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L.A. Street Food: Past, Present, and Future ~ An Interview with Farley Elliott

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Farley Elliott has been writing about food in Los Angeles for the last five years, and is the author of the forthcoming book  Los Angeles Street Food: A History from Tamaleros to Taco Trucks, (Amazon) which investigates the current street food scene along with the long and varied history of street food in L.A. The book functions as both a coffee-table book, a history, and a guide to what's happening right now. We got the chance to interview Farley about the book and his personal faves on the street, tacos and otherwise. You can buy the book and meet the author in person at Skylight Books this weekend

L.A. TACO: What surprised you most about L.A. Street Food when writing the book? 
Farley Elliott: It's a really endless tunnel to start traveling down. You get into cuisines, then regional versions of certain dishes, then you can start to look at the ways in which L.A. itself has shaped those regional versions. It's honestly endless. All you can do is keep learning — about the history, the people, the families responsible for bringing certain things here.

What got you personally into street food?
Street food, to me, is sort of this quiet miracle. Here we have this heavily regulated city, pushing $15 an hour minimum wage and tight water restrictions and parking laws and health code labyrinths... and street food still exists. Not only that, it always has existed here, since we've had real streets to serve food on, at least. It's delicious, it's mysterious, it's widely available, and it's cheap. How could someone not like street food?!

What would you say are the current foundations of the L.A. street food scene? In other words, if you haven't been to these spots, you really don't know what's up...
Those "if you haven't been yet..." places are always kind of changing and morphing, in a really great way that keeps the street food scene churning. I'd say two years ago, if you hadn't been to Ricky's Fish Taco, you really needed to. Like, you were overdue. But now, with the sorts of things that Wes Avila is doing with Guerrilla Tacos, you're really seeing this reinvention of the classics, marrying upscale ingredients with a lonchero lifestyle. It's fascinating.

So, really, you've already heard about the places you're supposed to have tried: Mariscos Jalisco, Tacos Leo, El Chato, etc. It's really about hitting the fringes, trying something new, making a discovery for yourself.

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Why are hot dogs "the real patron saint of Los Angeles street food"?
A taco is the hardest working food in showbiz, hands down. People try to compare New York's pizza culture with LA's taco scene, but it's such a stretch. We have generations of families here, cooking recipes handed down from grandmothers. We have first-generation taqueros taking up the charge of authenticity, and we have remixes and reintroductions, like Kogi BBQ and everything in between. Pizza in New York is about either a nameless slice joint or a couple of places that take pride in their work. In L.A., tacos are just much, much more important to the city as a whole.

All that being said, the bacon-wrapped hot dog is still what many outsiders think of first when they consider street food in Los Angeles. And it's so prevalent in Los Angeles, and seems so unique to this city (though obviously it's a Sonoran hot dog bastardization that can also be found in SF and beyond). The bacon-wrapped hot dog in particular is this sort of shorthand for Los Angeles street food, and it gets a lot of attention as a result. Just know that, behind the scenes, it's the tacos that are doing the heavy lifting.

What would you say is L.A.'s wildest and craziest street food operation?
Oh man, that's hard to say. Maybe the Tire Shop Taqueria folks? It's not like they're doing drugs and fighting people — these are hardworking folks running a business after all — but you will run into some characters in that stretch of South LA late night, especially once the post-drinking crowd shows up.

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Can you share some of your predictions for where the L.A. street food scene is moving?
I think you're going to see a small resurgence of people actually trying to get back into the food truck game, but as pop-ups meant to build momentum towards a brick and mortar. Single-item trucks, focused on one thing well, whether its guys like the Yeastie Boys doing bagel sandwiches or Howlin' Rays doing Nashville hot chicken. As for the old school taco truck scene, I think the biggest change is going to come politically. This city is at a breaking point in terms of street food regulation, and something's got to give. Hopefully the city can find a way to let thousands of vendors operate legally, paying taxes and keeping people safe, without losing the flavors they're bringing to the street.

What street food is L.A. lacking?
Not much. We do a good job of keeping the stuff that works, across all cuisine categories, and letting the bad stuff fall to the wayside. One thing I'd really like to see is the expansion of truck and brick-and-mortar collaboration. The way that Guerrilla will sling morning tacos in front of Blacktop Coffee, or the Heirloom LA folks will post up at Silverlake Wine. Let's get trucks, carts, stands, you name it — let's get those folks working on the patio of a bar serving late night food, or rounded up with some string lights in a park somewhere, so people can eat and drink and enjoy themselves outside the way they already do in cities like Austin.

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Let's close it out with the most important question: what's your favorite taco?
My taco tastes are always changing, but I'm a sucker for a well-executed al pastor. Tacos Tamix gets me there for sure. But if I only had one meal before I had to leave L.A., it would still be the al pastor quesadilla from El Chato.

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Follow Farley Elliott on Twitter.

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