A Day at the 2007 Vendy Awards: A thorough report with photos
Let me start by stating that I love street food, and have never met a street food vendor that I didn't like. They are, for the most part, friendly, hard-working, honest, enterprising individuals (usually immigrants) who work long hours to provide NYers with some of the most tasty and interesting chow around. So I am happy to support them any way that I can, and I am so glad that I shelled out $60 (!) in advance for a ticket to this event. The Street Vendor Project is a campaign conceived and organized by the Urban Justice Center, an advocacy group serving low-income and marginalized NYers. Their annual event, the Vendy awards, is worth every penny (and includes free wine, beer, soda, and bottled water!).
This year's 5 contestants (in no particular order):
1) Veronica Julien from Veronica's Kitchen: purveyor of Trinidadian/Jamaican jerk chicken, curried goat, and oxtail stew downtown at Front Street and Pine;
2) Thiru "Dosa Man" Kumar from NY Dosas: purveyor of Sri Lankan -style (vegan) dosas and samosas at Washington Square South;
3) Muhammed Rahman from Kwik Meal: purveyor of Bengali-style Middle Eastern specialities such as Felafel, Marinated Lamb and Chicken pitas, and shrimp with rice at 46th Street and Sixth Avenue;
4) The Super Taco Crew, aka "Sobre Ruedas": purveyor of tacos, tortas, tamales, quesadillas, and more at 96th St. and B'way;
5) Farez (Freddy) Zeideia, the King of Falafel and Shawarma: purveyor of Middle-eastern style street food (falafel, shawarma, and chicken) at 30th Street and Broadway, Astoria;
I started out with Thiru's dosa. I know Thiru, his cart is located two blocks from my home 5 days a week (lucky me!), and he is a sweetheart. His food is also damn good. I was treated to a cup of vegetable soup while I waited in line- deliciously spicy, with big chunks of pepper, squash, onion and potato. next came the steamed lentil (sponge) patty with savory coconut chutney. Very different from anything I ever had- I would like to try it again, possibly with his other sauces. I was also handed a monster-sized, beautifully-golden, flaky samosa with potato and pea filling. Oh, was it good, and suprisingly light- I really wish they had offered some tamarind sauce with it. Finally, my dosa: a large, thin, crisp lentil/rice crepe filled with tangy potato, pepper, lettuce, and tomato- aka the "pondicherry dosa". Accompanied by the best green sauce I have ever tasted in any restaurant/kiosk representing food of the sub-continental region. A great success, in my book, although my one criticism would be that my particular dosa was a bit thin.
Next up: Super Taco. I am a big fan of Tacos, and a frequent whiner when it comes to the dearth of Cali-style Mexican taco carts (until I discovered Roosevelt Ave., of course, but that's another story). So I was Super Excited to try Super Taco- and I was not let down. Past experience has taught me to skip carne asada when it comes to tacos, so I stuck with the kind of taco I know best: pork. I ordered a pastor and a carnitas. Both came with some diced tomato, onion, and cilantro, and there were red and green salsas and lime wedges available, as well. The carnitas had the perfect texture of juiciness with crispy edges, but were slightly lacking in flavor. The pastor, on the other hand, with its sweet addition of pineapple and tangy spice marinade, was one of the best tacos I have ever tasted anywhere. A show-stopper. The tortillas themselves were good and fresh, but nothing particularly special.
Third: My Man Muhammad's lamb pita. I enjoyed Muhammad's food on many late-night breaks from work, during my days at a nearby midtown law firm, and while his food can be inconsistent, he never disappoints. His lamb is tender, moist, and tasty, and his white sauce must have magic fairy dust in it, because no one else's comes close. I also happen to think that he has the best pita bread around- warm and chewy, with a rich yellow color and crispy grill marks. His falafel is particular, too- tiny, moist balls of subtly-spiced chickpea. I wasn't too thrilled with the chicken pita, but the lamb was yummy as always.
Fourth: Freddy Zedeia, Mr. Personality. I love Freddy, and even if his food sucked, I bet he'd be successful at anything he did, as long as he flashed his famous smile. Luckily for him, his food is top-notch. I was treated to a fresh, hot falafel ball while I waited in line. Freddy's famous falafel is famous for a reason- toasty-brown in color, and slighty elongated in shape, they stick out from your usual round, pale falafel fare. These are simultaneously crunchy and smooth, the dark, cumbly exterior enveloping the multi-textured moist interior, apparently made up of a ground chickpea combination of smooth and chunky. Very cool. And now for the main dish- chicken over rice with cabbage, tomato, pickles, tahine and hot sauce. Wow, did this one go "pop" in my mouth. The chicken was nicely coated with a tangy marinade, and perfectly cooked, without being dried out from over-griddling. And the rice in a slightly red sauce was delicious in its own right, not merely a background for the rest. I loved the thick tahine and (very) hot sauce combo, too- I even dipped my extra falafel in it, for a fun side dish.
Finally: Veronica from Trinidad. Unfortunately, by the time I got to the front of the line (on which I waited the longest, for about 30 minutes), they had run out of all meat, as well as their famous mac cheese...I was bummed (even though I was painfully stuffed by then), but got a plate of steamed vegetables and spiced rice with both "jerk chicken gravy" and "curry chicken gravy", in order to get an idea of how these meats would have tasted. The vegetables (cabbage, pepper, carrot) were soft, wet, and sweet. The zesty rice, which was mixed with a few black beans, was well-cooked and quite flavorful. But the gravies were very very good, and totally made the rice taste like a meal. In fact, I plan to mosey on down to Front St. one of these days just to try some of the curried goat (which I had seen others eating earlier, and was really looking forward to) and chicken, as I cannot stop thinking about how good that gravy was.
Judges included Sara Moulton of Gourmet Magazine, Mo Rocca of Iron Chef, Michael Musto of The Village Voice, Ed Levine of NY Eats, Ron Kuby ("the people's attorney" of the City of NY ), and Manhattan Borough President, Scott Stringer. Before I tell you who the winner was, I'll upload some photos from each cart, four at a time, as that is the limit per post:
Probably not a fluke. Super Tacos is generally not that good. It's just good enough, but there are tons of better tacos in NYC. It makes me wonder how these vendors get nominated. Sammy's cart, the winner from last year, is the most inconsistent cart I've encountered. Good one time, really bad another, just OK another time, and every time I've been, it's always tasted different (spicing, sauce, etc.). That's a sign of poor or nonexistent management. Too bad.