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Eating the Rose Bowl: The L.A. Street Food Festival

Jul 29, 2010

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Los Angeles, you may have heard, is in the midst of a love affair with the food truck. The most recent episode in this fling—if it can still be called that—was last Saturday at the Rose Bowl, where a sold-out crowd of 5,000, including yours truly, showed up for the Los Angeles Street Food Festival’s Summer Tasting Event, the successor to an overcrowded February happening that had people waiting hours just to get in, then more hours to actually buy food. Love is crazy.

Festival organizers Shawna Dawson and Sonja Rasula hit upon a winning combination to make sure their next event wouldn’t be such a hot mess: more space, fewer people, all-you-can-eat. Ticket sales were capped around 5,000, or 1/18th of the Rose Bowl’s capacity. And the all-you-can-eat format enabled vendors to concentrate on preparing and serving food—small sample-size bites—without wasting time processing orders. The planning paid off: I never had to wait in line for more than 20 minutes, at most.

In my four hours at the festival—including a long stretch to sit and digest before making another lap—I was able to try 19 of the 60+ vendors. Some things were good, some things were excellent, and some things were just okay. From start to finish:

I arrived in an already crowded Lot F a little after 4 p.m. and walked to the entrance, which was also already crowded with VIP ticket-holders, who payed $65—$20 more than general admission—for 90 minutes of reduced crowds. Considering I did most of my eating in those first 90 minutes (15 of the 19 vendors), the VIP ticket would probably have been worth it.

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Signage was not so good, so I stood around for a while in front of a white tent in what I thought was the press line but what was really the guest-pass line, until a nice woman pointed me and another lost soul to the side of the tent, where media passes were being distributed by a slightly puzzled-looking young man. I made my way through the gate, up into the stadium and, after a shot of El Llano Tequila in the upper deck, down onto the field.

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On each sideline were 26 identically sized tents. For no reason in particular I started on the west side of the stadium, which turned out to be a good decision, as most of my favorite dishes came from this side. It quickly became apparent that going systematically down the field one booth at a time was not going to play out very well, as the first few booths had the longest lines. I skipped over the first half-dozen or so, looking for a short line, which I found at Cupcakes a GoGo.

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I snatched up a cute little red velvet cupcake, which was moist and delightful. Nearby was Tamales Elena, who ended up being the runner-up for Best Old School Street Food.  They gave me a pork tamale but no fork to eat it with, so I wandered over to the nearest trash can and ate it with my hands—tender and flavorful. I wish I could say more about it, but by this point I was already becoming overstimulated. Eating food, taking notes on it and pictures of it, and hopping back in line proved to be something of a challenge, like walking and chewing gum at the same time. Gluttony got in the way of thorough note-taking. Anyway. Pressing on. In the vicinity of Tamales Elena were Komodo and the Border Grill Truck, both high on my list of places to try.

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I tried Komodo first. Their miso beef skewer was one of the best things I had all day: rich and juicy with a potent miso glaze. I didn’t have seconds of anything, but if I did, it probably would have been the beef skewer. Waiting in line for the Border Grill Truck with the wooden skewer still in my mouth so I had two free hands to take notes, it occurred to me for the first time, but not for the last, that there really weren’t enough garbage cans around. I picked up Border Grill’s offering—a green corn tamal in a paper cone with salsa fresca and way too much crema. It was fine, but I was expecting more.

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Border Grill's green corn tamal. Pardon my hand; it'll be showing up a lot.

Next up was Mandoline Grill with a grilled pork bánh mì, which was clean and refreshing. Fresh cilantro will do that.

Everywhere I turned, I saw a beautiful looking hard taco covered with salsa and avocado. Eventually I figured it out they were coming from Mariscos Jalisco, an old school truck that does seafood tacos over on East Olympic in the style of San Juan De Los Lagos, Jalisco, Mexico. They were serving up a fried shrimp taco that looked better than it was, which isn’t saying much because it looked amazing:

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There were plenty, though, who thought it tasted as good as it looked, because Mariscos Jalisco ended up winning the whole enchilada, Best in Show. Who am I to disagree with Susan Feniger and and Walter Manzke?

After Mexico it was back west to the Philippines, which has just recently found representation in the gourmet food truck world in the form of The Manila Machine. They were serving up a pork belly and pineapple adobo served over steamed jasmine rice, which won them second place in the Best Nouveau category as well as tweeted props from Jonathan Gold, who called the dish “formidable.”

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Manila Machine's pork belly adobo.

It was good, but had a little too much vinegar for my taste.

Crepes came next, from the enjoyably named Crepe’n Around. They were serving a crepe of maple braised pork and apply chutney with a (surprisingly potent) honey-dijon sauce, packed into a cone with mixed greens and toasted walnuts. I don’t really remember much about it except that it was a good deal spicier than I was expecting. Between picking it up and starting to eat it I managed to lose my fork (if I even had one), making the salad a wee bit difficult to eat.

From France back to America for a mini-dog from Dogtown Dogs, who were handing out their eponymous dish, an all beef hot dog with whole-grain dijon mustard, fennel slaw, roasted red peppers and a side of really salty tater tots.

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The Dogtown Dog.

I scarfed this down happily—the fennel slaw was pleasingly crisp, as advertised—but the tots exacerbated my mounting thirst. I hopped in the beer line in the north west corner of the field, only to find out that I needed a wrist band, for which there was no signage up front. My Singha would have to wait. Slightly beleaguered, I began my trek back to the main entrance… but not before stopping at Whisk LA, a dessert truck churning out, among other things, whoopie pies, which for the uninitiated, are made of two mound-shaped pieces of cake with a creamy frosting sandwiched between them. Their menu is extensive; on hand they had a banana hazelnut whoopie pie (excellent), a mint chocolate chip whoopie pie (bitingly sweet) and something else that I didn’t try, as well as other fiendish-looking desserts: brownie cones, a neapolitan marshmallow cube, assorted macaroons. But I couldn’t say no to the whoopie pies.

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Heading back to the front for a wrist band, I made a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in the stadium’s nether regions, where a few vendors with more equipment than booth space were cooking away in the shadows of the bleachers.

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I never did find out where those sausages were headed.

Eventually I found my way to the entrance, skulked around looking for the people with the wristbands, found them, got one and made a beeline for the nearest beverage vendor, which happened to be Sailor Jerry Rum.

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Sailor Jerry, I found out, was a famous American tattoo artist. He’d be proud to know that the vampy woman who poured me a Dark & Stormy was covered with them. The spice of the rum paired with the ginger beer was a real kick in the face. That’s sort of the point, I think, but not exactly a solution to my mounting dehydration.

Before going back into the stadium to try out the east sideline, I decided to check out the Unique LA marketplace, which was on the same out-of-the-way piece of asphalt as the “ice cream social” dessert vendors. At 5:20, there was almost nobody there. The vendors looked miserable, and there were no lines for any of the dessert trucks. I caught sight of both Coolhaus and Tropical Shave Ice, both of whom I’ve been anxious to try. With room enough for only one, I let George Washington’s nickel-plated face decide. He led me to the tropics, where I had a rainbow scoop of what I believe was cherry, banana and blueberry, covered with condensed milk. The first few bites were cool and delicious, though the blue syrup tasted a little strange. Maybe it was bubblegum? By the time I set it down to take a picture (my normally free hand was still holding a Dark & Stormy), however, it melted into oblivion.

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=(

It didn’t taste so good at this point. Next time, I’ll be sure to inhale it. Or try Coolhaus instead.

Ditching my Dark & Stormy and shaved ice, I made my way back into the stadium, which looked only slightly more crowded at 5:30 than it did at 4:30.

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Two of the stadium’s jumbo lite-brites (do those things have a name?) were displaying tweets from festival-goers, including the recently arrived Mayor Villaraigosa (didn’t see a pip out of Mayor Bogaard all day), who let everyone know that the festival was “so LA.” The video jumbotrons were getting their feed from large cameras stationed around the rim of the stadium like turrets. The camera dudes seemed most interested in young women in skimpy clothing.

With waning intestinal real estate, I plodded over to the eastern sideline, where I picked the biggest line I could find, which was for Antojitos Carmen Estilo D.F (or Carmen’s Mexican Street Snacks in the style of the Distrito Federal).

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The neighboring Dogzilla, purveyor of atypical weiners, also had a huge line. I never got to try Dogzilla, though their yakisoba hot dog looked appealing. Antojitos Carmen, on the other hand, was just okay. The taco, I think of carne asada, was fairly bland. The other thing, which looked like an oversized sope and which contained, I was told, “stuff,” was much better, but was lukewarm by the time it got to my mouth.

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Why was the line so long? You could load up your plate with one of everything, maybe—except Dogzilla was limiting attendees to one sample per person, and their line was longer, if anything. It hit me then that there was what looked like  a strong general correspondence between the size of a vendor’s signage, which was an issue for many, and the length of their line. Other vendors simply couldn’t keep up with demand, leading to an “artificially” long line, which in turn got people’s attention and grew the line even more. I fell victim to this phenomenon at least once.

It was a little after 5:30 at this point, and the general admission crowd began to stream in from the lip of the upper deck. They came in nonstop for nearly an hour. This would be the true test of the event’s planning: with this huge influx of people, would wait times still be bearable? Thinking that they would not, I made beer my first priority, grabbing a Singha, a nice enough Thai beer that doesn’t require much gut space. Beer in hand, I got in line for the Dim Sum Truck, which was handing out pork-and-mushroom-and-something and bamboo-and-something shui mai.

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They weren’t very good.

I’d finally hit my limit. I thought about leaving, but there was so much food still to try, not to mention some live music worth staying for. So I slinked up into the shady western seats and took a long, long breather, watching the lines get stouter. After a while I went looking for a water fountain, and stumbled upon an eerie sight: a stretch of asphalt in the concourse full of parked food trucks, motors running and chefs working, but without any crowds. It was like a ghost town. One of the trucks I saw up there was Nana Queen’s Puddin’ and Wings, which was the first place I tried when I finally returned to the west side of the field.

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Where are all the people?

At 7:30, right when I got in line for Nana, The Deadly Syndrome came on. They were decent, but not really up to the venue, their sound flailing around over the heads of a fairly apathetic crowd. They helped pass the 14 minutes I was in line for Nana, though.

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BBQ wings and banana bread pudding.

I ate the bread pudding first. It put up quite a fight with my spoon, but ultimately the utensil got the upper hand. Then I tried to use the spoon on the wings, which was actually much easier. The pudding was excellent—fluffy, creamy, not too sweet. The wings were good as well, juicy with a nicely flavored sauce.

After Nana it was The Gastrobus, serving an Ecuadorian ceviche of shrimp, orange, cilantro and a little popcorn on top.

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I found out later that popcorn is common in Ecuadorian cooking, but at the time I thought it was astounding. Either way, the ceviche was one of the best things I ate all day, a rich combination of flavors and texture with just the right kick.

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Pardon my bandage.

With roughly an hour left, I made the perhaps foolish decision of getting in a very long line, for Ta Bom, a Brazilian truck.

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They were serving up two dishes: a coxinha, or potato croquette filled with shredded chicken and cream cheese, and a ground beef pastel, a crisp pastry “filled” with but a smidgeon of seasoned meat, carrots and something green, maybe peas.

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They were running low on ingredients, which is why the pastel’s filling was so skimpy. They were also way behind in getting food handed out, which was the source of the huge line. Coxinhas they had plenty of, which I scarfed down waiting for a pastel to materialize. Both ended up being underwhelming.

I’d been slowly working my way south, trying the places I’d skipped on my initial lap. I landed at Sedthee Thai Eatery, not a truck at all but a real brick and mortar restaurant over in Glendale. It’s a new place, too, not like many of Mexican places that started as street food before finding more permanent homes. How they ended up at a street food festival is something of a happy mystery, as their food is excellent.

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I had the jungle feast curry: duck with pineapple and grapes in spicy forest curry with coconut milk. Delicious but for the skin, which was supposed to be crispy but was soggy instead. I wish I had picked up their pork spareribs, as that dish won them first place in the Best Nouveau category.

With time and room for maybe one more truck, I got in line for The Breek Truck: A taste of Tunisia, which looked interesting. The Deadly Syndrome finished up their set, and at 8:30 the mayor came on to announce the winners of the the cook-off. People immediately started making fun of him, sling and all—”I wonder if he paid to get in to this one,” etc etc. I was in the vicinity of Tamales Elena and Sedthee when he announced their victories. People cheered. It was nice. I’ve mentioned all the winners I got to try; find the full list here. Then Warpaint came on, whose thick harmonic textures were a better fit for the Rose Bowl.

When I reached the front of the Breek line, I was given this:

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Still in my fridge.

They ran out of food. I decided this was a good time to leave the field.

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Walking out, I decided to swing by the ice cream social again.

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Happening. Even the craft-type vendors were getting some love. I could have waited some more for Coolhaus, but I’d eaten well enough for one day. A pleasure yet in store. And so I bid farewell to the Rose Bowl.

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Adieu, Rose Bowl!

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