Hundreds of food lovers gathered for what some call the Super Bowl of street food in Queens, N.Y., over the weekend. The Vendy Awards is the annual cook-off between some of the best New York City sidewalk chefs, each one voted in as finalists by their customers. In a city full of hot dog vendors and pretzel stands, these carts stand out as full-service mobile gourmet kitchens, turning out everything from Mexican huaraches to Austrian schnitzel.
"I'm so happy that street food is taking a different turn," chef and Vendy judge Jehangir Mehta told ABC News. "It's almost driving down to the philosophy of having a small local farmer selling produce; it's becoming more and more personal."
'Look at My Falafel, So Beautiful, So Sexy'
Fares Zeidaies, the self-proclaimed "King of Falafel and Shawarma," and finalist for the Vendy Cup agreed. "The Vendys are the best thing that came out to food vendors," Zeidaies said. "At least it's getting recognized; at least people are being more serious about eating street food." Zeidaies learned to cook by watching his mother in the kitchen. "Look at my falafel," he told ABC News, "so beautiful, so sexy. Doesn't it say 'eat me?'"
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The competition, held in the shadow of the famous Unisphere in Queens' Flushing Meadows Park, was divided into four categories. The rookie of the year award is for those who have been vending for less than one year; a dessert category for street sweets; the people's choice award; and finally, the big enchilada, so to speak, the Vendy Cup honoring the best street vendor.
The first three winners are chosen by Vendy attendees. A panel of six judges, all with culinary backgrounds, selects the winner based on presentation, portability and taste.
The 2009 Vendy Cup went to Yolanda and Fernando Martinez, for whom running the Country Boys Mexican cart is a family affair. Their four children, aged 14 to 23, helped cook and distribute food to a seemingly endless line of hungry Vendy attendees. The Country Boys' specialty is huaraches – fried dough topped with seasoned meat, cabbage, salsa and cheese – which they have been selling at the Red Hook Ball Fields in Brooklyn for 16 years. Fernando Martinez thanked his entire family in Spanish for the prize.
The dessert champion was the Wafels and Dinges truck, which sells waffles with various toppings – including bacon. People's choice award winner for the second year in a row was Bangladesh-born Meru Sikder, who makes traditional Indian food in his Biryani cart.
Vendy Awards for Best Street Food Vendors in New York
A win at the Vendys can catapult a vendor to new culinary successes. Last year's winner, Calexico Carne Asada, run by the aptly-named Vendley brothers, had just expanded to two trucks on the streets of lower Manhattan before clinching the Vendy Cup. This year, Jesse, Brian and David have ventured into a more traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant in Red Hook, Brooklyn, while still keeping their carts on the street.
Expansion can also go the other way around. When Anita Lo's Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, a restaurant in Manhattan, decided they wanted to branch out, the tough economic times led her and chef Kenny Lao to go mobile. With New York City rents skyrocketing, Lao said, "This was just a great way to continue to grow."
The economic environment was also a motivating factor for Oleg Voss, who was laid off from his banking job in Vienna, Austria, earlier this year. Unemployment gave Voss the opportunity to join with his old friend from culinary school to open the Schnitzel and Things food cart. "This was a perfect time to hook up with my best friend and pursue cooking," Voss told ABC News. "It's a passion of mine." Following through on his passion earned Voss and partner Jared Greenhouse the Vendy's rookie of the year award.
Professional musician Douglas Quint took on dessert vending as a summer project. One of this year's dessert category finalists, he thinks his Big Gay Ice Cream Truck will stick around for a few more years. Quint says what makes his desserts special are the toppings. A fan favorite: the "Choinkwich" – chocolate ice cream sandwiched between two chocolate chip cookies and a layer of caramelized bacon. "Bacon is in," he said.
Though not a winner this year, Quint says the goal of the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck is to make people happy. "New Yorkers will eat ice cream with a scowl on their faces," he said, "and you have to yell at them and tell them to smile and they realize that they do really have to smile when eating an ice cream cone!"
A theme at the Vendys was multiculturalism with a varied group of ethnicities sharing traditional foods. "It's fabulous to me that we're here under the Unisphere," Lo told ABC News. "I think it's really beautiful."