Don't believe the hype about street food taking over Orange County in the past couple of years—there is no such scene outside of Santa Ana. Luxe loncheras at clustertrucks? Pshaw. I'm talking street vendors, the tamale men of the past or the Manhattan halal guys of today: people who set up shop on a busy street corner and sell from before sunrise into the late night. Only the county's barrios have an inkling of a street-food scene—all underground, of course, which means it exists only as neighborhood secrets who run once the authorities come. And only Santa Ana has any type of officially sanctioned food-cart scene—mango ladies centered in downtown, and even those mujeres close up shop around sunset, the promise of mangoes and chips and sodas not needed for the city's hipsters of the night.
Only one cart bravely pushes into the evening. It stands on the corner of Fourth Street and Broadway and sells a foodstuff that's the toast of Los Angeles yet almost invisible in Orange County: Mexican-style bacon-wrapped hot dogs; heavy on the grilled onions and jalapeños; mixed with mayo, mustard and ketchup; and thrown into a bun that's more silo than bread. Local wiener vendors sell bacon-wrapped hot dogs, but it's that cart experience—seeing pink-toned uncooked bacon wrapped around the raw franks, a pyramid of them awaiting an order, hearing the sizzle of the meat on the grill, watching the bacon crisp and transform into brittle pig candy—that elevates eating the hot dog into an urban experience bar none. These aren't the best Mexican-style bacon-wrapped hot dogs you'll ever taste—the bun crumbles too easily—but when the various umami notes of this meal mix around in your mouth, the grease acting as a binding agent, few meals are more fundamentally pleasing, more perfect to scarf down to fuel a nighttime of drinking or bring one to a close.
The cart (which has no formal name other than the "HOT DOGS HOT DOGS HOT DOGS" on its canopy) has treats besides the bacon-wrapped hot dogs. Bags of chicharrones hang from the side; plastic containers of fruit salad await a spritz of lime juice and a dusting of chile powder. It does a brisk sale in tostilocos, a sort of mestizo Fritos pie in which a bag of chips is mixed with Japanese peanuts, fruit bits and pork rinds, then bathed in Tapatío and chamoy, a fruit-based sauce the way only Mexicans can make fruit-based sauces: simultaneously sweet, salty, spicy and savory. Tostilocos skip through nearly every possible food experience—crunchy, bitter, sour, soggy, everything—into a glorious mess, one that just might be the next bacon-wrapped hot dog for mainstream companies to copy. You'd think a cart offering such treasures would be copied across the county—so have at it, young entrepreneur!
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This column appeared in print as "One From the Cart."