Why this food writer refuses to review street vendors

I just had the best birria of my life. This is not an understatement. It is a claim I make as a shameless mama's boy whose mama cooked it once a week - and as the lucky boyfriend of a cooking school graduate born and raised in Jalisco, the birthplace of this spicy goat stew, where I visit and eat at least once a year.

This particular birria was as complex as any ramen or pho - maybe even more so. The dry heat of the toasted red chiles and the luxuriousness of the bone broth were perfectly balanced. The birria was bursting with fiery umami without being salty.

The goat - locally raised, slaughtered in the previous 24 hours, simmered overnight - dissolved in my mouth. The salsas - a red, a green and a burgundy made with toasted peanuts - were thick, zesty and fresh-tasting. The tortillas were hand-made, hearty and deeply satisfying. Everything about this birria was legendary.

Yet, if I tell you where to find this particular bowl of street-sourced Mexican goat euphoria, the hardworking, genius cook could face up to a US$1,000 (S$1,350) fine or even six months in jail. So, much as it pains me - a food writer who lives to eat and who gets paid to find the most delicious spots in Los Angeles - I've got to keep it to myself.

Think back to all those nights when a sizzling, bacon-wrapped hot-dog hit the spot and sobered you up for the drive home. Remember the sweltering afternoon when that plastic clamshell container filled with ice-cold tropical fruit kept you going until dinner.

The street-vending experience is vital to the Los Angeles way of life. Each day, there are hundreds of vendors out in almost every part of this county.

Yet, the city of Los Angeles keeps in place a zero-tolerance policy: Any kind of vending on city streets is illegal and punishable by law, according to city ordinance 42.00(b). Consequences range from confiscation of cooking gear and ingredients to jail time and even deportation.

If I tell you where to find this particular bowl of street-sourced Mexican goat euphoria, the hardworking, genius cook could face up to a US$1,000 (S$1,350) fine or even six months in jail. So, much as it pains me - a food writer who lives to eat and who gets paid to find the most delicious spots in Los Angeles - I've got to keep it to myself.

Street vending in Los Angeles was first banned in the mid-1930s, but only downtown and then in other major business districts. In 1974, the city council voted to ban sidewalk vending throughout the city, with the goal of protecting brick-and-mortar merchants and public health. During the economic downturn of the 1990s, the council lifted the ban and allowed vendors to work legally in MacArthur Park, but they were shut down in 2006.

Currently, street vendors can obtain a Los Angeles County Health Code certification and a business tax licence. However, this paperwork doesn't mean anything, since vendors are still penalised for violating city laws in Los Angeles and elsewhere; cities throughout the county have similar bans.

It's curious, at best, that this street-food criminalisation has persisted in a time when Angelenos are obsessed with finding the best al pastor taco and will stop at nothing until they eat it, Instagram it, then Yelp about it.

Food writers, too, are stepping out of covering the Silver Lake and downtown food scene, and trekking east and south with their Nikons and Canons to places such as Lincoln Heights and Compton, where street food has always been abundant and affordable.

This journalistic work naturally entails publishing street vendors' addresses and hours of operation - and giving them an online presence for the very first time.

The good: more business from outsider foodies who want a taste of authenticity. The bad: getting on the radar of the health department and the local police precinct, and probably annoying the neighbours, since all the new customers have to park somewhere. Even worse: increasing the odds of the street vendor getting shut down - which is the last thing I'm looking to do to my favourite birria cook.

Growing up right off Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles, I saw a number of street vendors get arrested - a process that at times involved tears, piles of perfectly good food ending up in trash cans, and handcuffed fathers in the backseat of police cars. That is why, from the time I started writing about food professionally, I vowed not to publish any street vendor's location or any other content that might jeopardise the way they get by.

Ms Janet Favela of the East Los Angeles Community Corporation (ELACC), a former street vendor, is leading a city-wide campaign to legalise street vending, backed by the Los Angeles Food Policy Council and city councilmen such as Mr Jose Huizar and Mr Curren Price.

Street vendors are also advocating for themselves. I attended a recent meeting in Boyle Heights sponsored by the Food Policy Council and ELACC. Two Spanish-speaking vendors took a night off from work to ask for the public's support.

"We're entrepreneurs too! We work just as hard as anyone that has a business, we hire people that don't have work, and we give them work," said Boyle Heights vendor Caridad Vasquez. "If this isn't reason to support us, I don't know what is."

Those opposed to legalising vending say it will be difficult to regulate. However, that's hard to believe when you look at certified farmers' markets and regulated food trucks, two hugely successful institutions. And do we want to think that our city is not as progressive as Chicago and New York, which both have systems of successful street food regulation?

ELACC has done a survey showing that another point of contention - that street vendors take business away from bricks-and-mortar establishments - is a myth.

If numbers are what you need, a study last year by Economic Roundtable showed that street vendors create 5,234 jobs in Los Angeles county and that for every US$2 they earn, an additional US$1.72 in economic activity is generated. If taxed, they would ultimately add US$43 million to state and local tax revenues.

It's a shame for your tastebuds, too, because I won't tell you where you can find fresh, unpasteurised pulque (a fermented Mexican beverage that tastes like lactic, full-bodied coconut water) made from locally grown agave. And I'm not going to describe the woman who sells blue-corn quesadillas with tortillas made completely by hand, directly on the grill. And I'm definitely not going to tell anyone where they can find that bowl of birria.

•The writer is an East Los Angeles native and food culture reporter. This article first appeared in Zocalo Public Square, a project of the Centre for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and a not-for-profit "ideas exchange" that blends live events and humanities journalism.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 31, 2016, with the headline 'Why this food writer refuses to review street vendors'. Print Edition | Subscribe