I remember years ago reading about the development of Los Angeles and thinking it was a vulgar story of Man destroying Nature. But that unhelpfully simplifies a more complex story, because the idea of treating Man and Nature separately only causes us to miss the intertwined realities of landscapes that we make and are a part of.
I thought about that as I drove across the tops of the hills on Mulholland Drive. The sun had disappeared behind me, and I wound around in the way that mountaintop roads do—rises and dips and corners and curves and sudden and disappearing views of lights down below; the city turned into patches of fireflies.
And I thought about that while standing at the corner of Alvarado and Kent, looking at the taco tables. I’ve known restaurants that serve tacos, taquerias, taco trucks, and taco carts. But in all my taco-eating days never had I encountered the taco table until given a hand-drawn map by a local chef. “They come out at night, after the Health Department officials have all gone home,” she told me. “They’re my favorite.”
She told me to look out for men with folding tables, construction lamps clamped to poles, portable generators. Where she’d x-ed her map, I found two sets of them: men with wheeled griddles, augmented with wide, in-set pots and rudimentary steam tables. We lined up at one, and I admired the meat the cook pulled off the griddle as one of his partners handled crowd control around the six-foot picnic table he’d loaded with condiments and salsas. We were seven or eight people deep in line when the cook called to me and advised me to move on. “We’re finished,” he said. “No more.” I protested, pointing at the pile of beef and pork still resting by his griddle. Then I saw the enormous quantity of tacos that customers were walking away with, and I understood.
I thanked him for the early warning, and my friend and I led a migration down the block to the other table. The cook was older, his light a little dimmer, his griddle a little ricketier. He had meats searing on his flat top, and a mess of other meats was bubbling away in one another’s juices in a wide pot. I ordered a battery of tacos, from cheek to brisket, and a couple of the tiny quesadillas called mulitas. He dipped a stack of pliant tortillas, barely as big as the palm of his hand, in his pot’s juicy fat, slapping them down onto the heat. He fished meats out from the dim murk with flimsy tongs and clacked at them with a dollar-store cleaver right on his griddle. He stuffed my tacos two by two on paper plates, and we floated over to the salsas set on a folding card table. A man offered plastic sandwich bags and encouraged us to fill them.
We ate quickly, the good food warming in the cold air as we watched people coalesce into a line. There were men coming by after work, whites and browns, hipsters, a few Goth kids. I kept looking back at the man at the griddle. I kept looking at the table, with its grid of buckets holding verdant limes, pink radishes, bright green and brick-red sauces. A plastic bag floated in someone’s hand, catching the sloshing weight of spoonfuls of salsa.
This, too, is the landscape of Los Angeles.