An Outdoor Night Market Blossoms As LA Recovers From COVID-19’s Devastation

Brittny Mejia Los Angeles Times

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Brittny Mejia reports, "What was a handful of small retailers last year in [an] alley-like street, between West Avenue 33 and Humboldt Street, has boomed into a full-fledged night market replete with opportunity, competition and a sense of community during the devastating pandemic."

Los Angeles

As sunset nears, a temporary town appears along a short stretch of industrial Lincoln Heights.

It has its own regulations, waste management system and at least 100 businesses selling acrylic nails, earrings, weed pipes and mouthwatering burgers, asada tacos and mini pancakes. Along the cracked asphalt, on weekends, a DJ plays music as crowds dance and drink out of clay cups rimmed red with Chamoy.

The businesses operate mostly under canopies or out of pushcarts. Vendors wait for workers at warehouses along Artesian Street to finish for the day so they can move into empty parking spots and set up tables and carts. They pay the young man who brings Home Depot trash cans, scatters them up and down the street and empties them throughout the weekend nights. Their form of self-governance? Telling newer vendors to move aside so the veterans can take their usual spots.

Because it is the veterans who understand the rules of this unofficial, part-time village.

What was a handful of small retailers last year in this alley-like street, between West Avenue 33 and Humboldt Street, has boomed into a full-fledged night market replete with opportunity, competition and a sense of community during the devastating pandemic.

Over the course of a week, thousands of people descend on this Eastside neighborhood, sometimes spending nearly an hour searching for a place to park. They peruse the stands, food trucks and carts, with the occasional car squeezing through the crowd. Weekends — morning and night — are the most congested.

The Avenue 26 night market may be the largest street food market in Southern California, although it's unclear how long it will last. Last week, rumors swirled among the vendors that the street would be shut down, although city officials denied it.

This is where Sergio Madriz struck out on his own, constructing his works of art, including the La Poblana, Alpastor, Crugiente B.B.Q. and Oaxacan burgers. Where Carlos Pavon and Berta Reynoso instill the value of hard work in their three sons, as they made churro bites and sundaes. Where 63-year-old Paulina Luna and 82-year-old Abelardo Arroyo sell elote and esquite to pay the rent and distract themselves from memories of the son and daughter stolen away by the pandemic.

After a year of the dining-room, bar and nightclub closures in the city, hundreds of people craving freedom and normalcy traverse the street each evening to see and be seen.

"It just feels good to be out," Dré Simpson, a Burbank resident, said on a recent Friday night as he enjoyed fresas con crema, strawberries and cream.

"It's like a breath of fresh air," his friend A.J. Jones, visiting from New York, added. The two learned about the market through TikTok, where they each have thousands of followers. "It makes me feel I'm being social, even though we're not talking to people."

"It makes you feel, I want to say, alive, but that sounds corny," Simpson said. "But being inside makes you depressed."

It all started with a taco stand.

Erasmo Reyes began selling 50-cent tacos in Lincoln Heights more than a decade ago, but it was his customers who coined the business' now celebrated name: Avenue 26 Tacos.

"It was an empty street," said Reyes, who sold tacos in the Mexican state of Puebla before immigrating to the U.S. The stand became known for the addictive suadero tacos, a cut of beef favored for its fatty flavor. It grew so popular that last fall the family opened a brick-and-mortar store downtown.

As the stand's popularity grew, it started to attract other vendors. The trickle began with Luna and Arroyo and grew into a stream. Today, after an economically devastating 2020 and an explosion of videos on TikTok, more than 100 businesses have filled the less than half-mile stretch of Artesian Street that pushes up against the Gold Line tracks.

Among them is Marlene Ybarra, who began making dulces enchilados — spicy candy — in February 2020 as a side hustle. She planned to start working at a preschool last year, but because of the pandemic the new school never opened. Now she relies full-time on the spicy candy to help pay her bills.

On a recent Friday afternoon, at the Que Rico Pica stand, the 32-year-old poured a secret sauce over dozens of red, white and blue Airhead Bites candies. Ybarra made sure they were moist before she sprinkled on the red chili mix, her own recipe.

Her red canopy tent backed up against the corrugated metal of L.A. Cabinet & Millwork Inc. Ybarra had just started selling here, inspired by her brother, who told her about the crowds near the taco stand they would frequent after taking in a Dodgers game.

"When my brother told me I was like, 'Why is he hyping up a taco spot so much?' And then when I came out, wow it's literally like the whole block," Ybarra said with a laugh. "It's nice that it's grown over the years."

But it hasn't been without growing pains.

When Ybarra arrived around 2 p.m. and began setting up, another vendor selling carne asada fries asked nicely if she wouldn't mind moving down a few feet because they'd been coming to that spot for years.

Then, two women asked Ybarra and her father, decked out in Dodger blue, where they could set up. They'd been selling micheladas here for a month, they explained, "brincando como chapulín de lado a lado" — jumping like a grasshopper from one side of the street to the other. Ybarra told them to wait for the fry vendor to return and direct them.

There's no formal site plan, but as Danny Munguía, head chef of Felice Italian Catering, will tell you, "people's spot really depends on how long they've been showing up here to sell." After his business took a near-fatal hit, Munguía has sold pizza close to Avenue 33 for the last three months. He went from selling 100 pizzas in a day before the pandemic to only 15 to 20. "I had to search for a way to survive," Munguía said. "I was about to go bankrupt."

He drives with his son from Torrance to sell at the market Friday through Sunday. He knows by now that workers at the rug warehouse along the street will be off by 4:30 p.m. and will move their cars, freeing up space for his food trailer, which touts "Naples styled gourmet pizza that travels to you." The pizza — margherita, spicy Hawaiian and pepperoni topped with fresh jalapeno — takes 60 seconds to cook in the black and red, dome-like wood fire oven.

"Every day, more vendors come," Munguía said as he surveyed the street where naked mannequins were propped against a barbed-wire fence for clothing vendors, a mobile ATM machine was parked along the curb and pink and blue portable toilets, charging $2 per use, were being unloaded. "I think they're going to fill this street."

Last week, vendors worried after "no stopping any time" signs went up along the street and traffic enforcement warned that the market could be shut down due to complaints. The Department of Public Health said it was not aware of any planned action.

Councilman Gil Cedillo's office denied the rumors, but added that "while this night market has grown organically, it is important that safety, proper health measures and cleanliness are practiced."

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