What role does the law play in regulating taste? According to some aficionados, and plenty of hawkers the world over, the fewer regulations governing street-side food vending the better (or as one prominent LA restaurant critic told me: the best tacos in town are in Tijuana). Unregulated street food meccas like Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City certainly support this theory. But in places like Singapore and Portland, Oregon, where strict rules govern but encourage vending, the street food remains top-notch.
Laws can both help or hinder the business as well as the quality and diversity of the offerings, depending on whose interests are prioritized. Implementation and enforcement in different cities often fluctuates, too, depending on neighborhood, time of day, political climate, type of vendor, and the whims of authority figures. Even Chicago’s famous hot dogs are actually illegal to sell on the street (sausage-vending permits exist, but only for park grounds). Most vendors just ignore or remain unaware of the city’s arcane and largely unenforced laws governing the sale of cooked or prepared food on the sidewalks. Back in 1997, Windy City health inspectors ignited the “elote wars” labor dispute by cracking down and dousing bleach on the tropical fruit salads and barbecued corn ears of unsuspecting food carts in a random effort to clamp down on illegal hawkers.
Street food vending can be risky business, and the relationship between the law and street food is a complicated one. The chart here won’t necessarily clarify what sort of legislation allows for maximum tastiness. Rather, it demonstrates that what’s strictly legal (or illegal) doesn’t dictate the reality on the streets. Like heat-resistant microorganisms growing in a sunless hydrothermal vent, street food can persist even in the most seemingly inhospitable environments.
Lara Rabinovitch is a historian and writer living in Los Angeles. She’s working on a book about pastrami and the people who brought it to North America.
Illustrated and designed by Helen Tseng