Food on the Run

As illegal vendors in the Mission play hide-and-seek with the police, market demand keeps them coming back.

Eddy Marquez had been in business for two hours on the corner of 23rd and Mission, and the wad of worn bills in his pocket was growing at a steady $3-at-a-time clip. On the grill before him sizzled another batch of the bacon-wrapped hot dogs driven up from L.A. each week by a boss he knows only as "El Gordo" ("Fatty" en inglés). The girl peering over the cart's edge wanted hers with ketchup and mustard, no onions.

Walking across the Texas border earlier this year, the 31-year-old Marquez figured he'd work at a restaurant and wire money back to his wife and three kids in El Salvador. What he didn't imagine was that the particular food industry job he'd find would require him to still be ducking authorities six months later.

Marquez answered his cell phone to hear a warning from his cohort who went to go check out a tip from a vendor down the street: Yep, the same beat cop Marquez says ticketed him that previous weekend for operating without a license was headed his way. Marquez calmly twisted the valve of his grill's propane tank to off, told his customers he'd serve them down the block, and jetted down a side street with the urgency of an EMT pushing a gurney into the emergency room.

Undeterred, the mother-and-daughter customers caught up with Marquez around the corner, where he apologized for the inconvenience. "Were the cops coming?" the woman asked in Spanish, looking back warily toward Mission. "Yeah," Marquez answered. The cat-and-mouse routine is just part of selling an illicit hot dog in the Mission. "You'd think I was a criminal," he had said earlier with a chuckle.

Technically, he is. According to city law, operating a pushcart without a permit can carry up to a $500 penalty and six months in jail, though Mission station permit officer Steve Thoma says he's never heard of a vendor serving time. The hot dog vendors hitting the Mission on any given weekend couldn't get a permit if they tried, says beat officer Jerry Neitz: "I don't think you could get a propane-powered, grease-dripping cookie sheet to pass anybody's health inspection."

Still, Neitz makes it clear that police don't view folks like Marquez as hoodlums. Especially in a neighborhood where cops grapple with street gangs and homicides, and where peddling other bootleg goods available on Mission Street is a federal offense — DVDs laid out on the sidewalk, fake Social Security cards from the corner miquero — cracking down on food peddlers isn't a priority. A police officer will usually just tell illegal vendors to leave the first time they are spotted. (And there's a bigger chance of being spotted now that the Board of Supervisors' mandate for more foot patrol officers in 2007 has increased the number of Mission beat cops from three to 12.) The second time, they'll write a ticket for an infraction. The third time, they'll issue a citation for a misdemeanor and haul away the cart.

Yet the vendors almost always come back. Rules and regulations be damned, the marketplace ultimately triumphs, and the Mission has a ready-made black market for Latino food. A supply of customers supportive of immigrants trying to make a buck? Check. Neighborhood folks who shrug off permits as the tool of a bureaucracy and disdain any cop who pesters a dude selling a hot dog to make rent as someone who should find something better to do? Check, check.

Hot dog carts are merely the beginning of the unlicensed options. Women peddle tacos to the day laborers along Cesar Chavez at dawn, a woman sets up her stainless-steel pot of tamales at the 24th Street BART station by early afternoon, and a tough granny outside the bank at 21st and Mission stands sentinel over her Salvadoran pastries and $15 baggies of fresh shrimp all day. For the last six months, a Peruvian man hawking mayo and chile slathered on corn on the cob has pushed a cart around the neighborhood after his hours got cut at a hotel restaurant downtown. Out-of-towners drive in with watermelons in the backs of their trucks seasonally, and a small posse hits the streets with churros on weekends.

They all keep an eye out for the cops. A Nicaraguan woman pulls a blanket across the rice pudding and imported cheese in the back of her pickup truck when her husband posted on the corner signals the cops are coming. Another woman hides her quesadillas in a covered baby carriage: "It stresses me out, but necessity rules," she explains.

While buying from an illegal vendor is not against the law, authorities warn consumers they are eating at their own peril. Marquez shrugs off such concerns, saying the hot dogs El Gordo provides him with are still frozen when he puts them on the grill. He only touches the dogs with tongs, swooping them straight from the grill to the bun that he clasps in a sheet of foil. But not all vendors are so conscientious; police say they received complaints from folks who'd gotten diarrhea after eating the past-expiration hot dogs from another entrepreneur cooking off a hibachi grill last year. Permit officer Thoma says onlookers clapped as police hauled the grill away.

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