Densely packed buildings, well-weathered and decaying, line the corridors of the southeastern section of downtown L.A.'s commercial district. The streets and sidewalks are choked with traffic and people. Spanish names and phrases dominate the signage and snatches of overheard conversations. This is one of those places in the city where it would be easy to convince an outsider that Los Angeles is not functionally a part of the United States. It feels more like a satellite metropolis of Latin America, magically implanted north of the U.S.-Mexico line.
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Where's Toto? A grown-up Dorothy in the underground land of bacon-wrapped hot dogs
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Burned: Elizabeth Palacios, jailed for grilling, now baconless
Here, in the middle of the pedestrian traffic rushing by in the Fashion District, on the sidewalk along Los Angeles Street, between Fourth and Fifth streets, Elizabeth Palacios has built her business at a blue, beat-up mobile food cart protected from the sun by two bright beach umbrellas. She sells chips, bottled water, canned sodas and, until recently, the beloved but troubled icon of L.A. street food, the bacon-wrapped hot dog.
“I used to clean houses,” Palacios says on a warm afternoon. “Then, a year later, I got the chance to work on a carrito. A month later, I started renting one. Four months of doing that, I had enough saved up. I bought a cart. 'What do I have to do?' 'Go around and around, and where there isn't a cart, put yourself there.'”
She did, 18 years ago.
“Back in those days, you didn't use the bacon,” she says, indicating the hot dogs that lie unattractively in her golf-cart-like Cushman vehicle.
As she speaks, a customer approaches, peering at her meat bin. “No bacon?”
“No bacon,” Palacios sighs apologetically, in accented English. “They don't let me.”
She means police and L.A. health-department inspectors, but the customer doesn't need much explanation: He moves on. She turns and cocks her head, as if to say, See?
Not quite Mexican and not quite American, the bacon-wrapped hot dog, like the city that so fervently embraces it, has a curious romance about it. You can smell one from blocks away. The grilled bacon, twisted around a wiener, is topped with grilled onions and a mountaintop of diced tomatoes, ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise. Then one whole grilled green poblano chile is plopped impossibly on top. You take a bite and think, This is so good, no wonder it's illegal!
Among working-class downtown shoppers, belligerent clubgoers and adventurous foodies, devotion to the famed “heart-attack dogs” is strong and strident, a source of raw L.A. nostalgia.
“I probably saw my first one while I was trying to pick up 18-year-old girls at Florentine Gardens,” says Eddie Lin, a food blogger at deependdining.com, who has rhapsodized about the bacon-wrapped dogs on local public radio.
To get them, “I go to places like the 99 Cents Only store in Reseda or other Hispanic working-class neighborhoods in the Valley. Parks are good too. It's the only street food L.A. can really claim as its own,” Lin adds. “It's illegal and yet it's a ubiquitous part of L.A. culture.”
So you can imagine the frustration of vendors like Palacios, caught between the demands of the market and the demands of the law.
She would love to sell bacon-wrapped hot dogs — trust her — but a trip last year to the women's county jail, a trip she says officials orchestrated to “make an example” of her, finally pushed her to give up the bacon and illegal grilling device she used for so long. Instead, she prepares dogs the only way the county Environmental Health Department currently allows, by boiling or steaming. Not grilling. And grilling is the only way to make a classic L.A. bacon-wrapped hot dog.
“Honestly, I can tell you, I've been a working person all my life, I've worked since I was 9 years old,” Palacios says. “I don't like being bothered, I don't like being arrested. Never in my life had I been to jail, and they threw me in jail for violating the laws of the health department.”
She's not the only one. Ask any Fashion District hot-dog vendor and he or she is sure to have at least one story of being cited, arrested or even jailed for grilling bacon-wrapped hot dogs on the sidewalk.
“It's gotten real bad here,” says Palacios, a stout woman with strong features and a booming tenor of a voice. At 41, her skin is the rich shade of bronze native to the people of Mexico City, where she is from — specifically, from Iztacalco, a congested borough southeast of the city center that can generously be described as “rough.” I say this from personal experience, having once lived there myself.
As an adult, Palacios studied and became a dispatcher for Mexico's federal highway police. The cramped, windowless workspace didn't suit her. She quit and returned to selling goods on the street, in Mexico City's bustling Centro Historico. She moved to Los Angeles about two decades ago, securing a work permit because her husband at the time was escaping the civil war in El Salvador. Now living in El Monte, she is a familiar face to the merchants and shoppers of the Fashion District and the people of nearby Skid Row. The men pass by her cart on Los Angeles Street and wave and call “Hey Sweetie!” and blow kisses.
Last May, she was sentenced to 45 days in county jail for repeatedly violating food codes. Once out, Palacios and her companeros on the streets of the Fashion District formed an advocacy group to protest what they call harassment on the part of police and inspectors, fully aware that they are fighting an uphill battle. As the gentrification of downtown creeps south and east into territory once exclusively working-class, many of the immigrant and gritty, organically evolved elements of the urban landscape — like street vendors and bacon-wrapped hot dogs — are being gradually pushed out.
“They told me, 'The mayor wants to make this area like New York, Times Square,' but I told them, 'Who told him we want that? The people who come here are not like that.' Ninety-nine percent of the people here are mexicanos. Here, you don't really see americanos. One or two,” she says. “Why are they coming now to get us out of here? Why the abuse? Why the abuse?”
Not that Palacios would mind more enforcement against the unlicensed vendors who are her primary competition. You see, the typical bacon-wrapped hot-dog enthusiast, as Palacios points out, isn't likely to notice that there are two tiers in L.A.'s hot-dog-vendor community. On top are licensed vendors who sell dogs and snacks from motorized Cushman carts that are often modified (sometimes outside of code), depending on what the vendor is hawking. Their vehicles are registered, their fees paid. Every day, their carts return to commissaries, where the vehicles must be cleared, scrubbed and stored. A sign of success for a legal hot-dog vendor is the possession of more than one Cushman cart. Palacios, in addition to the cart she operates on Los Angeles Street, owns two others. She farms out their management to relatives.
Below the legal vendors are the more ubiquitous operators of homemade carts, which usually consist of propane tanks strapped to modified baby strollers, Target shopping carts or, in most cases, tool carts. They operate completely outside of codes and regulations, their particular rules and organizational methods a mystery to outsiders.
Licensed vendors like Palacios refer to the makeshift bacon-wrapped-hot-dog vendors as “ambulantes” or “piratas,” colloquial terms for unlicensed street vendors in Mexico. The ambulantes of L.A. present a host of problems not only for licensed vendors, who often get lumped together in the media with the pirate cart owners, but for law-enforcement and health-and-safety officials as well.
For starters, they are almost impossible to track. They usually set up shop on a street for just a short while and then leave. When piratas' shabbily constructed illegal carts are confiscated, vendors rarely show up for hearings or pay impound fees to have their carts returned. That is, if they stick around long enough to be served with a citation. In many instances, illegal hot-dog vendors literally run off at the sight of police or the Fashion District's Business Improvement District (BID) safety-team officers, abandoning their dogs and condiments.
At the Fashion District BID offices on 15th Street, operations manager Randall Tampa says his safety-team officers regularly come across abandoned homemade hot-dog vending carts that must be gathered up and hauled into storage. Some tacked-on grills grow hot to the touch, Tampa says, endangering small children who stand at eye level with the illegal carts' pans.
“There's absolutely no semblance of any health codes being followed in those carts,” Tampa says, while surveying the heaps of makeshift carts collected in a BID work yard.
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.
“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.”
Yet it's felt by downtown's licensed vendors that the city bureaucracy does not see their work as honorable in any way. They've been served with police notifications warning them of pending stepped-up enforcement efforts. Many have written letters to the city in protest, claiming the enforcement has been abusive and borderline racist.
Licensed Cushman cart vendors, for instance, must have a letter from a neighboring business or restaurant stating that the merchant allows the vendor at the cart to use its restroom. The carts, however, must always be within 200 feet of their sponsoring restroom. That 200 feet includes the distance traveled up or down stairs or elevators. Palacios said she's had health-department inspectors tell her they won't deal with her because her English is not good enough. (“And why wouldn't I have an accent? I wasn't born here,” she protested.) Other city workers tell her she should give up her cart and just get a job in local government, because there “you don't do anything.” She said that once a police officer accused her of possessing a fake California ID card, suggesting she was an illegal immigrant.
How are all these rules made up? Codes are formed at the state level, with suggestions and input from local health departments. They are frequently updated. Terrance Powell, acting director of the L.A. County Department of Environmental Health, says he has little room for pity toward vendors who operate outside of code. In fact, rules related to street vending have recently been “liberalized,” he says, in temperature limits, for instance.
“I cannot bargain with safety — will not — that's not my arena,” Powell says. “We are a country of laws, and we are going to abide by them.”
But in a country of laws, does the public retain the right to ignore laws intended to protect them, at their own risk? What harm is there in risking a bit of indigestion in exchange for the mouthwatering greasy glory of a bacon-wrapped hot dog?
Frustrated, angry and desperate, the licensed hot-dog vendors of the Fashion District formed what may be the first professional organization for street vendors in the United States, the Hot Dog Vendors Association. They've had some meetings, stressing that their initial goal is to give their industry a semblance of sophistication and self-respect. And on January 17, in response to the LAPD's junk-car law enforcement, the group staged a protest of nearly 50 vendors in front of City Hall and at the LAPD's Central Division station.
The association leaders have stressed repeatedly that in order to be a member, a vendor must fully abide by current codes and laws, meaning no bacon, no grilling. For now.
But the association is already showing signs of internal stress. The pressure of the market, the demand that exists for bacon-wrapped hot dogs, and the competition from illegal vendors have been too great. Some association members have quietly returned to illegal grilling.
“It's out of desperation,” Palacios says, sighing. “You do feel abandoned.”
Like other vendors, Palacios' business has plummeted since she gave up grilling dogs last year. She tries gussying up her baconless wieners with fresh salsa and avocado, but it's not enough. She's been thinking about giving up the street-hot-dog business — but the health department wouldn't make it easy to sell off her carts. Old-model Cushman carts are being phased out, and reselling them isn't allowed. Even so, Palacios has been thinking she might try starting a catering business.
Not long ago, a woman just up the street from Palacios' usual corner was selling bacon-wrapped hot dogs from a tiny homemade stand on wheels, her cart surrounded by ravenous customers. Palacios watched.
“Let me tell you one thing. You have no idea how good I feel right now. Because although I'm losing money, at least I don't have to be dealing with them,” she said, referring to the police and health inspectors. “This abuse, this injustice. And that's the word — it's an injustice.”