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.

LOS ANGELES, CA – 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.

You can sell food on the street legally, with a series of business and health permits, but these days, L.A. County is taking the move to regulate food vending a step further by issuing letter grades to food trucks. Now, even hot dog, fruit and tamale vendors are getting grades.

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.

Hassan runs a commissary on Grand Avenue downtown that provides space to another group of vendors — licensed food-cart and food-truck operators, who chop fruit and load up on hot dogs in a sanitary county-approved kitchen before also heading out onto L.A. streets. He says he calls the health department almost every day about illegal food vendors. Sometimes he calls the LAPD.

“The people I work with pay health department fees, they pay for food-handler permits, and pay a commissary fee to me,” all of which is required by law, he said. “The people with these homemade carts are making a killing without paying for any of those things. And they’re getting away with it.”

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.

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