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'Global Street Food': Thoughts on tacos, banh mi and more

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Park five popular food trucks in a square in a parking lot and you've constructed an instant plaza. So observed Evan Kleiman, host of the KCRW radio show "Good Food" as she surveyed the scene Sunday following a panel she moderated on Global Street Food in Santa Monica.

To start things off, Kleiman said the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that 2.5 billion people eat street food every day. She asked her panelists to relate early memories of street food.

The program, presented by KCRW-FM (89.9) and Santa Monica College at the Broad Stage, brought together food writers Jonathan Gold of the LA Weekly and Gustavo Arellano of the OC Weekly, along with restaurateur Jet Tila and the voices of Lesley Tellez from Mexico and Robyn Eckhardt from Malaysia.

For Tila, street food in his childhood was eaten at the Thai temple where grandmothers set up tables to serve their specialities and where he frequently ate sticky rice with mango and meat cooked on skewers. Arellano recalled "a bunch of eros" -- such as the paletero carts selling frozen pops. And Gold noted that L.A. street food in his childhood "meant we didn't have to get out of the car to eat it."

Gold and Kleiman also recalled the Helms Bakery trucks that trawled the city selling jelly doughnuts from wood drawers.

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Los Angeles has been a city where adventurous eaters can taste the world, but the explosion of food trucks has brought dishes to people who might otherwise shy away from unknown neighborhoods and unfamiliar eateries.

Panelists compared the scene here to that in other cities and countries. Portland, Ore., Gold noted, has an area where vendors are lined up together and sell a wide variety of foods. Denver has a street burrito culture, Arellano said. In Thailand, street food is considered takeout food, and people might create a meal by getting various dishes from the best cart for each item.

Kleiman got plenty of stomachs rumbling in the full-house audience with her description of street food in Naples, Italy: ice cream on warm sliced brioche. "I was standing on the street, leaning over, totally enjoying it," she said.

She noted that in L.A., officials have not completely figured out how to regulate street food, and that disputes have occurred over use of space and competition with stationary restaurants. Panelists noted that dishes sold on the street often are those that the makers feel strongly connected to.

And then came the moment many people were waiting for: Each audience member had been given five tickets to take to the Broad Stage parking lot and wait in genial lines in the sun for goodies: Let's Be Frank hot dogs, Mariscos Jalisco tacos, India Jones curry, Piaggio Gourmet empanadas, Nom Nom banh mi and Crepe'N Around dessert crepes.

-- Mary MacVean

Photos by Galen Landsberg

 
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