Downtown LA’s Piñata District has surprises at every turn with delicious Salvadorian and Mexican street food, mountains of unusual candy, loud music, and of course, the most creative, original and strange piñatas you can imagine.
Los Angeles is known for its food trucks. In fact, you could say the city pioneered the mobile food industry which has since exploded into a national craze filled with gourmet offerings. Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy food trucks as much as the next guy, but what happened to good old fashioned street food? The kind of food you don’t find based on a tweet about its location. The kind of food that doesn’t cost the same, if not more than lunch at a restaurant. The kind of food that comes from a place without fancy brand messaging. The simple answer is, it just doesn’t seem to exist in America — and if it does, it’s not always easy to find.
As a traveler, street food isn’t something I associate with America (hot dog vendors in New York City and trendy farmers markets don’t count). When I think of street food, my mind wanders to markets throughout Southeast Asia or Latin America. When I think of street food, I’m transported to a place far away where I’m eating things I’ve never eaten, learning about the food and the people who prepared it, and feeling like I’m a part of the local fabric.
To experience this in America, and to discover it just 20 minutes from where I live in Los Angeles, well, I was surprised to say the least.
It exists in an area of Downtown Los Angeles known as the Piñata District. Located near the intersection of South Central Avenue and East Olympic Boulevard, you may not even notice the row of small warehouses with their metal garage doors and colorfully painted facades when the district is closed for business. When the garage doors open however, when the street vendors set up their stalls, and when the music starts blaring, there is absolutely no mistaking where you are — this, is the Piñata District.
Out from the warehouses and overflowing onto the sidewalk you’ll find spices, candy, party decorations, and of course, piñatas. Then there is the crowning reason to come — the street food. The real, the authentic and the no-tweeting-of-its-location street food. It’s a sensory overload of delicious Salvadorian and Mexican fare with everything from hearty meals that’ll fill you up to sweet and savory snacks that’ll hold you over.
It was just a matter of minutes before I lost sight of any plans to contain myself and started digging in. I ate a pupusa, a traditional Salvadorian dish made of a thick tortilla stuffed with cheese and refried beans, a fried plantain topped with sweet condensed milk, crispy pork rind, and a plate of carnitas tacos with a side of sweet pink pickled onions.
Thoroughly stuffed, I then walked from warehouse to warehouse to browse the vast selection of party supplies, unusual and spicy candies, and the colorful and creative piñatas that give this patch of Downtown Los Angeles its name. I tried some candy and bought the biggest piñata I could find to finish out what was a full afternoon of traveling in my own city.
This experience is just one more example of how you don’t need to go far to travel. You don’t always have to get on a plane or spend a lot of money to feel far away, to learn something new, to try new food, and to meet new people. Often times, you can find these experiences right down the street or a short drive from wherever you are. All you have to do is simply get up, go, explore.
After visiting the Piñata District, I spoke with many Los Angeles residents about my experience and their responses ranged from “I’ve never heard of it,” to “I think I’ve heard of it,” to the rare, “I went there to buy a piñata once.” This helped solidify what I had expected all along, when it comes to buying a piñata, the Piñata District is known to a small degree, but as a street food paradise, I’d consider the Piñata District virtually unknown (that is of course, except to the members of the local community who fill the street every weekend while spending time with their family and friends).
So whether you’re a Los Angeles resident, or a visitor looking to get way off the beaten path and experience LA beyond Hollywood Boulevard, movie studio backlots, and sunny beaches, I’d recommend visiting the Piñata District. Like I was, you’ll be met by locals who are happy to share a smile, share their food, and share their culture.
WHAT I ATE
I started with a pupusa, a traditional Salvadorian dish. It’s a thick and somewhat doughy corn tortilla stuffed with cheese and refried beans and topped with curtido, a lightly fermented cabbage relish which looks similar to a cole slaw, and a somewhat spicy and watery tomato sauce.
Moving through the market I skipped straight to dessert with a fried plantain. Poured over the top is a cream-based sauce and a drizzle of sweet condensed milk. I was eyeing these from the moment I arrived and couldn’t wait to get one (they are one of my favorite desserts).
Next up were a few pieces of pork rind, crackly and crispy fried pork skin. I’ve tried the pork rind you buy in a package from a convenience store, but I’d never had it fresh like this. I topped mine with a little salsa and a squeeze of lime.
Then came the carnitas tacos. A beautiful plate filled with two tacos, pico de gallo, a delicious mixture of sweet pink pickled onions, a perfectly ripe avocado, and last but not least, a very spicy roasted chili pepper.
After eating your fill of food, walk through store after store bursting at the seems with candy. I’m talking more candy in one place than you’ve probably ever seen in your life and flavors and brands you’ve probably never heard of.
HOW TO FIND IT
BEST TIME TO GO
I’d recommend going on a Saturday when the Piñata District is most alive. Arriving around 11AM will get you there right before it gets crowded. Stay, eat, and shop for a few hours and watch as the market fills up with locals.
A very special thank you to everyone we meet in the Piñata District who were warm, welcoming, and excited to share their food!
Video Credits: Produced & Hosted by Trevor Morrow. Videographer: Michael Schleifer
Photo Credit: Video stills by Michael Schleifer.