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Vendors Aim to Invigorate Neighborhood

Business: A program teams mobile food carts with a restaurant to ensure food safety and enrich the MacArthur Park area.

November 18, 2001|CARA MIA DiMASSA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rocio Mojica has always had a talent for making tamales. She uses pork and chicken, with green and red chiles, wraps them in cornhusks and steams them to perfection.

From a wooden cart decorated with a white-and-yellow sign advertising "Central Mexican Tamales" at the edge of MacArthur Park, Mojica served more than 300 of her creations Saturday on paper plates with a napkin on the side. She is one of the first legal vendors to sell hot food on the streets of Los Angeles.

Across 7th Street from the park, a new restaurant, Mama's Hot Tamales, was selling Mojica's tamales too--along with those of six other vendors participating in the pilot program. They are a crucial part of an effort by Vital Economic Neighborhood Development, a program of the nonprofit Institute for Urban Research and Development, to revitalize the MacArthur Park neighborhood.

Illegal operators, many operating out of grocery carts and most catering to immigrants seeking cheap, convenient food reminiscent of their homeland, have long been a part of many Southland neighborhoods. But critics have worried that food exposed to outdoor elements is at greater risk of becoming tainted than dishes from supermarkets or restaurants. In an average year, Los Angeles city inspectors seize more than 2,000 illegal carts.

The City Council in 1994 approved the creation of districts where sidewalk vendors could operate under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles County Department of Environment and Health Services.

The first zone was opened in MacArthur Park in 1999. A coalition of civic groups, led by the institute, helped residents gain the support of local merchants by convincing them that vendors would be properly screened and would not compete directly with established businesses.

At first, vendors were limited to selling merchandise and certain foods such as candy, fruit and soda. But it became clear, said Joseph Colletti, executive director of the institute, that the district needed hot food vendors. "That's what people in this neighborhood want," he said.

Each tamale cart costs $6,800. The development program pays for the carts and charges each operator $1 a year in rent, Colletti said. "We chose the same people that make carts for the Santa Monica Promenade to make ours. All the carts are color- and design-coordinated."

The restaurant provides vendors another venue to sell their food. But more important, it gives them a place to cook and store their tamales in accordance with county standards.

The restaurant buys tamales from the vendors, and the profit it makes goes into operating costs to keep the program afloat.

Vendors are learning how to comply with state and local regulations, as well as how to pay taxes on their sales.

"This is a business training restaurant, a vendor-operated restaurant," said Sandra Romero-Plasencia, who co-founded the institute with Colletti and works as the organization's head of community outreach and education. "We are the administrative arm, but vendors do the day-to-day operations."

Indeed, one of them, Juan Olaes, spent Saturday in the restaurant's kitchen, training his colleagues in the art of food presentation. Tamales were placed on banana leaves and cornhusks, and each plate was decorated with a dollop of sour cream and a sprig of fresh parsley.

Choices on Saturday reflected a wide range of Central and South American cuisines: from north, south and central Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador and Guatemala. Vendors decide what kind of tamales to produce and how many they want to sell to the restaurant or on the street. "We want the choice of tamales to be as ethnic . . . as it can be," said Romero-Plasencia.

Mojica's specialty is Mixiote tamales, a staple of her native Guerrero, Mexico. She makes them with chicken, potatoes, carrots, onions and aromatic huajillo chiles. Although most of her tamales reflect her Mexican roots, Mojica added one made with guava and cheese to her repertoire after being given the recipe by a Colombian friend. "She worked so hard to perfect that recipe," said Romero-Plasencia.

Saturday, two vendors had sold out by 12:30 p.m., and Mojica had to go back to the restaurant to restock. "It's a good day," she said. "Gracious God, the sales are good today."

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