L.A. Street Food: First Friday’s on Abbot Kinney Boulevard
Probably the main consideration as to the exact dates of my Los Angeles trip this Spring were to make sure that I’d be in the city for the first Friday of the month so I could participate in one of the biggest street food events in the cities calendar (which I’d somehow never actually been to): First Friday’s, the massive gathering of some of the cities best food trucks parked up all the way down and in the parking lot of The Brig bar on Venice’s Abbot Kinney Boulevard on – you guessed it – the first Friday of every month.
As probably one of the best things I’ve ever eaten out of a food truck or street food stall was in Los Angeles (from the now sadly no longer operational LudoTruck), I had very high hopes for all the street food I was going to eat on this trip, the pinnacle being on the last Friday of my trip. I’d heard how ridiculous the queues could get for the Kogi truck, arguably the most famous food truck in Los Angeles created by Roy Choi, one of L.A.’s most famous and beloved chefs, so I’d been sure to catch up with the truck earlier in the week. I was right to do so – at First Friday’s the queue was at least 30 people minimum long at some points, which is in my book way too long to wait for even the best Korean fusion taco.
While we’re on the subject of the Kogi truck, what did I actually think when I caught up with it parked up in front of the then empty Brig parking lot earlier that week? I ordered a selection of what was on offer: two tacos (one pork and one short rib) and the ‘Kogi Dog’ loaded hot dog off of the ‘favourites’ menu. I enjoyed the tacos, the short rib being slightly superior (isn’t it always?), both loaded with a delicious Korean style salad slaw. Very good, but I could not help thinking where I’d had better. While I did not have one on this trip so I can’t draw a straight comparison, I seem to remember enjoying the pork belly tacos at TLT Food in Westwood (a storefront, but based off of SoCal’s Lime Truck), and actually on the streets I think the creative offerings of Breddos Tacos in London knock these out of the park. As for the Kogi Dog, I found the concept very creative, and very ‘L.A.’. However, it was difficult to eat; you could not pick it up to take a bite (it was heavy with toppings, which also made the roll soggy so that it fell apart after a minute or two), and while there were sporks on offer at the truck, it is hard to eat a hot dog with a spork full stop, let alone on the streets. The topping was delicious; more Korean slaw and a good amount of kimchee (which I could eat for days), but I think there was too much mayo which made it rather greasy (American hot dog mayo is not like our English mayo). While it was by no means terrible, I ended up not finishing it. Don’t get me wrong, I thought the Kogi truck was good, and it does a lot for highlighting Los Angeles cuisine, but I don’t think that it is worth all of the queues and hype it inspires. If you do visit it, get there early and have the tacos.
Anyway, back to First Friday. After wandering around where most of the trucks were gathered outside The Brig as they were starting to open up, and walking all the way up and back down the boulevard past all the other parked up trucks at the event to see what was on offer, I zeroed in on the trucks I wanted to try. Some of these, like Coolhaus ice cream I’d been wanting to try for a while, others simply just caught my eye. I decided to start off at Steamy Bun, the lone bun truck, as steamed buns full of fresh, punchy ingredients, sauce, and perfectly cooked, Asian flavoured meats are always a favourite of mine on the London street food scene.
I went for the BBQ Pork bun, and it was okay. There was nothing wrong with it, but apart from the fantastic hit of fresh coriander, there was not the refined, punchy flavours I’ve come to associate with street buns, and the meat was just good; it had nothing to distinguish itself. And the bun was perfectly good, but did not have that pillowy effect I’ve come to associate with street buns; I think this is because I spied them coming out of a packet and then being given a final steam, rather than being steamed fresh as I’ve watched the Bao team do at Street Feast in London, and indeed I myself have done at home when I’ve made these buns out of Jamie Oliver’s Comfort Food, after eating far too many of them at his book party. It was a good bun, just nothing special. A disappointing start, especially as I’ve always seen (based off of when I used to live in Los Angeles) L.A. street food as the innovators, a step ahead of their London counterparts.
Next up we have my absolute favourite concept of the evening, something unique enough to build my excitement again: the sushi burrito. I’d read about the Jogasaki Burrito truck in passing, and it sounded right up my street; sushi made in burrito form, wrapped in soy paper for ease of eating. I know the idea seems really simple and obvious, so why don’t we have one of these in London? They come all wrapped up like a regular burrito in foil, so these would make perfect desk lunch fodder for the City.
After taking forever to make my selection out of all the different sushi options and combinations you can think of (and many you can’t), I decided to keep things simple with a classic Spicy Tuna & Avocado half Burrito – any street food pro will tell you to go for the smallest tasting size of anything possible, so you can try as much different food at whatever event you are at as humanly possible! Also, it is all about pacing yourself. Anyway, the burrito was easy to eat and delicious; the fish was fresh, the sauce was just spicy enough, the rice sticky and delicately flavoured, and the avocado perfectly ripe, rich and creamy as I’d come to expect from every good California avocado. And the concept excited me over and over again with every bite.
The truck also had many more exciting offerings, which if I come across the truck again I’ll be sure to try many more of and make a meal of it. Here we have some stuffed and fried Jalapeños, and I now really want to try one of the tempura shrimp or soft shell crab burritos. A must try, even just for the fun factor.
Dot Saigon and their famous Caramelised Pork Belly (made to the truck owner’s grandmothers recipe, no less) Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwiches were already on my radar before I hit up First Friday’s, and they were again recommended to me as a must try by the group of guys I sat down next to to finish my sushi burrito. Having bookmarked so many recipes for these and meaning to make myself at home at some point, I had very high hopes for what was actually to be my first ever Banh Mi experience.
The sandwich is good value; $9 for something so big that it would make a whole meal; I’d recommend splitting it between two. You need to know where to go and where to look to get good French style (or any white bread, actually) in Los Angeles, so I’m happy to report that this was made with good bread. The pork belly was also delicious, sweet, rich and very more-ish. I was also in love with the pickled daikon; fresh and crunchy, just what you expect from a Banh Mi. However, for flashes of flavour, and to live up to everything I’ve read about the classic sandwich, I think it could have done with more than just one sprig of coriander per half, and I think using a whole slice of the chilli in each portion too overpowered the rest of the sandwich somewhat. I also could not taste the pate much; with all the mayo like sauce, if I did not look for it, I would not have noticed it was there. However, if you come across this truck, I still think the sandwich is a must order.
For dessert, I was only ever going to have a Coolhaus ice cream sandwich. To me the golden standard of an ice cream sandwich is mint chocolate chip sandwiched between classic chocolate chip cookies (I used to live in Westwood and attended UCLA, so of course I came to this conclusion through rigorous testing at Diddy Reese!), so I opted for Coolhaus’ Dirty Mint Chip (one of their Summer specials, fresh mint infused ice cream with semisweet chocolate chips and a hint of brown sugar) sandwiched between two of their chocolate chip cookies. They hand it to you in a rice paper sheet wrapper (remember packets of these from the sweet shop, if you were a 90’s kid?), and it was hands down the best thing I ate that evening. The ice cream was delicious, an elevated mint chocolate chip, and the cookies were both crisp and chewy. Unlike most American ice cream sandwiches, this was nowhere near too sweet, either. Also, I honestly thought that the whole thing would melt all over me before I managed to eat it all, but the rice paper edible wrapper actually held all of the ice cream into the sandwich beautifully and was a dessert life saver; only two minor drips towards the end on the picnic table I was sitting at.
There is pretty much no information online about what trucks will be there each month (which makes for a pleasant surprise, unless you were hankering after a particular favourite), but also using Google it is pretty much impossible to find out online to find out what time First Friday’s kicks off. Luckily I was staying within walking distance of Abbot Kinney so this did not bother me too much, but for future reference the trucks start to arrive from about 5pm, but they don’t really start opening up until half past. This is when you really should start queueing for Kogi if you want to beat the rush, and all of the trucks are pretty much ready to go by 6:15. So, plan accordingly.
I can’t pretend that I was not disappointed by the offerings at First Friday’s. I’ve become used to the absolutely stellar food, organisation, care for quality techniques and ingredients, as well as creativity at London outfits such as KERB and Street Feast, a well as at stand alone food festivals such as Campo Viejo’s Streets of Spain they throw on Southbank every May Bank Holiday. While I used to set L.A. street food as the gold standard that we in Europe took our inspiration from, pretty much everything I have eaten out of a truck on this trip has convinced me that London now wears the crown, and I’m very excited for all the eating I have already planned for the Summer when I return. However, if you’re ever in Los Angeles on the first Friday of the month, be sure to head down to Abbot Kinney because it is still a great way to spend a balmy SoCal evening, and it provides a great cross section of Los Angeles street food culture. And there is a very good chance of sushi burritos.