Once again, New Yorkers flocked to Governors Island for the annual Vendy Awards to determine the city’s Best Street Food Vendor of the year and to also raise funds for the Street Vendor Project, a city-based non-profit providing advocacy and support for the thousands people who sell food and other goods outside of traditional retail establishments.
From ancient pushcarts to 21st century food trucks, street vending has a long and rich tradition of providing jobs and upward mobility for generations of immigrants and aspiring entrepreneurs.
But you don’t need to think about the social mission to enjoy the amazing selection of food, drinks and sweets from 25 vendors — you just need to come hungry, have a plan of attack, navigate lines (a strategic partner helps) and ditch the diet.
If the day was purely epicurean, it would be easy. But there are so many stories to hear and questions to ask. What, for example, makes a trio of post-army-service Israelis start a mobile shakshuka outlet — the Shuka Truck — in a city that has never heard the word? Chutzpah, I guess. They got my vote. Flavor and healthful in the same bite, maybe the only dish there that was actually good for you.
What sort of vision motivates someone to give up the day job to start (another) dessert company (witness Butter & Scotch with their signature maple bacon cupcake) — or build a business on a foundation of marshmallows? Only in New York City is there a market for multi-textured and flavored marshmallows. And it’s not like we need more doughnuts, but dessert purveyor Doughnuttery took the cake with their freshly fried mini gems. (What is it about fried food?!) My favorite was BOOQOO Beignets. In all fairness, I fell in love with Matt Pace, a New Orleans native, at Vendy Plaza earlier this summer. He is as sweet as his pastry and doesn’t break a sweat despite standing over a hot fryer for hours. Wicked good with killer dips of chicory coffee praline or creole vanilla, you can find him on Sundays at La Marqueta.
If there were veggies, you’d be hearing about it. The closest thing was the hand-cut spud from Home Frite, which I would gladly eat daily, savoring each cheesy, fried, salted and dip-drenched bite. Crazy good if only to try each amazing dip (malt vinegar aioli, herbocado, jalapeno cilantro, curry ketchup — get my drift?).
I was really longing for the Cinnamon Snail, a groundbreaking, award-winning, brilliant 100 percent vegan truck that fell victim this year to the scarcity of food truck licenses.
On that subject, I asked the newer vendors how they managed to get one. The answers were a blend of “you know,” “not easy,” a dip of the head, and the unspoken truth — that they finagled, found a way to the black market and struggle to make it work. It is a tribute to this roundup of vendors that despite the dearth of simple, legal options, they persevered and made their way to the street. It is also the proliferation of markets inspired by Smorgasbord, which provide welcome and legal outlets for new vendors.
Back to food. Husbands and wives, moms and sons and other cheering relatives round out the truck teams and provided the support needed to feed the long lines. The Old Traditional Polish Cuisine truck served up tempting kielbasa and pierogis — the wife of one of the owners does their marketing during her off hours from her job at Calvin Klein. Her husband and partner left construction in search of something different. Every ingredient (people included) come from Poland and yes, they found their new calling.
Lil Zeus enlisted Mom to man the front line. I don’t know what “nachas” is in Greek, but she had it as she hawked wraps and salads as they were ready, belting out: “Who wants a sandwich?”
Coco & Co had a sweet tale that started when a wedding trip to Sri Lanka morphed into living on coconuts when the money ran out, which in turn spawned a coconut water based bicycle-cart. Though in business only since April, Luke (a former News Corp. journalist) and partner have 10 employees. Catalina’s Champurrado and Best Juice Uptown represent the heart of Street Vendors Project, immigrant families who bring tastes of their countries to their new communities. Best Juice reminds me of an Orange Julius — the Dominican drink includes fresh OJ, milk, cane sugar plus a secret ingredient. I sampled Catalina’s Oaxacan Champurrado, a warm drink incorporating chocolate and corn (masa de maiz) savoring the unique blend of flavors. These are flavors of home and their audience loves them.
The best for last. The Snowday Food Truck won 2014 Rookie of the Year and took the 2015 prize for Vendy Cup and People’s Choice. Jordyn Lexton founded Drive Change to train, employ and change the lives of formerly incarcerated young people using food trucks as the nucleus of her program. Work changes lives, food creates jobs and passion inspires food and work. The youth that work on the truck are real, warm and inspiring. The food is amazing — probably the finest maple grilled cheese you will ever taste.
But what is truly breathtaking is thinking about the Vendys and the street vendor universe as a pathway for change. From the struggling immigrants of 150 years or 150 days ago, street vendors work hard. I asked Crystal of Home Frites what her advice to the novice vendor would be. She said it’s all about hard work and taking the plunge. It’s a long day, in a hot truck, on your feet, few breaks, getting hassled by cops or storekeepers, keeping up with the customers.
The very least I could do was to wait on line. So, uncharacteristically, I did.
Liz Neumark is the CEO of Great Performances catering and the author of the cookbook “Sylvia’s Table.”