Friday, September 16, 2011

Street food cred

Ah, ambiance...


Vendors of tamales, hot dogs, fruit and more in L.A. County are supposed to be licensed by the health department and get regular inspections. The proof is a yellow sticker.

I've never been one for eating food off the street.

But this week, in pursuit of journalistic truth, I purchased a tamale — or tamal, in Spanish — from a street vendor pushing a shopping cart in South Los Angeles.

But this tamal, wrapped in a corn husk with several strips of green chile inside, was clearly unlicensed. It was made by a woman from Acapulco, Mexico, who will never get a letter grade and who will run away if you try to give her one.

Nevertheless, her tamales were greasy and delish. They tasted authentically homemade, too, which wasn't surprising, since she makes them in her apartment. Every weekday, she told me, she wheels around her South Figueroa neighborhood, tooting a little horn to announce her presence.

"One dollar each," she said in Spanish. Quite a bargain.

These are the kind of people, I learned later, that drive Khaled Hassan crazy.

Latino immigrants dominate the street-food trade. As Hassan sees it, he's trying to help one group of Latino immigrant vendors stay in business despite unfair competition from another group of Latino immigrants.

There's more, but I'll cut to the chase:

Adela, a Salvadoran immigrant, didn't want to give me her full name — for reasons that will soon become apparent — even though she had a yellow health department sticker on her cart.

She described being stuck between two business cultures. "You try to do things right," she told me in Spanish. "If the inspector gives me a note, then I have to go to court for it." But following these rules has earned her the wrath of other, unlicensed vendors, she said.

"I've been threatened with death," she told me, wiping tears from her face. Other vendors think Adela is the one calling the inspectors and the police, because when those officials arrive, she doesn't have to gather her fruit and take off running.

Now, to make things worse, business has gone down the tank. "If you know of a job cooking or cleaning, let me know," she said.

You can help out the Adelas of L.A. by shopping at carts with a county Public Health Department sticker on the side.

I bought some mango slices for $3 from her. They were succulent, sweet and tart. And unlike the unlicensed tamal I had eaten earlier, they didn't burn and roil in my stomach.

What, first time out? And a 'licensed' green chile tamal would have been different how?

L.A.'s been giving letter grades to be prominently displayed in the front windows of restaurants for years. This is apparently relatively new for restaurants on wheels and is probably a good idea, but I've eaten street food in Tijuana where any 'license fee' went into some cop's pocket and it was delicious and I'm not dead yet.

To quote that guy Zimmern who eats stuff I'd run away from and call the bio-hazard crew in on, "if it tastes good, eat it!"


Fixer said...

Dude, I've eaten some of the best food in places that were a hundred miles from the nearest health department certificate. Heh ...

Gordon said...

My point exactly! Me too.

David Aquarius said...

Good food is good food. A food vendor will not stay in business long if they make their customers sick.

And if that tamale made your tummy rumble, too fucking bad. That's what happens when good food hits a stomach that's used to nothing but Big Macs, curly fries and potato chips.

My door-to-door tamale lady has no certificate from the health dept. nor do I expect her to get one. But I can hardly wait for 8:30pm on a Saturday for her to come a knocking.

Shit, now I'm hungry.

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