The Fruit of Downtown
Mayo-dipped elotes, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, al pastor tacos, fresh blue corn quesadillas — just a few of the drool-worthy and cheap street meals you can grab at nameless steel carts all over town. Any native or longtime Angeleno knows these carts have been dominating and influencing the food fabric of LA long before any food trucks pulled up to the scene.
These flavor-packed, quick bites recalibrate people’s palates, introducing them to how good food can be with very little fuss, very little money, and zero pretense. This is the real LA. The LA that invites you into a dubious alley, makes it feel like a home you’ve never lived in, and turns it into one you never want to leave.
But on hot sunny days — ok, almost any day in LA — your sweaty eyes will be drawn to one cart-type in particular: the ones with the colorful umbrellas that offer more than just a shady break. They represent refreshing relief with juicy stacks of chopped-up fresh fruit, ready to go home with you in a plastic bag.
“We have pineapple, we have mango, cantaloupe, watermelon, jicama, papaya, cucumber,” says Jose Luis in Spanish. He’s been slicing and dicing for three years and his fresh fruit is just the perfect canvas for the tasty toppings he has lined up, ready to sprinkle all over your fruit to elevate the flavors. Here’s just some of the topping choices you’ll have depending on what cart you happen to pull up next to: Chamoy (a Mexican sauce made from pickled fruit that’s salty, sweet, and spicy), Tajin (lemon chili salt you can put on the rim of your marg), and don’t you dare walk away without bathing your fruit with a fresh squeeze of lemon and some salt. The bags of fruit will run you anywhere from four to seven dollars, depending on the size you want.
Know that the people working these carts put in long, physically draining hours while on their feet and in the heat. Jose Luis’ day starts at 7AM as he collects and chops the fruit he’s estimated he’ll be selling for the day, loads up his cart, and makes sure to be ready to go by 10AM. He buys his fruit from the same Downtown LA marketplace most reputable restaurants source their goods. And for those doubters who steer clear of street fruit carts, Jose Luis vows: “We use gloves every time, for every order we use different gloves. We try to keep everything as clean as possible.”
But it’s important to note that this staple of LA street food isn’t what it was a decade ago — when police would regularly trash their fruit and shut them down for illegally running these carts. These days, Jose Luis says more people have the proper permits and he stresses that things have changed for the better, despite continuing debate on the legitimacy of these types of businesses. “We work without fear anymore, more security without problems from police. It’s a more pleasant experience.”
Written by Linda Hosmer
Photographed by Logan Havens
Videography by Logan Havens