Bright lights and loud whirring trucks fill York Boulevard as the sun creeps below the horizon each night. A vast community of food vendors in tents and trucks line up alongside various restaurants, stores and bars. With beautiful weather year-round, LA offers the perfect backdrop for outdoor marketplaces. As one of the main streets in Highland Park, York Boulevard provides a place for commerce and community among neighbors and visitors alike.
York Boulevard’s street food scene now benefits from The Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, CA Senate Bill 946 (SB 946), which went into effect Jan. 1, 2019. Prior to the passing of this legislation, it was illegal for vendors to sell food on sidewalks. With SB 946, however, vendors operate legally and with official regulations.
One of the highlights of owning and operating a street vending business is having the ability to express your own culture, according to Nicholas Cerrapo, the owner of the vegan corn empanada stand Medallón. After living in Miami, Cerrapo packed up and moved to LA three years ago and has been operating Medallón on York Boulevard since last February.
“This was a project that I started, that I thought about when I moved here,” Cerrapo said.
LA’s lack of a vibrant Colombian culture compared to Miami inspired Cerrapo to start his business.
“In Miami, specifically, the Colombian culture is very strong,” Cerrapo said. “But here is very disappointing, you don’t find strong communities of Colombians.”
Cerrapo aspires to bring authentic Colombian recipes to the forefront of LA street food. When designing his business and creating recipes, Cerrapo said his vegetarian diet played a huge role in designing the all-vegan menu for Medallón. Currently, he serves corn empanadas filled with a variety of fillings including traditional Colombian tomato and onion stew; mushroom, caramelized onion and garbanzo beans; spinach and potato; and lentils and quinoa.
“My recipes are projections, or they tell stories of different cultures in Colombia,” Cerrapo said. “I just tried to add [those] recipes to a plant-based diet.”
Cerrapo is not the only stand on York Boulevard that serves vegan food. According to Cerrapo, Block Party, a local bar, was an initial supporter of the local vegan street food community. Two of the initial Mexican vegan street food stands started by operating on Block Party’s back patio late at night, according to Cerrapo.
“They [the vegan food vendors] started to get very busy and had to move to the front,” Cerrapo said. “When they started moving to the front, people started poking around, other vendors started popping out and [the] vegan community started recognizing the street.”
Mac and Cheese Rebel
Similarly to Medallón, neighboring food truck Mac and Cheese Rebel operates on York Boulevard and has countless vegan and vegetarian-friendly options, according to the truck’s first employee and Northeast LA native Charles Brunk. In addition to their home base on York Boulevard, Mac and Cheese Rebel caters for a variety of corporate events for companies such as Live Nation, Warner Brothers and Cartoon Network. For almost two years, the truck has been serving customers every Tuesday through Sunday night on York Boulevard across from owner Alfredo Gonzalez’s wife’s children’s clothing store, Vroom Vroom Bitsy Boo.
Brunk said in order to get one of the new street vendor permits, stands have to work together with neighboring storefronts for bathroom access.
“When you have a spot that’s regular with any properly run food truck, the city wants you to have access to a restroom,” Brunk said. “So, with their [Vroom Vroom Bitsy Boo] permission, we’re able to have access to their bathroom.”
Brunk and Gonzalez are both lifelong Northeast LA residents. Connecting with customers and community members is a vital aspect of the job, according to Brunk. Nearly 70 percent of customers are returners, Brunk said. Every Tuesday night is “Vegan Night” on York Boulevard, which attracts countless new visitors, according to Brunk.
“It’s ironic because Tuesday night is Vegan Night here, [and] I think we sell less vegan [options] that night, because we’re here all week,” Brunk said. “I mean, vegans know to come here when it’s not vegan Tuesdays, so that’s an interesting pattern I discovered.”
Natos Renterai, owner and operator of Natos Tacos, has been making homemade potato tacos on York Boulevard for over 11 years. According to Renterai, the secret behind the perfect potato taco is time. For the past 10 years, Occidental students and alumni have trekked from campus to Renterai’s stand every Thursday night.
“They keep on coming back, and now they’re regulars,” Renterai said.
As a Highland Park resident for the past 30 years, Renterai has focused on serving the community. According to Renterai, Occidental students are nice and always recognize his stand as one of the originals on York Boulevard.
Taco Sín Karma
Skye Castellanos is a relative of the owner of Taco Sín Karma, which has been open since 2016. According to Castellanos, Taco Sín Karma is a mobile plant-based Mexican food stand, located in front of Donut Friend every Tuesday and Block Party every Sunday. Castellanos said the concept of Taco Sín Karma is to add a spiritual aspect to old-school Mexican food.
“Karma just means good causes and bad causes. So Taco Sín Karma just means plant-based food with good causes and no negative effects,” Castellanos said.
Castellanos has maintained a plant-based diet for almost 10 years. He said his philosophy to sell plant-based street food came from a Dao blessing, which taught him to respect the lives of animals. According to Castellanos, it was important for Tacos Sín Karma to distinguish itself from other vendors by preparing their food without onions or garlic, because to do so is lighter on the body. According to Castellanos, onion and garlic have been used to eliminate bacteria and other toxins from meat. However, he said when you do not eat meat, using garlic and onions is comparable to taking medicine when you are not sick. Castellanos said he was skeptical when his Daoist blessing inspired him to stop eating garlic and onions.
“I was always taught that onion and garlic was really good for you, but they told me to try it out for 30 days, and I had been a vegetarian before receiving the blessing. And after those 30 days, I had never felt like that before. I just felt uplifted and everything kind of changed,” Castellanos said.
Castellanos is from Lincoln Heights in Northeast LA. According to Castellanos, Highland Park has been constantly changing since Donut Friend reached out to Taco Sín Karma two years ago to form a business partnership.
Liz McClaine and Laura Garcia are partners and co-owners of Sol’s Kitchen, a vegan baked goods stand in front of Palace Cleaners. According to McClaine, they started selling various treats on York Boulevard this past September, because they were locals in the Highland Park community and customers of other vegan food vendors. Although vendors compete with each other, Garcia said that a collaborative culture exists among them.
“I’ve gone around giving people samples to other vendors, and they are totally open to it,” Garcia said. “And they refer our sweets, like ‘Oh, they’re really good and they’re across the street.”
McClaine and Garcia sell a wide array of treats, from pumpkin bread to shortbread cookies with jelly. Garcia said that her mom is from Mexico, so she adapted her recipes and made them vegan. According to Garcia, people do not need to use animal products in order to replicate a buttery taste in baked goods. McClaine said that many people are skeptical when they first try them, but they have received much praise and support from the community — from Palace Cleaners to new customers.
“It’s always good to promote small businesses. If there are problems getting jobs and people can earn for themselves, they are not as likely to ask for help from the government and struggle with debt. Supporting local food vendors supports families like us,” McClaine said.
An abundant and vibrant street food culture exists on York Boulevard, attracting vegans and meat-lovers alike. With the decriminalization of street vendors, the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act has granted many opportunities for small-business owners to share and expand their craft. Beyond the vendors themselves, the street food culture of York Boulevard creates a community based on food, bringing together creative cooks and hungry customers in their shared love for all things delicious.
For Castellanos, York’s street food scene reflects a distinct change for Highland Park.
“This [Highland Park] is kind of known for street food now. It’s pretty cool to have that here, because it wasn’t like that 10 years ago. You couldn’t walk through here, because it was very dangerous,” Castellanos said. “Now you get a mixture of everybody. It’s just a whole spectrum of different cultures, different races and different colors. It’s really beautiful to see.”