Kitchen Stadium: Inside L.A.'s Street Food Fest

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Forget for a moment the conflict between food trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants. Or reports of squabbles between "old school" trucks and their new "gourmet" progeny. Or the political tension over zoning and parking restrictions.

In late July, at Pasadena's Rose Bowl, the most important battle raging in the world of street eats was one between brain and body. At the second incarnation of the L.A. Street Food Fest, attendees employed a little mind over matter, willing themselves to find a smidgen more stomach storage space to squeeze in that one last brownie cone, cheeseburger dumpling, or beef pastel. Having purchased tickets (or in the spirit of full disclosure, received press passes) that granted attendees unlimited access to the sixty-odd food booths, handful of tequila stands, an ice cream patio, and two beer gardens, the pressure was on to take full advantage of the situation, and restraint was not a common theme. "There is no full today," a friend said to me in between epic rounds of indulgence. "There is only zero percent empty."

The vendors had abandoned their trucks for the day, instead forming a ring of booths around the perimeter of the field, where they served up tasting versions of their typical fare, meaning sliders were rampant, as were various types of shots—shots of gazpacho, shots of icing (to top the brownie cones), and even shots of Bordeaux-flavored sorbet.

Attendees strategized about how best to take advantage of the all-inclusive tickets. Some purchased special VIP passes, allowing them entry into the festival 90 minutes early, as well as access to a closer parking lot (the easier to roll yourself out at the end of the night). Some groups divided and conquered—one person waiting in line for vegan sticky rice at the Dim Sum Truck (which had its debut at the first L.A. Street Food Fest) while another queued nearby for huitlacoche tacos at Antojitos de la Abuelita, a North Hollywood taco truck. Upon successfully obtaining vittles from one stand, many waited to devour their booty until safely ensconced in line at their next destination. Nothing says gluttony like waiting for pork belly adobo while munching on sweet potato fries drenched in peanut butter and Nutella.

Nothing says gluttony like waiting for pork belly adobo while munching on sweet potato fries drenched in peanut butter and Nutella.

Some came with lists of trucks they had to hit (two pasta-filled sandwiches topped an informal survey—the mac and cheese sandwich from the Grilled Cheese Truck and the soba noodle-topped hot dog from Dogzilla). Some moved methodically from one stand to the next (clockwise was the popular direction for this strategy). Others eschewed formal strategy, simply opting for the stands with the shortest lines.

Since most time was spent in line (which though not the epic two-hour waits experienced at the festival's first incarnation, still often dragged into the painful 30-minute range), fast friendships emerged among line neighbors. Principal among these discussions were recommendations about which stalls to hit and which could be avoided. "You should definitely try the shrimp tacos at Mariscos Jalisco," one would advise. "If you need something refreshing, go get cucumber lemonade at LAsian Kitchen." Certain food choices even invited a kind of cheerleading section, as was the case when a friend and I discussed the bright green fried orbs we'd just obtained from Starry Kitchen, a highly buzzed-about brick-and-mortar restaurant, doing its take on street food for the day. A passerby overheard our conversation and shouted to us, "I love those crispy tofu balls." (Really, is that any way to talk to a lady?)

More than one person I spoke with admitted to having spent extra time at the gym that morning. "This is not a place to be watching your figure," one man advised me, as he lay spread-eagled on a picnic blanket at around the 30-yard line, coming in and out of his self-induced food coma and wishing for a cooler in which to hoard some leftovers.

As was appropriate for the food trend that Twitter built, live tweeting was rampant, with brief statements projected onto the stadium's Jumbotron, bringing meta-eating to a new extreme as people announced electronically to those near them what they'd just eaten.

Among the day's biggest Tweeters was Los Angeles's Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. "I just tweeted you!" he was overheard exclaiming to acclaimed chef Susan Feniger, whose Border Grill Truck green corn tamal he had just sampled. ("Loving @bordergrill's green corn tamal w crema salsa fresca in a cone. Sweet and creamy," was his verdict.)

The mayor, along with Feniger, was serving as a judge at the event's cook-off contest despite having broken his elbow in a bicycle accident only a few days before. With his arm slung in a nifty, if cumbersome, traction contraption, the Mayor managed to gracefully make his way through his consuming duties, while espousing the important role that street food plays in his city's landscape. "It's so L.A.," he said. "This is a place where the world comes together—food, people, and dreams come together."

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Katie Robbins is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has covered food, culture, and lifestyle for a variety of publications, including Psychology Today, Saveur, Meatpaper, Tablet, and BlackBook, among others. More

Katie Robbins is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has covered food, culture, and lifestyle for a variety of publications, including Psychology Today, Saveur, Meatpaper, Tablet, and BlackBook, among others.

In her former life as a documentary producer, she reported on issues such as the New Orleans school system, America's health insurance crisis, and the U.S. Secret Service for organizations like PBS NewsHour, ABC News, and the National Geographic Channel. Learn more at www.katiesallierobbins.com.
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