"About five years ago, I ran into some trouble with a man from Michoacán, Mexico, and the problems got pretty bad. So I was like see ya,' and ended up in Los Angeles as a street food vendor."
Alfonso Garcia's business card portrays a muscular cartoon goat symbolizing Las Chivas, Guadalajara's most popular soccer team and overall symbol of the Mexican working class. "One must fully understand that a man who is disciplined is the best leader," it reads. It is a line out of the Mexican state police handbook, and whether it is by fighting bad guys or by efficiently chopping an onion, Garcia takes refuge in the act of discipline—and in feeding people.
"The amount of discipline needed to be a cop is very similar to the amount of discipline needed to be a cook," he says. "Specifically, the heavy discipline required to cook a dish consistently is like the heavy discipline required to not let any of the horrible things you see when you're a cop in Mexico phase you."
"The corruption level in Mexico is really bad everywhere right now. There wasn't a sense of security even within the police force, so I embraced cooking because I finally found a sense of peace in the kitchen that I was never able to find while I was a cop."
Before becoming the director for the state police in San Martin De Hidalgo, Garcia was an aircraft engineer for the Mexican Air Force, as well as a personal bodyguard on the side. Now, he sells tacos de birria in the streets of Los Angeles and uses his well-honed cop instincts to defend himself from the LAPD, which is known for harassing street vendors in Los Angeles and illegally confiscating their equipment. "The police come and try to illegally take everything that I have: my grill, my chairs, my tables, my food. They try to make it look like nothing ever happened," he asserts. "But that is when my former universal police training kicks in, I comply with their orders and speak to them in their own language, undaunted and composed." To this day, Garcia asserts that the police have only given him one ticket for illegally vending in the street, but were not able to confiscating his cooking gear.
Those tickets—ranging from $250-$1,000—are all part of a day's labor costs for Garcia and the other street vendors around the city. In some rare instances, these kind of citations have led to deportation too. The severity of the tickets often rests on preexisting personal grudges from local authorities, a common attitude since street vendors are often unfazed by being cited.
What Garcia is alluding to is the rising tension between authorities and street vendors. With a growing campaign to amend local regulations in Los Angeles County comes a heightened state of surveillance and more frequent raids, from both the health department and local police.
LA has one of the most active street food scenes in the US. According to a study released in December 2014 by Economic Roundtable, there are about 50,000 street vendors roaming the streets at this exact moment. Thus, it will probably surprise most of LA's street food enthusiasts—comprised of locals, tourists and transplant alike—that this urban haven of regional tacos, sliced tropical fruit carts, and bacon-wrapped hot dogs built upon this sprawling city is 100-percent illegal.
But this may change soon thanks to the efforts of a growing city-wide campaign to legalize street vending spearheaded by the East Los Angeles Community Corporation. This watchdog organization based in Boyle Heights has introduced legislation amending these vendor-unfriendly laws, and have gone as far as providing lawyers for harassed purveyors free of charge.
This hasn't deterred Garcia from cooking his native cuisine from the heart. He multi-tasks while he is talking to me and continues to mince a whole red onion for garnishing purposes—in one minute flat, bear-clawed and all.
Garcia's stand specializes in Guadalajara-style beef birria tacos, a style of taco that is omnipresent in the state of Jalisco but not so much in California, or any other state in Mexico for that matter. It is essentially a corn tortilla that is stuffed with exorbitantly spiced, juicy beef in a thick red chili-infused beef stock and then crisped up on a grill in its own spicy beef drippings. He serves the tacos with a complimentary styrofoam cup of that same birria-spiced bone broth, and usually sells out by noon every weekend.
"I have people that aren't even hungry but stop in their tracks and eat because they smell my spices and hear the radio station from Guadalajara that I stream through my phone. Some of my fellow Tapatío immigrants haven't been back in over 40 years and almost cry because of the nostalgia," Garcia says.
Jalisco-style Mexican food is a regional variant of the cuisine that was overlooked as the moles of Oaxaca and Puebla got all the attention, despite the fact that Jalisco is the birthplace of such Mexican culture assets as tequila, birria, and mariachi. Aside from the almighty torta ahogada, another dish that is emblematic of the western state is carne en su jugo, a soup of sorts that is composed of thinly shaved beef in a broth made from tomatillos, sprinkled with crumbled bacon.
Garcia prepares his food at his home located in the San Fernando Valley, an underrated part of Los Angeles County that hasn't gotten much attention since Valley Girl. Except for the food, that is—since it is the home of many first-generation Mexican immigrants, the regional Mexican cuisine available there is some of the best in all of Los Angeles. Mostly because the immigrants still have not lost their food traditions from their home country, unlike the second- and third-generation Mexican-American residents living in more central LA neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles, whose residents tend to resonate more with a bean-and-cheese burrito than with a cochinita pibil panucho.
The rare overcast—yet completely rainless—sky on the day of my visit was all the more depressing when driving around the curbless suburban streets of the San Fernando Valley, which are littered with mostly dried-out foxtails. When I finally arrive to my destination which is seemingly in the middle of nowhere, I follow the unmistakable smell of braised pork and arrive at an outhouse. Garcia is there, and the jolly, well-dressed 54-year-old native of Cocula, Jalisco–a small town about 44 miles away from Guadalajara–greets me on his porch with can of Bud Light in hand, and happily allows me into his home.
While Garcia begins prepping the food for a 200-plus wedding-catering gig the following day, he tells me about his life and his journey into becoming a street food vendor in Los Angeles. As he shares his story, he cooks up a feast of Guadalajara-style crispy tacos de papa (fried potato tacos seasoned with cumin) and tortas ahogadas (a torta drowned in a thin chile de arbol tomato salsa) stuffed with tender boiled buche (hog maw) that he rendered buttery-tender for me to snack on. After a few bites, I realize that I have never tasted this level of flavor accuracy of Mexican food using American ingredients anywhere else in the country.
He got into cooking for a living as a personal request from his nieces to cook Guadalajara-style dishes. His nieces are the only family that he has in Los Angeles. "I've never worked at a restaurant but I've always loved to cook and my entire family knows that," he says, before listing his favorite dishes to cook. He takes extra pride in the fact that he makes every single thing from scratch.. "I know you can buy cans of it, but I even boil the hominy in my pozole because that is the only way that I was taught how to do it by my father," he says.
We take a break from our conversation when a woman arrives to apply for a position taking orders at Garcia's hugely successful, weekend-only taco stand nearby. He already employs four people, but he needs to hire another person ASAP because his business is growing so fast.
A few Bud Lights later, he shares that he is currently attending meetings to have a stand at a local certified farmers market and is excited for that new chapter in his burgeoning cooking career. But as successful as everything may seem for him stateside, he still admits that all of this is only temporary.
"I miss every single damn thing about Guadalajara every single day here, so one way or another, I'm going to go back home one day soon."
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in June, 2015.