How Selling Tacos in a Parking Lot Saved This Chef's Life
Esdras Ochoa went from selling street food to creating one of L.A.'s buzziest restaurants, Salazar.
Los Angeles is a sanctuary city, a place that wants to embrace diversity and shelters immigrants. But it's also the only major city in the United States where it's illegal to sell food on the sidewalk. So last Wednesday, the city council voted unanimously to decriminalize street vending. It will take months for vendors to start getting permits, and there will likely be complications, but this vote is an important step toward protecting immigrants and preserving a vital part of L.A.'s food culture.
In L.A., street food is everything. It can be a way for a mother or a grandmother, working a grill by herself late at night, to support her family by selling hot dogs. It can create opportunities for the disenfranchised, the lost, the unemployed. It can also lead to opening the hottest restaurant in town.
Esdras Ochoa is the chef at Salazar, a taco and Sonoran-style barbecue restaurant in Frogtown that opened last year and has routinely generated hour-plus waits for a table. It's packed with purposefully dressed-down millennials and families straight from soccer practice and even elderly couples on dates, sitting outside on a patio next to prominent actors and indie-rock royalty. Salazar cooks Niman Ranch pork chops, rainbow trout, assorted vegetables and bone-in rib eyes on a mesquite grill. It serves agua fresca cocktails, spectacular carne asada and the best flour tortillas in the city.
There is no other restaurant more perfect for L.A. at this moment, more calibrated for this city's rhythms, especially when you consider that you can avoid the crowds by going for brunch six days a week. At brunch, you can order tacos and red-and-green chorizo hash and feel free to work on your laptop for two hours after you're done eating.
Salazar is both a destination restaurant and a neighborhood restaurant. And there is no other L.A. restaurant that better represents how street food is the American Dream in living color, in the bright blues and oranges of Salazar's decor.
Back in 2009, Ochoa was 27 and had no job. He had studied fashion design and merchandising but wound up working in a casino. The recession hit, and he was laid off. He had no formal cooking training, had never worked under another chef, but he had been around food all his life growing up in Mexico. He remembered weekend barbecues, making tacos and carne asada with his family in Mexicali. He remembered how tacos were everywhere: You would eat them after soccer games and at big family parties and after going to the club.
So he found a space in downtown L.A., in a parking lot at First and Beaudry. He paid the parking company $200 a month and started selling tacos.
"It was out of necessity," Ochoa says. "It totally saved my life."
He put a little charcoal into a propane grill from Costco and heated up tortillas with a "makeshift little cast-iron thing" he got from a part-time welder in East L.A. Ochoa and his parents went around Mexicali, where the chef convinced a taquero to sell him a couple of red plastic Coca-Cola tables.
"They get them for free as long as they use Coca-Cola products," Ochoa remembers. "He goes, 'Yeah, give me 50 bucks for two, and I'll tell Coke they were stolen and just get some new ones."
Ochoa had those tables and eight chairs at what he called Mexicali Taco. He had a boombox and would blast electronic music and jazz in the wee hours.
"Depending on our mood, we would bust out the boombox, play loud music with the downtown backdrop," he says. "Smoke coming out of everywhere, tacos being slanged, the biggest parking lot of any restaurant in L.A. It was the perfect setup, man."
He admits he didn't know what he was getting into by opening a street stand downtown.
"I used to play a lot of poker, just gambled," Ochoa says. "I was just a kid. I winged it until I eventually started figuring it out."
He saw gang members and homeless people around his taco stand, and one night there was a shooting nearby. But the cops ate at Mexicali, and he felt OK about his setup.
Ochoa's $2 tacos became a sensation even though they were twice the price of tacos at other stands. Regulars saw and tasted the quality: the big flour tortillas, the steaks that Ochoa chopped up, the superior avocados and tomatoes he had found after going from market to market.
After two-and-a-half years spent making best-of lists and an appearance on the local ABC station, the health department shut down the stand. Ochoa was lost again. But he partnered with Paul Yoo, a frequent customer at the stand, to open a brick-and-mortar Mexicali downtown months later. His future partner at Salazar, Billy Silverman, was another customer who had found him in the parking lot.
Ochoa, of course, isn't the only chef who rose to prominence slinging tacos outside.
Ochoa's friend Wes Avila is opening a brick-and-mortar version of Guerrilla Tacos, a critically acclaimed truck that sells uni tostadas and foie gras tacos. And everybody knows how Roy Choi revolutionized the food-truck scene with the Korean tacos from his Kogi trucks. Choi, who now has restaurants all over the city including his game-changing Locol fast-food spot in Watts, also knows how uncertain the street food business can be.
"When we started moving lunches, that's when we started building relationships," Choi recalls of his one of his early downtown locations. "We were at 9th and Hope. We ran that spot for a year and half. That was a beautiful spot until we got kicked out."
But now L.A. has many places that are willing to give street food a home. Choi's Locol truck, Guerrilla Tacos and Ochoa's Califas Taco stand have all set up at the Sunday Smorgasburg food market downtown. And high-end restaurant operators want to be down with street vendors in 2017.
The NoMad Truck, which is crisscrossing L.A. until the NoMad hotel opens downtown later this year, sold a Choi chicken burger during its first month. It has parked outside the Line, the Koreatown hotel where Choi runs the restaurants. It has parked outside Salazar. It has parked regularly at Smorgasburg.
"I think Smorgasburg has been an amazing part of our growth," NoMad Truck chef Ashley Abodeely says. "And it's kind of an incubator for new and upcoming restaurants. It's a great way to taste other people's food. It's an amazing community."
On the first Friday night the Nomad Truck parked outside the Line, a woman who's long been selling hot dogs on that block showed up around 11. The hotel staff approached her to explain that the truck wouldn't always be there and that she would always be welcome outside the hotel.
"The reason we're doing this truck is to get to know neighborhoods," NoMad project manager Brandon Laterveer says. "The last thing we would ever want to do is disrupt it. The managers of the hotel were a little worried because they didn't want to upset the hot dog lady. She's just as much a part of that block as anybody. They talked to her, and she was completely fine, she was happy to be there. Honestly, she was a little busier than we were that night. It smelled so good. We actually got a hot dog from her."
This is L.A., where chefs like Ochoa believe that "competition is good, and everyone has the right to hustle."
Or as Choi posted on Instagram recently, "As a street vendor in L.A., of which I'm one, the true mountaintop, the kwan, is to be one day as efficient and compact as the hot dog ladies. That's my dream. When I'm there, if I ever get there, I'll know it's my time to leave this earth. Until then, they are the benchmark."
Chefs like Choi, who was unemployed when he started Kogi, know where they come from and really do respect the hustle of others. Salazar buys chorizo from Humberto "The Chori-Man" Raygoza, who became known a few years ago for the fantastic sausages he made in his home and sold to restaurants and bars. (Raygoza has also cooked at Smorgasburg.)
"I like the guy and I want to support him," Ochoa says. "He reminds me of me."
And even though he has wildly successful restaurants and plenty of offers to open new spaces, Ochoa still thinks about the magic of cooking food in a parking lot. He remembers having almost no overhead, paying a couple of guys $50 each for four hours of work, grilling until he ran out of food, selling 800-plus tacos in a night and leaving with more than $1,500.
"Honestly, I get why some people don't want to go legit," he says. "They just want to be an illegal street-food vendor because your profit margins are ridiculous."
Ochoa might be back with his own downtown stand soon enough.
"It all goes back to me being a street-food vendor," he says. "I have no shame in it. I love the fact that I started that way. I even thought about if they legalize the street stands, I would love to start a street stand where I started, First and Beaudry. I'd start slinging tacos there once a week, be there myself making these tacos. I think it'd be cool."