When it comes to street food, every country has its own trademark. Paris is known for its crêpes, Vietnam for its pho and Mexico for its tacos. And in the United States, each region has its own famous street food: cheese steaks in Philadelphia, pretzels and hotdogs in New York and barbequed pork sandwiches in Memphis.
In Los Angeles, taco trucks reign supreme, but there are other mobile eateries parked across the city serving up everything from dosas to sushi to gourmet sandwiches. Los Angeles’ food-truck scene has grown rapidly in the last few years, which is why native Angelenos Shawna Dawson and Sonja Rasula decided it was finally time to celebrate residents’ common love for both street food and the city.
This Saturday, some of the most popular and innovative street food vendors will convene in one single location to provide a sampling of the best representation of the best street food the city has to offer. Organized and initiated by Dawson, a USC alumna and former Los Angeles community manager of Yelp, and Rasula, founder and director of Unique L.A., the event is the first gathering of its kind, uniting almost 40 different street food vendors from around the city.
“Los Angeles has such a deep and rich history with street food,” Rasula said. “We wanted to celebrate both the new gourmet food trucks and all the old, authentic street food … by combining everything in one festival.”
It is such a simple and obvious idea that one might wonder why it took anyone so long to organize such an event. But street food has neither the best reputation nor an orderly system for conducting business. Within the last few months, there have already been reports of complaints by neighboring restaurants that street food vendors are a nuisance to the city and a threat to their businesses.
From the city’s perspective, it is tough to deal with street food businesses because, unlike restaurant businesses, mobile vendors do not have fixed locations, making it difficult to enforce food safety laws and the city’s ban on street vending.
But the owners of these street food vendors are not criminals, Rasula says. Most of them try to run their business as ethically and peacefully as possible. For example, Gastrobus — a husband and wife-owned food truck selling bistro food — mainly follows around farmers’ markets. In fact, it is through the locally bought produce that owner Antonio Medina draws his inspiration for the day’s menu.
“We are thinking of switching to totally organic so that we can support [the farmer’s market vendors],” Medina said. “They are great people, and we have created such a great relationship with them.”
Medina makes an effort to play fair, as well.
“I try not to park in front of restaurants. That’s not ethical; that’s stealing their business,” said Medina, “and I’m just staying away from the places where the cops are.”
Fortunately, there are advocacy groups — such as the Southern California Vendors Food Association, with whom Rasula and Dawson have partnered for this festival — that are attempting to bring legitimacy to the oft-criticized street vendors. To these groups, street food is a huge benefit to the community as it promotes the city’s diversity and cultural history.
“[Street food] is one of the most amazing, beautiful and delicious things that this city has to offer, and I think it is important that street food has a voice,” Rasula said. “I think we are trying to show the general population a political side — that street food vendors can follow up with laws, they want the permits, they want to serve good food and they just want to be part of the community. They don’t go against the grain. Hopefully, this festival will show that street food is delicious, clean and healthy and that these vendors are ready to take it to the new level in Los Angeles.”
And apparently so are Angelenos. Inspired by the recent boom of food trucks within the past year, Dawson approached Rasula in December about partnering to coordinate an event to celebrate Los Angeles’ diverse street food. By the first week of January, the decision was made, and, in the next few weeks, news of Los Angeles’ first annual Street Food Fest spread around the city via Twitter — the mobile food vendor’s dream promotional platform.
“The first thing when we decided to take on this festival was to sign up for a Twitter account,” Rasula said. “Twitter is insane for food festivals, and it has been an unbelievable resource for us. Especially because a lot of these food trucks already have a lot of crazy fans and followers, we’ve been able to reach thousands and thousands of people. It is interesting how Twitter has changed the media landscape.”
Both Rasula and Dawson have new media backgrounds and have had many experiences with web design, but even with all the online experiences, the energy and time spent on organizing this event has been consuming.
“I would honestly say that I’ve been working 24/7 for the past five weeks,” Rasula said. “This is definitely the biggest and quickest event that either of us have ever done.”
First, they had to procure a location that would be in the heart of the city yet able to accommodate thousands of people. They eventually settled on a private venue, the Los Angeles Center Studios, so that they would be able to serve alcohol, they said. The place is also close to Metro stops so that getting there is convenient and environmentally friendly.
Next came the selection of vendors. In addition to the new gourmet food trucks such as the Grilled Cheese Truck and Gastrobus, there will also be food vendors from the now-dispersed East Los Angeles congregating spot Breed Street and other authentic vendors like Antojitos Mi Abuelita and Mama Koh’s Korean Chicken, they said. The vendors have all committed to keeping their food’s prices to $5 or less, with the average item costing about $2.
With so much food to eat and limited stomach space, Rasula recommends that customers go with a group of friends in order to target four or five food vendors, share the food with one another and try as much as possible. And because of the cheap prices, $20 could allow customers to sample from eight to 10 vendors.
There will be vendors selling non-food items as well. Rasula has selected 30 art and design vendors to attend, making a quaint, uniquely L.A. marketplace. She specifically chose vendors who would complement the food theme. For example, one of the non-food vendors is Paper Pastries, a line of gift cards and stationary adorned with cupcakes, pastries and bacon.
Dawson and Rasula also gave much thought into selecting the event date, eventually deciding on Valentine’s Day weekend.
“There are a lot of people who don’t necessarily buy into Valentine’s per se and perhaps cannot afford to buy expensive gifts and dinners, so we thought this would be a perfect opportunity for those on a budget,” Rasula said. “It’s also a perfect alternative for those who might not have a significant other and just want to hang out with their friends and do something fun and cool over the weekend.”
Ultimately, this event is not just about the food. Rather, it is about bringing Angelenos together in one location to celebrate everything Los Angeles — from the food to the art to the music to, of course, the people.
“We want everybody in the world to know that Los Angeles is a beautiful, world-class city filled with great people and great things,” Rasula said. “I think it’s about time that Los Angeles starts to stand up for itself and shows off a little bit because I truly believe that this is the most exciting city to be living in right now.”