A melting pot of human ingredients—elegant seniors and stylish twenty-somethings, fashionistas and slackers, various races and backgrounds and financial circumstances—comprises the audience before Chef Ray Garcia of Downtown’s B.S. Taqueria, who chops cauliflower into “steaks” for his al pastor cauliflower tacos as a mirror reflects his live demonstration to the crowd. “Al pastor made it from Lebanon to Central Mexico,” he says, his eyes fixed on his work, “and now it’s making its way to Silver Lake in vegan form.”
That’s a pretty solid scene to symbolize the bacchanal of humanity East Los Angeles offers, even if you aren’t riding a fried-food high.
The EastSide Food Festival, serving up its third year at Silver Lake’s historic Mack Sennett Studios, may need to make some room to allow for its expanding waistline. The word is out, the scents are in the air, and like many LA fests before it, critical mass is being reached. By the halfway point, booths were running out of samples; by the final hour, the fest became a default dance party as only the alcohol vendors seemed prepared with a bottomless supply. It’s a good problem to have; most bellies and mouths were far too full to complain.
However the fest adjusts its recipe for next year, this year embodied the cultural range of the area with gusto. Under the rafters and theatrical lights of the studio’s high ceilings, eclectic interpretations of global cuisine were stuffed shoulder-to-shoulder. Trois Familia, the acclaimed brunch destination, presented its French-Mexican-Californian fusion in the form of mashed potato double-tacos, soft and hard taco shells melding and crunching around the creamy interiors like savory candy bars. Momed’s Middle Eastern menu paired avocado hummus (too smooth to confuse with guacamole) with rich duck shawarma. Kitchen Mouse repped LA’s vegan brunch scene with mouse-sized portions of tempeh chili and cornbread, joining the ranks of comfort food ranging from WOOD’s thin-crust pizza to Same Same Thai’s pork-fried rice.
Naturally, a Food Fest embracing the Los Angeles landscape needs to embrace the expected in order to deliver extraordinary examples. LA’s liquid fixations were eagerly acknowledged; Go Get Em Tiger’s espresso was like late-afternoon oxygen for caffeine addicts and Clover Juice’s cold-pressed ginger shots reassured some immunity boosts for the health-conscious binging on creamy sauces and desserts. To that end, LA’s not-so-secret sweet tooth was dutifully indulged by Jeni’s eclectic ice cream flavors (you don’t need to identify a brambleberry to know it’s delicious) and Icy Rush Co.’s popsicles (spicy watermelon is perfect for an October that still feels like July).
These culinary creatives resembled rock stars with waxed ’staches and a desire to challenge and please in equal measure.
And of course, there’s LA’s high-functioning love affair with booze. Selections ranged from the presentational (frozen bottled vodka with a hibiscus tea-lemon-simply syrup pour-over, courtesy of Our/Vodka, became sought-after status symbols throughout the evening) to the powerful (Angel City’s IPA may be too hoppy to pair easily with other dishes, but it gets the job done). The presence of liquor blurred the lines between chefs, baristas, bartenders, and the attendees whose cravings they satisfied. Indeed, these culinary creatives resembled rock stars with waxed ’staches and a desire to challenge and please in equal measure—fitting for the neighborhoods they represented. No chef behaved more like a punk rocker than Chef Nguyen Tran, who triumphantly returned with both his signature crispy tofu balls (served at Starry Kitchen and the barcade Button Mash) and his banana costume, worn proudly as he occasionally followed people with a megaphone in hand.
But what was the real headliner of the festival? Anyone who’s ever called Texas a destination or a home will find a lot of complex joy in a seemingly simple serving: a handful of tortilla chips and HomeState’s queso dip, perfected over the course of four years in its vision to both honor its humble Austin heritage and bring fresh, quality ingredients into the creamy mix. The result is a word-of-drooling-mouth success that doesn’t look like much but tastes nostalgic, ambitious, comforting, and celebratory in equal measure. If every sample at the Fest was a personal statement, HomeState’s queso was an exclamation point.
What defines East LA enough to summarize its cuisine scene? Everyone who resides here is a bit defiant, a bit defensive: “It’s like LA, but ___,” we’re likely to opine. Removed from the beaches and the boardwalks, East LA’s palm trees tower above landlocked urban sprawl instead. Everyone has a different idea of where “East LA” begins and ends, and everyone has an opinion of how it differentiates itself, but its unifying factor is the claim its varied residents make on cultural identity. LA is a buffet of transplants all looking for reminders of home while shifting them in preferred directions. It’s this, but different. It’s home, but better. It’s food for those of us still figuring out what exactly we’re hungry for. FL