charges that could lead to deportation for vendors in the country illegally — a long-standing concern that became urgent with the election of President Trump.”
The decriminalization was part of a proposal outlined by councilmembers Buscaino and Curren Price last year to legalize and regulate street vending citywide. The proposal would allow up to four stationary vendors per block in commercial and industrial zones and allow mobile vending from ice cream and food carts in residential areas, provided they stay moving. It also would allow each council district to determine hours of operation and types of items that could be sold — or to prohibit vending in that district altogether.
Six months have passed since the council's last meaningful action on street vending.
“The reason why it's taken quite a bit of time is because the city has not tackled such an issue that involves a comprehensive street-vending policy,” Buscaino tells the Weekly. He says the council will reopen discussion on the proposal later this month.
Then, in late July, came the viral video of the attack on an elote vendor. A man who was out walking his dog in Hollywood was angry that the vendor, Benjamín Ramírez, was blocking part of the sidewalk. When Ramírez stood his ground, the man advanced toward the elote vendor brandishing what Ramírez later said he believed was a stun gun. Ramírez then tossed chili powder at the man, who seized hold of the cart and overturned it, spilling ears of fresh corn onto the sidewalk and into Romaine Street.
Ramírez filmed the attack on his cellphone, and 8.9 million people have watched the video since his mother uploaded it to Facebook. Ramírez has appeared at two rallies and received a groundswell of support that brought pressure on the City Council to set practical, enforceable rules to regulate street vending. “A group of women who are street vendors came up and told me, 'You're a hero to us,'” Ramírez says. “It was a lot for me to handle.”
On Aug. 15, Councilman Buscaino posted a video on Facebook of a meeting he had with Ramírez in which they discuss the effort to legalize street vending. In the video, the councilman gives Ramírez a rosary that belonged to his Italian grandmother; Ramírez's father, Alex, serves the councilman an esquite from his food cart. (“Easy on the mayonnaise,” the councilman says. “I've got a panzón here, I've got to be careful.”)
Under Buscaino's plan, street vendors in the city would be licensed, taxed and subject to health inspections. “I want to give you the first permit in the city of Los Angeles for legalized street vending,” he tells Ramírez in the video. “And you're going to be joined by thousands of others that day when we issue our first permit.”
Buscaino goes on to say in the video: “I think of chef Roy Choi when I see Benjamín,” comparing the elote vendor to the chef whose runaway success with his Kogi BBQ food truck helped him launch a restaurant empire and nab a Best New Chef award from Food & Wine and spots on The New York Times best-seller and Time's 100 Most Influential People in the World lists.
“Benjamín can be that same success story as chef Roy Choi,” Buscaino says. “We can start here in the street, provide access for him, regulate his business, with hopes and dreams that one day he can own his own restaurant.”
The morning that the city and police raided the corner of Sixth and Bonnie Brae, Euralia Chávez fled on foot to avoid a citation.
As we spoke, Chávez served $2 chuchitos. In the mornings her stand is constantly busy. Tikaram and I stood among a group of regular customers waiting for one of the special tamales made from rice, potato or masa. She adds olives and raisins and steams them in a banana leaf with a piece of chicken in the middle. Tikaram heartily approved.
A few days prior, the men in city trucks arrived and Chávez and the others ran down Sixth Street to avoid a citation. Chávez recounte the thousands of dollars she has paid in past fines, her days of court-mandated community service picking up litter on the Hollywood Freeway and the hours she has spent in jail — all for selling food on the street. “It is a constant game of cat-and-mouse with the police,” she says.
She doesn't sound optimistic about the proposal to lift the street-vending ban. “We'll see,” she says.
“Over time, the way we treat street vendors has really become a race and class issue,” says Espinoza, with the Leadership for Urban Renewal Network and the L.A. Street Vendor Campaign. “That's why this issue is not a priority to policymakers. It impacts people of very low income, people of color, people who are not seen as important as the more privileged businesses.”
Espinoza recently took a trip to Mexico City and snapped a photo of one street vendor he met, who carries a permit that certifies he's an “approved” artisan allowed to sell on the sidewalk. Espinoza says hubs of world-class street food already exist in L.A. — albeit under the radar — but that the city has a long way to go before it catches up to a street-food capital like Mexico City.
“I do think that creating a pathway for legalizing street vending,” Espinoza says, “will shine a light on the amazingly talented chefs, artisans and other entrepreneurs that already exist in our great city.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the first name of Rudy Espinoza, executive director of the nonprofit Leadership for Urban Renewal Network. We regret the error.