SPOTLIGHT ON L.A.: Culinary delights found at Smorgasburg Los Angeles

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

Every Sunday, thousands of people converge on a strip of downtown Los Angeles known as the ROW DTLA complex to partake in Smorgasburg Los Angeles, an open-air market featuring food, entertainment, shopping, a beer garden and more.

It’s a lollapalooza of culinary delights from many of the city’s diverse communities.

Each week Smorgasburg L.A. vendors serve up their various cultural fare and specialty dishes, inspired to satisfy many an appetite.

From classic barbecue to seafood, pizza, acai bowls, Korean Mandu dumplings, plant-based pasta, buffalo cauliflower mac and cheeses, garlic noodles, tamales, fruit crisps, burritos, fish tacos, almost any kind of fare someone has a hankering for can be obtained from one of the 60 to 100 vendors.

Some of the participating vendors include Boong Croissant Taiyaki, Broad Street Oyster Co., Ensaymada Project, Cheezus, Happy Ice, Black Sugar Rib Co., The Goat Mafia, Evil Cooks, Los Dorados, Jolly Oyster, Sweetgrass, Love Hour, Quarantine Pizza Co., Lula’s Goodies, Mano Po, Smoke Queen BBQ, Taos 1986, URBN Pizza, Mama Musubi, ManEatingPlant, Shlap Muan, Be Bright Coffee and Cena Vegan.

Cena Vegan has been a part of Smorgasburg Los Angeles for five years. Their most popular item is a vegan taco.

“We wanted to participate in Smorgasburg because it brings our product to more customers,” Blanca Garcia, who works the Cena Vegan booth, said on a recent Sunday. “So far today we’ve had about 70 customers.”

Be Bright Coffee has participated for two years. The company, owned by Frank and Michelle La, also has a brick-and-mortar business on Melrose and Poinsettia in Hollywood. Their most popular signature drink is a Vivid Cream Latte, an iced latte with a ribbon of brown sugar, whipped cream and cocoa powder.

“We actually got involved with Smorgasburg by accident,” said Be Bright Coffee’s Edgar Granados. “The goal was for us to do direct to customer. We’re a local roaster in Los Angeles. 

“Since we’ve been here, we’ve done gangbusters. We’re here because the people wanted us. Today we’ve seen 600 people and had 300 sales. Financially, we’ve done very well today. We’ll be sticking around.”

Oobli Sweet Iced Tea, a new company that launched a couple of months ago, is a first-time participant.

“This is our first time being here,” Jackie Sweet said. “We’re a very new company. This is a start-up. Right now we’re only sold online. Smorgasburg is a good place to hit a lot of demographics.”

Some of the non-food vendors include Wild Little Coyote, Tusbi Soup, Rock and Sock, Rx Candles, JBoss Jewelry, Body Kantina, Baked Papaya, Montestruque, Cowpunk Leather Products, City Slickers, La Sirena, Studio Maxe and Shop Astrior.

Quinnol Barrett was a first-time visitor. The self-described entrepreneur drove from Victorville just to attend the event.

“I love it,” said Barrett, who saw an advertisement for the event on television. “People are out supporting businesses. “I’m an entrepreneur, so I understand the importance of supporting businesses. I’ll be back.”

Zina Ade, a consultant in the tech industry, just moved to Los Angeles from Dallas two weeks ago.

“I heard about the event and thought I would check it out,” said Ade, eating ice cream from a cup. “Every Sunday I like going to different kinds of markets. This is a good one. I will definitely come back.”

Smorgasburg L.A. is an incubator for the most delicious and innovative new food, shopping and other businesses.

“There is no better food city in the world,” said Zach Brooks, general manager of Smorgasburg Los Angeles since its inception seven years ago. “When you factor in the breadth of the cuisines we have in Los Angeles, we are such a diverse city with deep roots. We have amazing neighborhoods. 

“You can go to Koreatown, Thai Town and have Mexican food, Chinese food, Vietnamese or Indian food. This is because L.A. is so diverse. We’re proud of how you can define us as one thing — Smorgasburg.”

Smorgasburg L.A. provides a platform for nearly 100 small businesses curated from the next wave of SoCal’s food, beverage and shopping scene. With a family-friendly beer garden, the weekly event is designed as a perfect place to spend the day with friends, family, or colleagues.

“We have anywhere from 6,000 to 15,000 every Sunday,” Brooks said. “To be clear, we are an outdoor food and shopping market. We are not a food truck festival or farmer’s market. The participants are pop-up vendors in tents. 

“We pride ourselves on being an incubator. Most are small businesses. Most are women and people of color.”

Brooks said several Smorgasburg vendors have gone on to have great careers.

“We’re so proud of how many have graduated and become part of the important food business in Los Angeles,” he said. “We have a good team of people.”

Brooks, 47, a Miami native, who lived in New York and Boston before moving to Los Angeles 20 years ago, said all of the vendors are vetted.

“It’s hard to get into Smorgasburg L.A. because of the number of applications we get and because we don’t like to have too many vendors selling the same thing,” said the married father of three. “We get a ton of applications. We care about our vendors and how well they do. 

“We won’t have 10 pizza vendors and have them fight it out. We may have one or two — and help them to succeed.”

Brooks said they are always on the hunt for vendors from all disciplines and backgrounds.

“Some sell food, while others are vintage clothing and record collectors, and others sell clothing or toys, jewelry, candles, housewares and more,” Brooks said.

He said vendors are chosen to participate based not only on having great food but also their story, their connection to the food, their goals and expectations.

“Some have been in food trucks, cooked out their house or been in the business for 20 years,” he said. “We’re less about putting chain restaurants in here. We are trying to help small businesses grow. It’s a commitment. You can’t just come and go as you please. They commit to being there every Sunday.”

As the general manager, Brooks curates all of the food vendors, organizes and runs the market, and makes sure the vendors get what they want out of the experience.

Participating vendors pay anywhere between $150 and $375 a week for a 10-foot by 20-foot space. It costs more if they need power.

Smorgasburg L.A. started on Father’s Day, in June 2016. The event is free and there is plenty of free parking for two hours.

In addition to the Sunday event, Smorgasburg L.A. hosts several rotating add-on events including a barbecue day pop-up where vendors offer specials.

There is also Ice Cream Alley, which will run through Sept. 3.

Brooks, a former food writer who wrote a column called “Midtown Lunch,” describes it as “a literal alley with 10 ice cream vendors.”

There is also a SmorgasBAR every Thursday and Friday from 4 to 10 p.m. on The Narrows of ROW DTLA through Nov. 10, featuring specialty beers and drinks curated just for the occasion. It features the menu of “I Love Micheladas” and local craft brews, plus a wine list curated by Flask & Field. Each night a different Smorgasburg food vendor will pop up, alongside the musical vibes curated by Diego Guerrero of Altura.

Every third Sunday of the month is the Record Fair from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It’s curated by Dublab!

Smorgasburg, which started in Brooklyn in 2011, operates the largest open-air food markets in the country, with locations in New York, Jersey City, Sao Paulo and, most recently, Miami and Toronto.

“I love it,” Brooks said. “I don’t call it work. There is no better place to be on a Sunday.”

Smorgasburg Los Angeles operates every Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at ROW DTLA, 777 S. Alameda St., Los Angeles.

Dogs are not allowed.

“Spotlight on L.A.” is a new feature profiling little known places within the city. 

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.

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