On another Saturday night on Artesian Street, an otherwise unassuming industrial block of Lincoln Heights, a crowd swells after the final bat swing at Dodger Stadium nearby. Smoke billows from beneath pop-up tents. The blare of car horns reverberates off warehouse walls, mixing with dance music and taqueros who shout order numbers to a swarm of customers. Masked-up families, teens, and TikTok superstars break between bites to dance in the middle of the street. It’s shoulder-to-shoulder through portions of the block, voices straining above the noise and eyes blinking from the harsh glow of string lights, backlit menu boards, and the occasional digital sign promoting yet another food stand.
For years Artesian was just an ordinary alley-ish street butting up against the Gold Line tracks just northeast of Downtown LA. Then came the eponymous Avenue 26 Tacos stand that gave the area — a small warren of mostly warehouses and side streets — its unofficial name. Since opening, the taco stand has grown to include larger and larger crowds, fanning out into a small economy of secondary vendors selling trinkets, snacks, and churros. The long tables and giant spinning al pastor trompo of Avenue 26 Tacos has become almost a postcard to LA’s robust street food scene, as well-known as any image of Dodger Stadium or the Santa Monica Pier. When the stand got shut down by public health officials in 2017, the outcry was immense; customers flocked to support the family behind the business, helping them return (and promptly sell out of food) the very next night. In the years since, they’ve even opened a restaurant in Downtown LA, and a food truck in addition to the ongoing stand.
That is to say, the Avenue 26 area has been a hotspot for street food for roughly a decade now. But since the new year the block has transformed into something else, lined nearly wall-to-wall with vendors selling everything from Thai-Chinese food to micheladas to tri-tip barbecue sandwiches — plus the more common array of tacos, tortas, pambazos, and tostilocos. Vendors number in the dozens, if not well over 100, edging out even Downtown LA’s large Mercado Olympic these days. Spurred on by some of the lowest coronavirus case numbers since the start of the pandemic and a booming underground ecosystem of home cooks and food influencers across LA, Avenue 26 may be the biggest and most diverse street food market anywhere in Southern California, if not America — rivaling even some of Asia’s famous night markets in energy, scope, and scale.
“It just blew up,” says Cesar Alejandro Ruiz of El Jefe’s BBQ, a backyard-style barbecue operation located at the far end of the street. “It just came out nowhere.” Ruiz has been selling tri-tip sandwiches, saucy brisket quesadillas, and loaded nachos from his stand for the past three weeks, growing his home catering operation (“I do a lot of backyard boogies and things like that,” he says with a laugh) into a three-times-a-week business at the Avenue 26 market. Business has been going well; so well, in fact, that he’s looking to buy another tent or two to expand his operation. He may not find the room.
“When we started we were closer to the middle,” says Sweet Meats co-owner Abegail Cal, who, along with partner Aaron Moreno, runs her Filipino meat-skewer stand two nights a week at the Avenue 26 market. “Now we’ve gotten pushed further to the end because more vendors keep showing up. And it’s not just food, it’s clothes and accessories, toys, knickknacks and stuff. There’s everything.” That includes an on-site DJ, pushcart vendors selling flowers (or glow sticks, or hot dogs), a two-tent setup that almost exclusively offers bedazzled hats, and more. “It’s basically a mini club,” says Cal.
TikTok has been a big part of the success of the open-air marketplace, say Ruiz and Cal. Creators on the app have been relentlessly covering the market for months, showing off the various food vendors or dancing up a storm for tips in the middle of the street. Some of the biggest weekly names at the market have amassed hundreds of thousands of followers in the process.
“TikTok was the thing that blew us up,” says Robert Preece, a former manager at Dave’s Hot Chicken who has since turned to the market full-time. Along with his wife Elizabeth Calderon and her family, Vanessa Mendoza and Sergio Calderon, Preece has crafted a popular weekend stand called Baby Cakess (two S’s) selling mini-pancake balls topped with colorful ingredients like fruit, chocolate, animal crackers, and breakfast cereal. Calderon cooks the batter balls in repurposed takoyaki pans while Preece engages the crowd with his daughter on his shoulders, drawing in customers who have stopped to watch the weekly dance show. Those new customers (and their TikTok and Instagram feeds) have given life to the weekend operation, growing it from a side business — making just $200 the first weekend — to an all-in affair that now supports the family. Preece says they’ve increased production more than four-fold since starting in February, routinely selling through 160 pounds of batter a night.
“It’s awesome, knowing that we’re just regular people,” says Preece. “I’m an entrepreneur. I want to figure out how to build an empire for my daughter, live comfortably with my family. Right now we’re living in a small apartment in South LA, I want to do what’s best for them.”
Sweet Meats co-founder Aaron Moreno was spurred to start his stand after the death of his grandmother last year. She had long held the family’s secret recipe for Filipino meat skewers close to her chest; when she died Moreno made a passion project out of recreating those flavors for himself. “There were no measurements to it,” says Moreno of his time watching his grandmother cook. “She would literally just feel the meat as she was massaging the ingredients into it.” The result is a charcoal-smoked, 48-hour brined pork skewer with hints of brown sugar, soy, and pineapple.
Now, Moreno and Cal are selling out every night that they show up to the Avenue 26 market, and they’ve begun to consider future plans for small takeout-only shops or even drive-thru meat-skewer operations they could run around Los Angeles. They’re hoping to stick to the market for now, at least as long as the market stays viable.
“It’s grown almost 400 percent” in the three months they’ve been cooking there, says Cal. That has come with its own challenges, from leftover trash to non-distanced crowds — and a fair bit of lax mask-wearing, according to some vendors — to the threat that the whole operation could disappear at any time. Because the marketplace isn’t formally sanctioned in any way, dozens of cars still unknowingly use the street during the busiest times, leading to traffic jams, the occasional fender bender, and lots of close calls between pedestrians and vehicles.
“I think eventually the city is going to have to do something to get it organized and make sure it’s somewhat legal, and safe,” says Moreno. Some of the vendors have banded together to try to work with the city, hopeful of finding a middle ground (say, closing off the street a couple of days a week to allow for pedestrian-only access) without losing the whole market in one big sweep.
“But the thing about the street culture is: We’re all aware of that, and we’ve all been talking,” says Moreno. “Do we go along with all the permits and all that stuff and all the overhead that’s probably going to have to come with that organization, or do we just find the next spot?”
Some newer vendors are finding a foothold toward the southern end of the street, like the fried molotes stand helmed by mother- and daughter-in-law duo Minerba and Genesis. Minerba worked in the larger area selling knickknacks in swap meets for 10 years before Genesis told her about the TikTok attention the night market was commanding. About four weeks ago, they started selling Oaxacan-style molotes, masa empanadas laced with beans and cheese, adding another crisp, photo-friendly snack to a street packed with fried specialties. If the stand stays busy enough, “we’ll add fried quesadillas made with masa and squash flowers,” says Genesis. The two come around 3 p.m. from Friday to Sunday, early to claim a coveted position in the street hours ahead of the real nighttime crowds.
Kawin Mahapol and Saranee Muengfoo, both longtime restaurant cooks, run a stand selling Thai-Chinese food right next to Sweet Meats at the Avenue 26 Market. Mahapol says he doesn’t see the current setup as sustainable long-term, at least without some serious changes. “In my opinion, it’s going to be in trouble soon,” he says. “I hope that we can gather with other people there and improve the street, maybe add a parking lot and block out the cars so it’s only walking. Right now, it’s not a community yet.”
He’s right. Despite the friendly nature of many of the side-by-side vendors, visibility on the block is key, and not everybody wins. There are issues with noise, trash, and all those cars, too, and Mahapol hopes that bringing the vendors together as a more collective voice results in positive (and more equitable) changes for all.
Muengfoo and Mahapol started their stall, Thainese Box, three months ago, and sell a menu of fried rice and chow mein dishes, plus occasional off-menu items like mango sticky rice. Mahapol says the business is meant to supplement their restaurant incomes, especially in a time of shortened work hours and ongoing economic uncertainty. The current energy at the market is in part a response to the loss of the past year, he says, as well as the emotional toll of being mostly inside, at home. “I think it’s because of the pandemic, and people stuck at home. They’re just trying to find something new. I think some people just want to support small businesses, too.”
Right now, Thainese Box runs through about 100 orders a night and always sells out. But it’s a pittance compared to the massive lines and all-night hours of nearby Avenue 26 Tacos, which now commands the most central (and largest) setup on Artesian Street. But it’s enough for Muengfoo and Mahapol, especially given their ongoing fears of the pandemic. The cooks hope to hold onto as much of the money they’re making now as they can, and to keep going for as long as they can to help secure a down payment for a food truck sometime later this year.
It’s unclear how long the current Avenue 26 market setup can last. Some vendors are skeptical about bringing in city officials to help make the place cleaner and safer, an understandable reaction given the delicate nature of street food vending in the city. Vendors were specifically targeted by the Los Angeles City Council for criminalization last year at the outset of the pandemic, and essentially every vendor in the county continues to be left out meaningfully from the ongoing al fresco outdoor dining programs that have sprung up to offer public open-air space for sit-down restaurants. Eater reached out to Councilmember Gil Cedillo, who oversees Lincoln Heights, for comment on the future of the market, and received the following statement from communications director Conrado TerrazasCross:
There is no such commitment from our office to establish something permanent at that location. However, we would like to assist vendors in making a living and being able to vend in compliance with the City Ordinance while complying with ADA, safety, and COVID-19 guidelines.
If allowed to continue, the Avenue 26 market could be a viable first step toward creating pro-vendor zones across greater Los Angeles, areas of weekly, family-friendly (and pedestrian-safe) commerce where operators can sell food from teriyaki bowls to wood-fired pizzas (there are three at the market alone) without fear of having their livelihoods confiscated for want of almost impossible-to-access street-vending permits.
The market has also brought new attention (and new money) into Lincoln Heights, something El Jefe’s BBQ owner Ruiz says can’t be overstated. He’s been helping to lead the cleanup charge, calling loudly for vendors to keep the best parts of the market intact. He’s got real skin in the game, too, and not just because of his stand; Ruiz grew up less than four blocks away, and has always called Lincoln Heights his home.
“It’s so amazing that something like this can happen,” says Ruiz of the success of the market. “Being born and raised in Lincoln Heights, I’m proud of this. We’re putting a small area on the map. This was a very gang-infested area, and it’s starting to change. When I was younger, I wasn’t proud to say where I grew up. Now, stuff like this, I’m proud to say that I grew up here. People ask me where I’m from, I say ‘I’m born and raised here.’”
The Avenue 26 market operates Thursday through Sunday mostly, from afternoon to late into the night, though some vendors sell on the street daily. Friday and Saturday nights are the busiest times at the market, particularly after Dodger games nearby.
Additional reporting by Matthew Kang and Wonho Frank Lee.