The rain-soaked roads and sidewalks of Los Angeles are empty. Once-prolific street vendors like the Avenue 26 Tacos team have now shrunk their operation down to a single weekday food truck; only a few fans mill about at a distance, wary of others but eager for tacos. The city has ordered increased enforcement against the tens of thousands of unlicensed food vendors that roam Los Angeles, an effort meant to curb crowds and possible cross-contamination on the many hard surfaces found at street setups during the time of the coronavirus pandemic. Most have gone home to be with their families, to stay indoors and weather whatever comes next.
But Heleo knows that he still has more work to do. The East Hollywood resident, whose last name Eater has withheld at his request, runs Quesadillas Tepexco, a sidewalk evening operation that spent more than a year feeding locals and neighbors, using produce like calabacitas that Heleo grew himself from a nearby community garden. In 2018 the 41-year-old left a career working in wine sales to begin cooking for himself and his disabled brother Filimon. He’s no longer cooking nightly in front of his apartment building, but he’s still trying to help.
“I’m worried like everyone else,” Heleo says by phone, “but we have a plan.” For Quesadillas Tepexco that means moving indoors, to Heleo’s own kitchen, where he has launched a share-a-meal program with his followers, friends, and neighbors. The idea is that anyone could buy a quesadilla for themselves, and in the process pay for a free quesadilla for somebody else in East Hollywood who needs one that night.
Heleo cooks everything in his home kitchen, with Filimon not far away. A local from the garden recently handed Heleo $50 for some food, enough to whip up a big batch of Heleo’s signature handmade organic tortillas, usually made with blue corn masa. He announced ten free quesadillas to his 326 Instagram followers that night, and moved them all in just a couple of hours.
The pared-back operation lets Heleo do three important things: continue to cook for his community, help to feed and earn some money for Filimon, and keep his own health in focus. Heleo is ServSafe certified, having spent years working in restaurants, and he knows how important it is to keep himself and the people around him safe during the current novel coronavirus pandemic. “With this virus, we don’t know everything yet,” he says, “We said it’s more important to have the customer’s safety come first.”
He’s not alone. Heleo says that his usually busy corner of the city has been essentially drained out of other vendors, much like the rest of Los Angeles. There was a time, he says, that “the police didn’t bother to tell anything to people selling on the street; they were mostly hands off.” But now: “They’ve been enforcing it more. Nobody is selling in this area right now.” The cover that comes from being one in a community of vendors is gone. To cook again in front of his apartment publicly would be to put himself at an even higher level of risk than other food service workers, because of the added stress of being shut down by the police and having his setup confiscated.
In addition to still selling quesadillas out of his home, and offering free ones to those affected by layoffs or other COVID-19 related hardships, Heleo says that he is starting his own “forward contract” coupon system, like gift cards for restaurants. “In this case, it’s for a $5 quesadilla,” he says, “but you pay now and cash it in later, when things hopefully go back to normal. That’s how we’ve been able to have some sort of [money on hand] right now.”
Every little bit helps. Heleo says that in the current climate he’ll stick to cooking meals out of his East Hollywood apartment — likely through the the mayor’s April “Safer at Home” timeframe to start, which mandates that people shelter in their homes except to travel for essential items like health services and food. He knows that he could potentially reach more people and make more money by taking his chances out on the street, but there are more important things right now. It has been a hard but necessary decision, especially with Filimon at his side. As for what the future of Quesadillas Tepexco looks like, Heleo isn’t sure. But for now at least, he’s got a plan.
Quesadillas Tepexco is currently accepting Instagram messages for quesadillas in East Hollywood.