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Tens of Thousands Show up for L.A.'s First Street Food Festival

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Pulitizer Prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold wasn't kidding last week when he said "Los Angeles is the best place in the world to eat at the moment." The L.A. Street Food Fest last Saturday, where Gold himself was seen standing in the lines, truly showed that sentiment, quickly finding its place as one of the city's top festivals. Yes, there were complaints--an estimated 10,000 or more were turned away and the lucky 10,000 who actually got in found extremely long lines--but that only means room for improvement and growth. (To see photos of the food, click here)

"One of the great things about L.A. is the street food and the truck food," said Jesse Williams, who plays Dr. Jackson Avery on Grey's Anatomy, as he snacked. "This is a brilliant idea, from tacos to brisket to fried dough to Hawaiian to ice cream. I think the outpouring of folks is a testament of how good it was--it will probably have to expand."

It didn't take long for co-organizer Shawna Dawson to realize how popular the festival was. Within the first few hours, the L.A. Center Studios lot was at capacity with 10,000 people. "We feel awful," she said. "We've done everything as we possibly can as event organizers short of having the entire city as your venue."

And perhaps that's what is needed: for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other civic leaders to embrace this and let the city have it's version of the Taste of Chicago. "This really shows the way in which people respond to these things," continued Dawson. "All these Angelenos are just dying for events like this. There's not enough that's going on that's just community where people can come out and meet with neighbors."

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Despite the successes, the complaints on Twitter grew throughout the day. "Today's @lafoodfest was a great idea with horrible execution," tweeted Kevin Pang. "They just flat out didn't organize it well." Equally angry was Malia O'Connor who tweeted, "next time make sure to get your sh**t together before you decide to do this again."

For Tim Walker, what he saw wasn't new. His event, the Grilled Cheese Invitational, last year experienced not just a similar outpouring of festival goers, but the anger over the lines. "Everything for this year is going to be different and better," he explained. "We're basically taking all the complaints from last year and addressing every single one of them just to make sure the event is fun and enjoyable for everyone. When you're standing in line in the hot sun for an hour and a half, it's not fun. My main goal for this year is no lines."

After debriefing, Dawson also has a clear focus for next time. "Now we go back to the drawing board on how we can all produce an event that can handle all those numbers in a quick and efficient way," she said over the phone Monday morning.

Nevertheless, those turned away at festival gates still made a day out of it as Downtown saw a surge in visitors. "We saw @LAFoodFest refugees all over Japantown," noted Armando Carranza of the crowds in Little Tokyo. "Holy moly that was a crazy busy day at work. We got major spill-over from the @LAFoodFest" noted Lisa French, who works at a downtown restaurant. Even The Standard Hotel's rooftop pool saw a record breaking amount of attendance.

The festival wasn't just for locals as people from out of town made plans. "We don't really do Valentine's, but we love food so it just kinda made sense for us," said Shirley Corrales of Oxnard, who met up with her boyfriend from San Diego to attend. Traveling from Florida was Jen Schubert, but her story didn't end so well: "Got to the @LAFoodFest with 40 min to spare. Flew cross country to be turned away. Sold out. FAIL," she tweeted.

Within festival walls, food was consumed to the delight of many, but with long lines, strategies were formed. "We've had to split up to cover more ground," said Marvin Martin, Corrales' boyfriend.

Some lines only took 15 minutes, but others, such as for Coolhaus or The Grilled Cheese Truck, snaked through the festival, sometimes at the length of five trucks, taking over an hour to get through. The most popular was Chef Ludovic Lefebvre's pop-up fried chicken truck where customers waited some three hours.

"Too much bashing going on. We planned for crowds, went early, VIP & shared our day w/100's of other foodies," tweeted an enthusiastic Molly Park, who gave the festival a big FTW (For the Win). It's true, those who showed up early or stayed until the final half hour saw the shortest lines.

Other than the food, in one corner of the festival were UniqueLA vendors, selling memberships to Community Support Agriculture, t-shirts, artwork, gourmet prepared foods and more. Free alcohol, with donations going towards the L.A. Food Bank, were found on the ends of the festival. A building on the lot with an upstairs patio was home for those who bought VIP packages.

All in all, a good day for a festival that has a bright future in a city that so desperately needs it. "L.A. is the most exciting city in the world, I've said it and I stand by it," said co-organizer Sonja Rasula. "All the most amazing world class artists and chefs are moving here. It just shows that LA is a hot bed for cultural community."

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Photos: LA Street Food Fest: Good Eats on Your Feet