Diary of a 2009 Vendy Awards Judge

On Saturday almost 1000 people converged on the Queens Museum of Art for one of my favorite food events of the year… the Vendy Awards.  Put on by the Street Vendor Project, a non profit dedicated to advocating for street vendors, this year’s “Oscars of Street Food” featured a whopping 11 vendors, in three different categories, spread out in front of the Queens Museum of Art- which I think is the best venue they’ve ever held the event in.  With few exceptions, the lines were completely manageable, and if you got there at the beginning, and managed your day right, it wasn’t hard to try stuff from every single vendor.  This year I got to fulfill my lifelong (the past 3 1/2 years of doing Midtown Lunch feel like a lifetime!) dream of being a Vendy Judge.  Here’s how my day went…

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2:35pm – The Queens Museum of Art isn’t exactly the easiest place in New York City to get to, but once you’re there it’s completely worth it.  The site of two World’s Fairs, the giant globe is one of the cooler things I’ve ever seen in NYC- and the large paved area in front of the museum was the perfect place to park 11 food trucks, that needed to serve lots of people.

2:45pm – Right after I arrived I was told that official “judging” (which to me translated into “eating”) didn’t start until 4:15 (!!!)  Stomach immediately informs me that there is no way in hell we were waiting 90 minutes to start stuffing ourselves silly.

2:50pm – After a quick interview with Univision I’m ready for some food! (I was scared to bust out my Miami spanglish, so I’m guessing they’ll use a translator.  I’m hoping the Spanish voice they use in place of mine will sound something like the bumble bee man from the Simpsons… you know, for accuracy.)

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2:54pm – Stomach getting angrier… we get on the closest line to the entrance: Freddie “The Falafel King of Astoria”.  Freddie was one of the few vendors this year that I had never tried before, and after hearing his entertaining boasting I was pretty excited to sample the chicken over rice and falafel from this self proclaimed king.

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2:58pm – In addition to his street meat, Freddie’s table was also serving up fancy “Chip” cookies.  Not sure why (I’m guessing he’s branching out?) but when free cookies are involved I have learned not to ask too many questions.  Cookies were gooood. (Yes, I ate my cookie first.  Don’t judge me.)

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3:00pm – Freddie’s chicken over rice is different than anything I’ve ever tasted in Midtown.  Really unique flavors, and he doesn’t hold back on the pickles.  In fact, if you like the vinegary taste of pickles this will be your new favorite street meat plate.  His oval shaped falafel were delicious too, and I would recommend all street meat lovers make the trek to Astoria to sample his goods (Broadway and 30th).

3:07pm – Next up on the horseshoe where all the savory vendors were parked was the Rickshaw Dumpling Truck.  Having tried Rickshaw before, and knowing I would be forced get to eat their food later during judging, I was happy to pass- but the wife wanted to try them, so I decided to cut across the lawn to check out Will Goldfarb’s Picnick Smoked Truck (which was featured on Downtown Lunch when it first opened.)

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No line!  These guys are pros.  A two bite sample of their pulled pork sandwich was real good, and the Arnold Palmer (1/2 ice tea, 1/2 lemonade) was deliciously refreshing. They were up for the Rookie of the Year Award, and would provide some good competition for NYC Cravings and Schnitzel & Things.

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3:15pm – Back to the other side of the horseshoe, to get on line at the Biriyani Cart with Harry & the wife.

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3:22pm - After a short wait, we get out plate.  We were at the tail end of a tray of biriyani, so it was a little cold- but even cold it’s good.  New item this year:  chicken chapli kebab.  Could this be the item that takes him from People’s Choice to the Vendy Cup?

3:25pm – Next up… the Martinez Country Boys from the Red Hook Ballfields.  Normally I would wait forever for a huarache from this truck (and every weekend people do), but knowing that I would get my share during judging we decided to bypass. I heard some complaints about their line, but how can you complain knowing that they’re hand making all the tortillas for the huaraches to order?

3:30pm – We finished our lap around the horseshoe by also bypassing the Schnitzel Truck and the NYC Cravings Truck.  (I’ve eaten at both in the past two weeks… and was interested in some dessert action before the judging began- since we were only going to be judging the 5 Vendy Finalists.)  I heard good and bad things about Schnitzel and Cravings, but you have to understand these guys are used to serving 100-200 people a day at the most.  And the food is usually fried to order.  Asking them to make this kind of food for 800 people, to be served over the course of a couple of hours, is a tall order, even for seasoned caterers (which they aren’t). If you had a bad experience at any of the trucks at the Vendys, don’t let that discourage you from trying out their food at their regular spot.  All of them are amazing, and worth checking out!

3:40pm – On line at the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, the only vendor left at the Vendy’s that I’ve never tried. It’s no surprise that they’ve never been to Midtown… they are an ice cream truck that values their lives.  (As you all know Mister Softee doesn’t look too kindly on Midtown competition.)

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3:54pm – I really want to try the choinkwich (ice cream sandwich + bacon) but the line has barely moved in 15 minutes.  Less interviewing, more ice cream serving!

4:04pm – We’re told that one of the machines has exploded, and choinkwiches are temporarily unavailable.  I give up… so sad.

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4:15pm – With a few minutes to kill before judging begins, I ducked inside to quickly check out the Queens Museum of Art.  If you’ve never been it’s worth it just for the gigantic panorama model of New York City.  Even cooler, it was made in the 60s!

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Pretty spectacular…  look, I can see where I work!

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4:45pm – Finally get my Big Gay Ice Cream Truck choinkwich courtesy of Erin from Serious Eats!  Chocolate soft serve sandwich with bacon… where have you been all my life? (If eating a choinkwich before juding is wrong, than I don’t want to be right.)

4:50pm – Lunchtime!  The judging is ready to begin… joining me at the incredibly distinguished judging table is citizen judge (and profiled Midtown Lunch’er) Mina, Pastry Chef Pichet Ong, Spanish Language TV Personality Denisse Oller, Graffiti Chef (and possibly the next Iron Chef!) Jehangir Mehta, and finally Chocolatier Jacques Torres (who is officially my new favorite person of all time.)

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4:57pm – It’s time to eat! Martinez Country Boys Truck is up first. They served a half a huarache, stuffed with pork, chicken or vegetables. I’m a huge Red Hook ball fields fan, and have enjoyed these huaraches on many occasions… and the truck didn’t disappoint on Vendy day. (If you ordered quesadillas or tacos from these guys, you missed out on their signature dish.) Most vocal fan at the table… Jacques Torres. He was a huge fan of the huarache, and said he was interested in living outside their truck. (You should have seen his face when I told him what we were served at Judging table is only half of what you get at the ball fields.) I gave them a perfect score.

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5:17pm – Next up… the Biriyani Cart. Fancy! Meru clearly did it up special for the judges, giving us a taste of chicken biriyani, chicken chapli kebab, their unique brand of chicken tikka, and (my favorite) a kati roll. Most of it was super spicy, and I was a little nervous the judges wouldn’t be down (he really didn’t hold back). But to my surprise everyone seemed to really like it. It even got the seal of approval from Chef Mehta (who is from India), who set aside his leftover kati roll for later (you know “just in case everything else isn’t as good.”)

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5:30pm – Third to serve was the Rickshaw Dumpling Truck, who were a controversial nominee in the eyes of many Midtown Lunchers. I’ve held back on saying anything because as a judge I thought it would be unfair to pre-judge any of the contestants (who I believe were all worthy of nominations). But now that it’s all over… Rickshaw didn’t really hold a candle to any of the other vendors. The dumplings were fine, and I like their dipping sauces, but the dumplings themselves are expensive, fancy pants dumplings, with great packaging and wonderful marketing. But when served next to honest, real street food, come off as completely bland. And while they have their fan base, and serve a niche market here in New York (like ‘wichcraft in the sandwich world), they are not going to win a competition for “Best Street Food in NYC”.

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Photo courtesy of Mina (my co-judge)

5:40pm - Rickshaw served as a nice buffer between what I expected to be the two spiciest entries… although the Jamaican Dutchy let me down a tiny bit. It seemed like O’Neill and his crew held back a bit on what is usually a firey jerk chicken. And rather than give every judge a taste of each, they served a small bit of a single dish on each plate (with a ton of rice and beans). We all managed to share, but I think it was tough for the judges to get a real sense of the food. Plus there was the “mustard” chicken, which for any of you that tried it, is not a standard Jamaican Dutchy dish. Grey Poupon was a sponsor of the event, and asked that whoever won the People’s Choice Award come up with a mustard dish. I think O’Neill misunderstood this, and served a mustard dish at the competition instead. The judges all liked the food, but didn’t seem as excited for this as Biriyani or the Huaraches.

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5:50pm – Freddie, the Falafel King of Astoria, finished things off with his plate of chicken over rice, and a falafel ball. The plate brought us back around to the roots of the Vendy Awards, and was a perfect closer to the judging. Everybody agreed the falafel was the best part… solidifying Freddie as the true King of Falafel.

So I have to admit I was a little nervous going into the judging. The Street Vendor Project has always been about helping immigrant vendors to eek out a living on the tough streets of New York City. But with the explosion of interest in street vending, they are now being contacted by scores of entrepreneurs looking to break into the street vending scene. And while they love the interest these new vendors are generating for the cause as a whole, I understand their dilemma… they want to be inclusive, but also see the ways that this new attention can end up hurting vendors who have spent their whole lives slaving away at what are some of the toughest jobs in the city. After all, look at what happened to the Red Hook ball fields. They ended up ok because of the massive show of support from the people, but this after being forced by the city to spend tens of thousands of dollars on new equipment.

In the end, you can’t ignore the new crop of street vendors- and why would you want to? They’re all serving delicious food, and have attracted a new group of people to street vendors in general- and that’s a good thing. It’s also why I’m not mad that a vendor like Rickshaw was nominated. While they may not be our favorite, they do have their fans… and many of those fans were probably introduced to some great new street food this weekend. I personally didn’t think they deserved to win, and was a kind of scared that it would happen on my watch… especially after what happened last year (it was no secret that I thought Calexico didn’t deserve to win last year. I love their food, but how could it beat out pupusas from the Red Hook ballfields? Or kati rolls from the Biriyani Cart?)

I knew who my favorites were (on this day, I thought it was a toss up between the Biriyani Cart and the Martinez Country Boys Truck). But what about the other judges? What was going to happen? Could a hipster vendor win the Vendys a second year in a row?

6:30pm – Award Time!!!

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And the Rookie of the Year Award goes to… the Schnitzel and Things Truck.

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The Dessert Vendy goes to… The Wafels and Dinges Truck (who missed out on participating last year because their truck broke down!)

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The Grey Poupon People’s Choice Award goes to… the Biriyani Cart (for the second year in a row.) I told Meru this year what I told him last year… who cares what a bunch of judges think? The People’s Choice Award is far more important.

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And… the winner of the 2009 Vendy Cup goes to… the Martinez Country Boys Truck!

I know in the past I have always rooted strongly for the Midtown carts at the Vendys, but these guys totally deserved it. Their huaraches are amazing, and they represent everything that great street food is supposed to be: honest, authentic, inexpensive, fresh, and most importantly delicious food with no compromise. They could have made their huarache shells in advance, and served more people, but it wouldn’t have tasted as good.

There is no question as more and more new street vendors hit the scene it will become harder and harder for the Vendy Awards to be about that random halal vendor that the mainstream media has never paid attention to. The new vendors have legions of Twitter fans ready to nominate them, and PR machines eager to capitalize on the prestige of winning a Vendy Award. But it’s important that as these new vendors occupy more and more of the spotlight, we allow the Street Vendor Project to keep doing their job. Part of that means old school “vendor purists” not getting pissed about a truck like Rickshaw getting nominated, and new trucks not griping about a Vendy nominating system that clearly is going to be changed before next year. (If they don’t, we’ll end up with 5 nominees based entirely on how many fans you have on twitter.)

All in all I think this year’s Vendy Awards were the best ever. The event was a great representation of what the street vending scene is like in New York City right now, with old school vendors and new school vendors all serving delicious food side by side. And for all the differences between new and old, there is one thing all street vendors have in common: they are all the hardest working people in this city’s enormous food service industry, working long hours for very little financial return, all for the love of what they do.

Oh, and mark your calendars… next year’s Vendy Awards is on Saturday September 25, 2010!

For more coverage of this year’s Vendy Awards check out Serious Eats: New York, Blondie and Brownie, Eater, Dessert Buzz, NewYorkology, and Fork in the Road.

29 Comments

  • I’m jealous Zach.
    But I blame myself for procrastinating on buying tickets…
    sigh
    till next year I guess!

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    Damn, the Country Boys truck was the only one I didn’t get to try because the line was just too ridiculously long.

    Saw Zach (and family) near the Big Gay Ice Cream truck, but got distracted by the delicious cupcakes at the Cupcake Stop, and by the time I looked back, he was nowhere to be found. Probably should have stayed past 4:15 when he would’ve been at the judges table and I could’ve said hi… oh well.

  • Oh, and i’ve been pronouncing Jamaican Dutchy wrong all this time. Apparently, it’s pronounced more like, ‘Jamaican Douche-y”.

    Next time I go to that cart, i’ll be sure to wear Abercrombie and call everyone “brah”

  • haha… @chris – you’ll have to forgive Ed for that. he’s heard that Musical Youth song one too many times.

  • “i’ve had my fair share of rickshaw’s rofl.”

  • i know he said waffle. but let’s pretend

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