Last Saturday we attended the sixth annual LA Street Food Fest at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. The event attracted 5,000 visitors, but the size of the Rose Bowl and over 100 vendors kept long lines at bay and prevented it from feeling crowded. Really, the only daunting line was for Kalbi Sliders from Bachi Burger. It was very well-organized, and they even provided cardboard trays that looked like little pizza boxes and allowed you to carry four or more plates at a time. The food trucks and booths were divided into six sections: Latin, Asian, American, European, Iced Coffee/Donuts and the always popular “Ice Cream Social.” In addition there was tequila tasting, beer, cocktails, and wine tasting.
The event is primarily a showcase for smaller, independent restaurants and food trucks, but a few upscale eateries made an appearance. Although it’s all about fun, there is a friendly competition between booths with an awards ceremony at the end of the day. Judges included renowned food eaters and all-around supercool people like Jonathan Gold (the LA Times), Ngyuen Tran (formerly of Starry Kitchen) and Lesley Balla (writer, editor, media consultant).
Our very first taste upon entering the festival was Howlin’ Ray’s “Howlin’ Hot Chicken.” They were proud to be the only people in LA serving Nashville Chicken. They went home with the prize for “Best Nouveau Street Food,” and tied for “People’s Choice,” but I think they should have won for “Nearly Napalm.” It may have been the hottest food I have ever eaten. It was delicious, yes, but scorching.
Next up was Churchkey, barkers who always know how to put on a show. They were awarded “Best Showmanship” for their fried-to-order Brown Butter Glazed Donuts. I was more impressed by their Pig Ear Cheetohs, which was the crunchiest and lightest pig’s ear dish I have ever eaten, as pig’s ear can be pretty tough.
We were also pleased with Faith & Flower’s Greek Yogurt Panna Cotta, Puffed Wild Rice, and Yuzu Granita, which won “The Sweet Tooth.” I was initially disappointed that there was not a dish from Chef Michael Hung, but the pastry chef turned out to be just as talented. There was no tanginess from the yogurt, just a smooth, cool custard with toppings that provided a nice balance of flavors and textures.
Tom’s Urban tied for “People’s Choice” (with Howlin’ Ray’s) for their Grilled Three Cheese and Croatian Fig Jam. As I was leaving, I overheard a guy asking his friend, “Did you ever think you would leave here raving about a grilled cheese sandwich?” I also loved the grilled cheese from Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese with pastrami and sliced apple. They could have been a contender (Sorry, Josh. There is always next year).
“The Founders Award” went to Fred 62 for Fred Eric’s complex Ahi Tuna Poke Onigiri: warm rice ball, marinated spicy tuna, avocado, homemade furikake. A staple in bento box lunches, the rice balls are kind of like inside-out sushi.
The Lobos Truck served up “Wachos,” Waffle fries with nacho toppings that were practically the definition of drunk food. Osso’s bean salad with dill dressing was a pleasant surprise. I took an obligatory bite for review and couldn’t stop eating it. We were delighted to see Cassell’s in the house, and thrilled that the chef was happy with my review. Even without the double broiler, the grilled sliders were delicious. Australian meat pies from Bronzed Aussie were exciting, as it was our first taste of the new import. I’m wary of the ketchup, but the pastry was buttery and flaky, and the filling was meaty with a rich gravy.
By the time we arrived at the Latin section, there wasn’t enough room to try everything and we had to be selective. We loved Tacoteca’s take on Street Corn, which was sweet and irresistible. I remember commenting, “I know it’s just corn, but…” and receiving a nod of understanding. Perhaps the best bite of the day was the octopus and uni aguachile from the Ceviche Project. Katsuji Tanabe (Mexikosher, Top Chef) served a delicious taco of suaderno and chicharrones. As usual, we loved the tacos from Pinche Tacos and Diablo.
On a hot day there is nothing like ice cream, and the Food Fest delivered. Choctal served their nation-specific ice creams and we had our first delicious taste from Local Ice, whose motto is, “Without ice cream, there would be darkness and chaos.” Salt & Straw is always a star, serving flavors like Green Tamale, Mole Rojo Flan, and Papi’s Korean Fluffernutter, although we wimped out and chose the safe and familiar salted caramel. I must confess, my favorite ice cream this year is McConnell’s Eureka Lemon and Marionberries.
Donut Friend showed up with their rock-themed donuts: Bacon 182, White Stripes, and S’morrissey. Colorado Donuts are new to us, and we discovered they are extremely decadent. A cronut with a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup baked inside? Sheer madness.
We did drink responsibly, starting with Churchkey’s Bacardi Punch. The Venice Whaler served an interesting cocktail made with cantaloupe and vodka. We loved Elysian Brewing’s Super Fuzz Blood Orange Pale Ale. Just one more from locals Angel City Brewery and then we behaved.
At the end of the day, I can guarantee you that no one left hungry.
The complete list of winners:
Best Nouveau Street Food / Howlin’ Ray’s
(Howlin’ Hot Chicken, Mary’s Thigh, Country Pickles, Puritan Bread) …
Best Old School Street Food / La Guerrerense
(Smoked Tuna Pate Tostada with Sliced Scallop)
Best Showmanship / Church Key
(Brown Butter Glazed Donuts)
Best in Show / Mariscos el Mazateño
(Spicy Shrimp Taco)
Best Cocktail / Corazon y Miel
(“Mexicali”: frozen brown butter infused Don Julio reposado, di saronno, pineapple, rose garnish)
Wild Card / Indie Jams
(Pop “Indie” Tart: organic strawberry jam-filled pastry with a strawberry rosewater glaze sprinkled with Pop Rocks)
The Sweet Tooth / Faith & Flower
(Greek Yogurt Panna Cotta, Puffed Wild Rice, Yuzu Granita)
Founders Award / Fred 62
(Ahi Tuna Poke Onigiri: warm rice ball, marinated spicy tuna, avocado, homemade furikake)
People’s Choice TIE! / Tom’s Urban and Howlin’ Ray’s
(Grilled Three Cheese and Fig Jam)
(Howlin’ Ray’s Hot Chicken)