If L.A. Wants to Be a True Sanctuary City, It Should Legalize Street Tacos

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 Randy 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.

Read more of this L.A. Weekly op-ed by Jason McGahan by clicking here.

Photo: Ted Soqui