Lessons Learned at the Street Food Fest

Total carnage photo courtesy Barb Dybwad

1.  It doesn’t matter why.

Chef Susan Feniger (Border Grill, Street) just returned to LA after a few weeks traveling in and around Vietnam.  I caught her just as she was sampling a few tacos at the LA Street Food Fest last Saturday night.  I asked how her trip was.  “AMAZING!” she said. “I’ve been eating for 10 days! [pause]  I don’t know why I’m still eating!”  I don’t know why I’m still eating – this was pretty much my mantra during the second LA Street Food Fest on Saturday night.  But then I realized: it doesn’t really matter, does it.

There were 60 food vendors set up last Saturday night at the Rose Bowl, cranking out eats for the roughly 5,000 people who congregated on the Bowl’s 79,156 square feet of green, clean grass.  All 105-ish pounds of me attempted to attack the 60 vendors in 4 hours.  I tried my best.

2.  Give a girl a chance. I wrote earlier that Sonja Rasula strikes me as a person who, if she were 15 minutes late one day, would be 15 minutes early the next.  And I think I was right.  Sonja and co-organizer Shawna Dawson took what they learned from their first and less-than-spectacular February Street Food Fest and transformed the event from what essentially was a parking lot tailgate party to the grandest buffet this side of the Wynn.

Unlike the first Fest, tickets here were pre-sale only: for $45 (general) to $60 (VIP), you could all you could stomach in 4-5 hours.  With attendance capped at 5,000 and vendors spread across the entirety of the Rose Bowl, the claustrophobia was minimized, the lines were manageable, and there was a rough method to the madness.  Yes, some complained about the wait in the lines, though I have to say that complaining about the lines at this Fest is sort of like complaining about the heat at Coachella: to some extent, it’s to be expected so long as it’s not out of control.  In contrast to the hours-on-end wait at the first Fest, I was stuck for, at most, 15 minutes at the longest food line (the longest lines actually were for the alcohol).  Over the course of four hours, I managed to hit some 15-18 booths (I lost count).  At about vendor 10, I was with Susan: I really didn’t know why I was still eating.  This leads directly to lesson number three.

3.  Pacing. We started off with ice cream, partly because this was the first area we stumbled into, and partly because starting your meal with dessert is quite possibly the best idea ever.  It sweetens your tooth and whets your appetite. To start the festivities, then, an amuse bouche from CoolHaus: strawberry with candied jalapeno scooped between two vanilla wafers.

On to the food. I was happy to see that Antojitos Carmen, who went from manning a cart in Boyle Height’s Breed Street to a bona fide storefront on Cesar Chavez, had a big, boisterous line.  Yah, go old skool street food!

Nguyen Tran of Starry Kitchen encouraged all to eat their balls.  This is why Starry Kitchen won the “Best Original Showmanship” category.  Way to take it for the team, Nguyen.

The balls in question:

The balls were just the beginning.

Clockwise: Mandoline Grill‘s banh mi sandwiches; Whisk LA‘s sweet treats; fried sweets with the cutest mini-Nutella package ever from Rosa’s Bella Cucina; and a cemita from Pal Cabron.  This was approximately one-third of the food consumed about halfway through the Fest; outside the viewfinder, I also downed delicious chicken adobo from The Manila Machine; a strawberry (yes! strawberry!) tamale from Tamales Elena; and a plum and cucumber salad from Gastrobus.

At that point, we needed to recharge.  Hello, Longboard’s Ice Cream – a traditional chocolate covered ice cream treat, but – twist! – one side is mashed with pretzels, the other size with nuts.  This makes sense if you imagine Kiefer Sutherland hungry for a treat after starting a brawl at Ye Rustic Inn.  In other words: the Bar Fight.

Had I the stomach capacity, I also would have picked up a few mini-donuts from The Fry Girl, winner of the Most Visually Appealing Donut and Most Ununsual Donut categories at our Donut Summit earlier this summer.  Mayor Tony, Susan, LA Times food editor Rene Lynch, Street Gourmet Bill Esperanza, chef Walter Manzke, and actor and self-proclaimed foodie Jessie Williams had no choice but to make room: they were the judges of the fest, prudently determining the winners in various categories.  Here, Susan tries to give Mayor Tony another bite to try.  Emphasis on tries.

The debate at the judge’s table was spirited, fierce, involved.   This is how you hope the Supreme Court justices (or, at the very least, their law clerks) debate issues of national importance.

In the end, the judges decided that the Best Nouveau street food was Sedthee Thai‘s Pork Sparerib, with The Manila Machine as the runner-up (yah!).  The Best Old School food went to Chef Robert Dahni’s Explosive Thai Bites, with Tamales Elena’s tamales as the runner-up.  Best in Show went to Marisco Jalisco‘s shrimp tacos; disappointingly, there was no Best in Show-like parading of the food but I suppose there’s always next year.  Also, the unofficial winner of the Truck That Kickstarted Our Appreciation For Street Food Because, Really, Street Food Has Been in LA Since Forever: Roy Choi and his fleet of Kogi trucks.  Another unofficial winner: Susan Feniger, in the Reliably Wearing the Best Pants in the House Every Time I See Her category.

As dusk fell over the Food Fest, the crowds thinned out slightly … but the eating was still on.

4.  The best way to deal with a full stomach is to sit down and enjoy the music. We came, we ate, we were conquered.  As the night settled, so did we; conveniently, local bands Deadly Syndrome and Warpaint – both regulars at The Echo and Spaceland – were on hand.   (Warpaint, by the by, is an awesome all-girl band from Laurel Canyon – they’re next up at FYF Fest downtown and will open for xx (xx!!) during their fall tour).  An unexpected entertainment bonus: the Twitter commentary from the peanut gallery running prominently on the background Jumbotron.  If you noticed Juxtaposition was not at home that Saturday night, it was because she was spending some time at the Rose Bowl.

5.  Alcohol and booths are great, but we still need water and a map. Overall, even with the predictable rumblings about the wait times, this was an enormous step up from almost every food vendor gathering yet.  A few tweaks for next time: water stations, a map listing the names and locations of each vendor (walking around in circles was a less an exercise in exploration and more of one in frustration), and a showring with judges wrinkling their noses, scrutinizing the food, and ordering the vendor to take his or her food for a walk.  It is a dog eat dog world, though, so let’s try to keep it friendly.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYLTqJMxmTY[/youtube]

7 Replies to “Lessons Learned at the Street Food Fest”

  1. Excellent post and pics! Stupid question here: is there anything food- & drink-wise there that isn’t included in the admission price? Also, what does VIP admission get you?

  2. The LA Street Food Fest was wonderful. It was so much more than what I was expecting. If I hadn’t been recovering from surgery I would have eatten so much more than I did. Everything was great. I’m so glad my best friend dragged me out of my new home. I just moved to California from Florida. I had a great time and even met some new friends.

  3. Hey Matt! NOT a stupid question!! The VIP pass gave you admission an hour earlier than the general admission folks. Other than that, no, as far as I know, you had access to the same food and drinks as everyone else. Theoretically, it also got you access to a special VIP parking lot, but I didn’t see any signage for the lot when I rolled in.

    Pottery – Bah, the ONE picture of Feniger’s pants I had was too blurry to post, so the best I could do was that pic of her talking to the cameras. Next time I see her, I’ll have her pose properly.

    And Morgan, hey, so glad you had a good time!! The best of friends are made in food lines. So true.

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