What actually is “LA Street Food?” I spent hours debating that concept in my head. Well, LA “street food” is more than just hot dogs and shwarma. That much is certain. Maybe it is chicharrons, asada tacos, danger dogs, the rare stumbling to Canters, waiting endlessly for a Pinks hot dog or, my favorite, the late night Tommys run. But that still doesn’t nail it. This is the one city on the planet where the best meal you can wear your working clothes to the table. If there is one. So it has come to this. The most overwhelming food festival since Louis XVI lost his head. In the cradle of the Arroyo Seco (a 24 mile sword gash between hilltops) and under the watchful gaze of America’s greatest stadium, a glorious smattering of delightful delectables. Over a hundred different foods to try, styles reaching from Baja to Bahia to Barcelona to Busan to Burbank.
My preparation was thorough. I ate a small dinner the night before. I ran a 5k in the morning, took a few shots of acai, and followed it by boosting my serotonin levels with some punishment at the gym. I was ready to eat. I was ready to conquer. I have put on eating displays before. Two cemitas and 120+ oz’s of Jamaica in Chicago. Three Tommys cheeseburgers and two fries in this city. This was more than a food festival: this was an endurance race. How can I try it all? What if I miss the best thing in the whole festival? Can I afford to miss it? My au pair/photographer/dining partner followed a similar regime and when we got to the event at exactly three o’clock… we were food gladiators. Our cholesterol levels were low, our caloric needs high, and our ambition was clear: we will take this whole festival by storm.
So we got there early. My au pair made a great point early on, commenting that, “Nobody will run out of food if we get there when it starts. It won’t be crowded.” And he was right, the only time. However, that meant handling the heat. It’s generally ten degrees warmer in Pasadena than it is in Downtown, which is generally ten degrees warmer than the beaches. Translation: ninety degrees in the sun was a conservative estimate and a tough condition to eat in. Heavy or copious amounts of food were the enemy. That meant one thing to me: start with the Ice Cream Social and go big.
Of course you had to get to the Ice Cream Social. The event was neatly divided into certain sections. Entering the front gates gave you five or six great immediate food options alongside Los Angeles’ first Distillery, Greenbar Collective, serving a wide variety of cocktails. Hibiscus liquor anyone? In the Northwest section of the parking lot the Ice Cream Social sat in the sun. If you turned right, local restaurants and taqueros held it down. Proceeding through that overwhelming experience brought you to more food trucks. Pressing past that initial onslaught of 40+ food bombs brought you to the imports: The Baja California contingent, so skilled with seafood that I will never attempt making ceviche in my life unless I get lessons from the abuelitas. And past them another death trap: Picca, Spice Table, Sotto, and Test Kitchen, all with some sure to be riveting offers. And along the way it was worth grabbing some unexpected Hendricks Gin cocktails and some Singha.
We didn’t find out until later that there was more activity inside the Rose Bowl itself. This was a massive feast. Sadly, it got tough to find booze. Or beer. Or even water at times. And maybe it’s my masochism but I will never shy from spice. Many a minute was spent running in circles pretending the air was water as my mouth was engulfed in some habanero. Also, some food was heavy and in such extreme heat, a heavy dose of Paella or pork belly could be the straw that broke this piggies back.
• The Baja section. Maybe it was the heat or my intense love of sea food but nothing went wrong here. La Guerrenese has built a following for a reason – the variety of seafood and salsa was astonishing. I spoke Spanish but it didn’t make a difference – Sabina Bandera put like five salsas on the tostada and dictated my journey. So I bit into the sea snail tostada. I should never have this dish again because I might accidentally carve out important things from my life, like my name and where I live, to preserve the greatness of the memory. The au pair thought that Kokopelli was great and I have to agree. We lost a friend there and he was called modesty. Gluttony joined the party and pointed to the halibut in black squid ink. I could have walked between the two of them all day. But for real, we did lose someone there. My friend Sam. His girlfriend sent out the search parties and he was found double-fisting halibut and sea snails. Glory days.
• Meeting Roy Choi, if only for a few moments, and chomping his beef short rib taco in one bite and maybe another later when I was already full.
• Chicken and Waffles Ice-Cream. The much lauded Coolhaus flavor is the real deal. Make sure you get it with the maple cookie for the closest thing to some Roscoe’s goodness. You know, when you put the syrup on the chicken… or maybe that is just me.
• As my dining party expanded with some friends, we all agreed on one thing: the Grilled Octopus with Spicy Calabrian Sausage over Cannellini beans was an excellent dish by Bestia chef Ori Menashe. The beans were soft, the sausage sharp in flavor, and the octopus the charred essence of oceanic protein. I love this taste of Italy. It’s food for Beast Mode ™.
• Bignets by Picca. Star anise in the dipping sauce. Immediately shareable. Immediately inhale-able.
• Taking tasting shots of the Jamaica/Hibiscus Liquor from Greenbar Collective. Lacking a heavy alcoholic punch, it retained the sweetness of the flower and could easily be a great counterpoint to any vodka or gin based cocktail.
There was also a Cook-Off at the Festival, where the winners ranged from Spice Table’s Bryant Ng to the Peking Duck Truck. You can catch all the winners here. The LA Street Food Festival is a Summer food institution that we’ll definitely be attending in 2013–but next year we’ll be sure to plan a month in advance around this food fair.