Avenue 26 night market

Workers work at a quick pace as customers line up for tacos at the Avenue 26 night market in Lincoln Heights on Friday, May 14, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

LOS ANGELES – As sunset nears, a temporary town appears along a short stretch of industrial Lincoln Heights.

It has its own regulations, waste management system and at least 100 businesses selling acrylic nails, earrings, weed pipes and mouthwatering burgers, asada tacos and mini pancakes. Along the cracked asphalt, on weekends, a DJ plays music as crowds dance and drink out of clay cups rimmed red with Chamoy.

The businesses operate mostly under canopies or out of pushcarts. Vendors wait for workers at warehouses along Artesian Street to finish for the day so they can move into empty parking spots and set up tables and carts. They pay the young man who brings Home Depot trash cans, scatters them up and down the street and empties them throughout the weekend nights.

Their form of self-governance? Telling newer vendors to move aside so the veterans can take their usual spots.

Because it is the veterans who understand the rules of this unofficial, part-time village.

What was a handful of small retailers last year in this alley-like street, between West Avenue 33 and Humboldt Street, has boomed into a full-fledged night market replete with opportunity, competition and a sense of community during the devastating pandemic.

Over the course of a week, thousands of people descend on this Eastside neighborhood, sometimes spending nearly an hour searching for a place to park. They peruse the stands, food trucks and carts, with the occasional car squeezing through the crowd. Weekends — morning and night — are the most congested.

The Avenue 26 night market may be the largest street food market in Southern California, although it's unclear how long it will last. Last week, rumors swirled among the vendors that the street would be shut down, although city officials denied it.

This is where Sergio Madriz struck out on his own, constructing his works of art, including the La Poblana, Alpastor, Crugiente B.B.Q. and Oaxacan burgers. Where Carlos Pavon and Berta Reynoso instill the value of hard work in their three sons, as they made churro bites and sundaes. Where 63-year-old Paulina Luna and 82-year-old Abelardo Arroyo sell elote and esquite to pay the rent and distract themselves from memories of the son and daughter stolen away by the pandemic.

After a year of the dining-room, bar and nightclub closures in the city, hundreds of people craving freedom and normalcy traverse the street each evening to see and be seen.

"It just feels good to be out," Dré Simpson, a Burbank resident, said on a recent Friday night as he enjoyed fresas con crema, strawberries and cream.

"It's like a breath of fresh air," his friend A.J. Jones, visiting from New York, added. The two learned about the market through TikTok, where they each have thousands of followers. "It makes me feel I'm being social, even though we're not talking to people."

"It makes you feel, I want to say, alive, but that sounds corny," Simpson said. "But being inside makes you depressed."

It all started with a taco stand.

Erasmo Reyes began selling 50-cent tacos in Lincoln Heights more than a decade ago, but it was his customers who coined the business' now celebrated name: Avenue 26 Tacos.

"It was an empty street," said Reyes, who sold tacos in the Mexican state of Puebla before immigrating to the U.S. The stand became known for the addictive suadero tacos, a cut of beef favored for its fatty flavor. It grew so popular that last fall the family opened a brick-and-mortar store downtown.

As the stand's popularity grew, it started to attract other vendors. The trickle began with Luna and Arroyo and grew into a stream. Today, after an economically devastating 2020 and an explosion of videos on TikTok, more than 100 businesses have filled the less than half-mile stretch of Artesian Street that pushes up against the Gold Line tracks.

Among them is Marlene Ybarra, who began making dulces enchilados — spicy candy — in February 2020 as a side hustle. She planned to start working at a preschool last year, but because of the pandemic the new school never opened. Now she relies full-time on the spicy candy to help pay her bills.

On a recent Friday afternoon, at the Que Rico Pica stand, the 32-year-old poured a secret sauce over dozens of red, white and blue Airhead Bites candies. Ybarra made sure they were moist before she sprinkled on the red chili mix, her own recipe.

Her red canopy tent backed up against the corrugated metal of L.A. Cabinet & Millwork Inc. Ybarra had just started selling here, inspired by her brother, who told her about the crowds near the taco stand they would frequent after taking in a Dodgers game.

"When my brother told me I was like, 'Why is he hyping up a taco spot so much?' And then when I came out, wow it's literally like the whole block," Ybarra said with a laugh. "It's nice that it's grown over the years."

But it hasn't been without growing pains.

When Ybarra arrived around 2 p.m. and began setting up, another vendor selling carne asada fries asked nicely if she wouldn't mind moving down a few feet because they'd been coming to that spot for years.

Then, two women asked Ybarra and her father, decked out in Dodger blue, where they could set up. They'd been selling micheladas here for a month, they explained, "brincando como chapulín de lado a lado" — jumping like a grasshopper from one side of the street to the other. Ybarra told them to wait for the fry vendor to return and direct them.

There's no formal site plan, but as Danny Munguía, head chef of Felice Italian Catering, will tell you, "people's spot really depends on how long they've been showing up here to sell." After his business took a near-fatal hit, Munguía has sold pizza close to Avenue 33 for the last three months. He went from selling 100 pizzas in a day before the pandemic to only 15 to 20.

"I had to search for a way to survive," Munguía said. "I was about to go bankrupt."

He drives with his son from Torrance to sell at the market Friday through Sunday. He knows by now that workers at the rug warehouse along the street will be off by 4:30 p.m. and will move their cars, freeing up space for his food trailer, which touts "Naples styled gourmet pizza that travels to you." The pizza — margherita, spicy Hawaiian and pepperoni topped with fresh jalapeno — takes 60 seconds to cook in the black and red, dome-like wood fire oven.

"Every day, more vendors come," Munguía said as he surveyed the street where naked mannequins were propped against a barbed-wire fence for clothing vendors, a mobile ATM machine was parked along the curb and pink and blue portable toilets, charging $2 per use, were being unloaded. "I think they're going to fill this street."

Last week, vendors worried after "no stopping any time" signs went up along the street and traffic enforcement warned that the market could be shut down due to complaints. The Department of Public Health said it was not aware of any planned action.

Councilman Gil Cedillo's office denied the rumors, but added that "while this night market has grown organically, it is important that safety, proper health measures and cleanliness are practiced."

"We want residents and vendors to make a living but we urge all participants to remain in compliance with the City Ordinance and comply with ADA, safety, and COVID-19 guidelines," Conrado TerrazasCross, Cedillo's spokesman, said in a statement.

On a recent Friday even before sunset, a handful of people were lined up at Avenue 26 Tacos where they charge $1.25 per taco. The stand now has two spots, one along Artesian Street and the other along Humboldt. The enticing smell of the al pastor trompo competed with that of corn smothered in butter.

At the night market, vendors call Paulina Luna "reina de los esquites" — queen of the esquites, a buttery soup of kernels and spicy ingredients. She keeps corn on the cob and kernels in 5- and 10-gallon orange water coolers. Both longtime Lincoln Heights residents, she and her husband began selling here more than four years ago along a nearly empty and darkened street. As seniors, their job options were limited.

Neighbors looked out for the couple and in return, Luna would give them leftover corn. People called her idea of adding a Hot Cheetos topping a "locura," crazy. And so their business' name was born: Esquites Locos, Crazy Corn.

They were there most weeks for years. Then, two of their children contracted COVID-19 and landed in the hospital. In January, they lost their adult daughter. The next month, a son.

"We thought we were going to go first," Luna said.

They didn't return to the street for months, busy attending funerals and grieving their loss. Fellow vendors didn't forget them, saving the couple a space. But when they returned a month and a half ago, more corn vendors had popped up at the night market, meaning fewer sales. Her customers felt hampered by their inability to park in front of her stand and get corn as they had in the past.

The couple couldn't give up though; they are responsible for the 13-year-old son their daughter left behind. The teenager sells candy and soda at a stall next to his grandparents. "We have to keep moving forward," Luna said. "Here, we've met and talked to people and we forget sometimes what happened."

They've found comfort among vendors they've known for years. One of them gave Luna an LED sign for the stall that flashes "crazy corn." The couple joined in when vendors sang "Las Mañanitas" — a traditional birthday song — to the woman selling pupusas who has become a close friend of Luna's.

For customers, the market has provided the same sense of escape from the shutdown.

"Last year when the whole COVID thing started, halfway through the year, everybody started coming out and this motivated more people in the neighborhood to come out, come see each other," said Salvador Bonilla, who lives near the market on Avenue 25.

"That's what brings a lot of people to keep on going and not just get stuck and just think about the bad," his friend, Jonathan Barrera added as he pulled money out of the ATM. "There's good still out here and we can keep on going."

Shortly after 9 p.m., there were 115 vendors on the street. At Churros El Bochito, where Pavon and Reynoso have worked for three years, the family sold their sweets near a Volkswagen Beetle that they had painted blue and white for the Dodgers. At Babycakess, workers dressed up round, fluffy pancake balls with powdered sugar, whipped cream and Oreos; one of the owners had lost her job because of the pandemic. Nearly everyone has signs urging you to follow them on Instagram.

One vendor, selling tacos, tortas and quesadillas, said he makes double here what he did working in a restaurant, and for fewer hours. From their stalls, men and women shouted "hot dogs," "esquites" and "burgers" as children ran around with pink and blue cotton candy.

To Shon Davis, who had just polished off four asada and two al pastor tacos, the market reminded him of Mexico where he'd spent the last six months working remotely.

"This is definitely a lot more than I was expecting," the Chinatown resident said. "It's like the extension of the Santee Alley — at night."

Toward the middle of the market in front of DJ Magic, a growing crowd joined in or watched as Dru Tillis IV danced to Oscar Padilla's song "El Tamalero." Only a few songs in and his blue shirt was drenched in sweat.

Tillis IV, who is Black, has been dancing here for three months, posting videos to his TikTok.  In them, he dances with Latino vendors and promotes Black and brown unity. One, wishing a "Happy Cinco De Mayo From the Black Community," garnered more than  three million views.

"We need more unity and peace between cultures," Tillis IV said.

At 12:30 a.m. as the music died down and the street began to clear, Luna and her husband prepared to head home. She sighed as she stared into an orange cooler that was just under half full. She hadn't sold enough that night and would have to throw out what remained.

She would try her luck tomorrow night when the town appeared once more.

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