Growing up, there were things about my mom that never changed, like the way she’d take us downtown to shop in her old Toyota Corolla, get spun around and end up terribly lost.
This is how we stumbled into many of our favorite spots in el centro de Los Angeles — the Flower Market, the fabric district and los callejones, known to all as Santee Alley.
This is also how we discovered the Piñata District one day. For a huge Salvadoran immigrant family like mine to find an abundant, low-cost source of piñatas, candy and party supplies was a big deal. Decades later, the colorful corridor near Olympic Boulevard and Central Avenue is where I still go to stock up for my kids’ fiestas.
On a recent Saturday, I wandered down Olympic Boulevard in search of a Paw Patrol piñata when I realized it’d be nice to stop and share this place with others.
The Piñata District, after all, is far more than just party supplies. Every weekend, on the sidewalk, one of the most tantalizing street food markets sets up shop and thousands of people flock here. For several blocks, rainbow umbrellas and tarps create a circus-like tunnel filled with the sounds of cumbia and merengue, and with all kinds of Mexican and Central American food: pupusas, plantains, tacos, pambazos, burritos, birria.
I pulled out my cellphone that afternoon and recorded a few moments from the market, then posted the videos on Twitter. Within moments, my posts went viral, eventually reaching 1.5 million views. Hundreds of people were suddenly writing to me, quite hungry:
Happy Sunday everyone! Did u know one of the BEST street food tours u can take in Los Angeles happens every Saturday & Sunday at the Piñata District near downtown? Hold on 2 your taste buds & follow this thread 2 see all the comedera 🌮🥘🌯🍰👇🏽 pic.twitter.com/ducjVxOedB— Esmeralda Bermudez (@LATBermudez) March 10, 2019
My mouth is watering! Can I go this weekend?
How have I never heard of this place before?
Looks like we need a tour of the Piñata District when we head to L.A. in July.
Days later, people were still asking me about the food, so I did what any respectable journalist would do. I embedded myself in the market. I spent several weekends learning about the food, the vendors and their lives, the unwritten rules they live by to protect their turf and their recipes.
I also spoke with a lot of customers — families who’d show up to shop for a party, then go to lunch, or after church for a festive Sunday meal with their kids, cousins, aunts and abuela.
“The moment I walk into this place, it reminds me of home,” Robert Villalobos told me. The FedEx truck driver from Bell Gardens brings his wife and children to the Piñata District all the time to take in the ambiance and grab a bite at his favorite stall.
Some customers are so loyal to certain vendors they bring huge plastic dishes from home to load up tacos and salsa. And if code enforcers suddenly show up on the scene to ticket vendors and remove their belongings, some customers help sellers load up their trucks to escape.
“I’ve had to act fast and do that several times,” said Maggie Diaz of Gardena.
The food selling that goes on at the Piñata District, after all, is not approved by the city. It stopped being illegal early this year, but there are plenty of code violations that could be enforced by officials at any moment, so vendors are eternally vigilant.
It’s a dance that’s gone on for decades across Los Angeles — with fruit vendors on the Eastside, taqueros in the Valley, tamale sellers around MacArthur Park.
The Piñata District is unique, given the high concentration of vendors that squeeze onto the sidewalk and the endless foot traffic. The boom-boom of quebraditas and Cardi B blaring from loudspeakers turns the corridor into one big backyard party as women woo you to their menus.
It was here I found some fascinating characters like the Cheese Cowboys, Churro Boy and the Grandfather of the Corn.
I also found El Chapo, a fellow with diamonds in his teeth, considered a leader by many at the market.
He sells aguas frescas like horchata, jamaica and pineapple, all made with top-secret ingredients.
“I’ve got lots of competition here,” he told me. “So I guard my all recipes with my life.”