One of the greatest things about living in New York is that a quick snack is available at least every ten blocks in the parts of town people work. No need to stop in and sit, just look for a cart and grab a dog or a pretzel or a knish. I like my dogs with kraut and mustard and, honestly, my criteria for their vending has never been much more than that anything more than a buck-and-a-quarter is too much, and a dollar is better. If you are a street-food guy, reward those couple of holdouts for the simple dollar dog by buying from them and thanking them. Other then a vague preference of Sabrett to Hebrew National, I never gave much more thought to levels of quality for cart vittles.
Downstairs emailed me last week to let me know she would be judging the first annual Vendys, an award for the best street vendor held by the Street Vendor Project, a branch of the Urban Justice Center, and that I should come out and support a good cause. So Bubby, Octopus, and I popped over to meet Downstairs and try the offerings of the four finalists that had been chosen from a list of about 60 nominees.
The donation for entrance was $35 which got you beer and wine. Three of the four carts were selling their offerings inside the long, empty white space which, assuming from the stacks of vending carts outside under tarps, must be one of the garages that houses a collection of carts overnight. The fourth finalist was on the sidewalk, which made sense.
Beer would seem to be the right thing to have with street meat, but it turned out to be Killians. I do my best in every food choice to choose local product from local vendors whenever possible, wherever I am, and Killians is a product of Coors, kind of the Burger King of beers. It is usually pretty easy to avoid since it’s really just not very good. The wines were Argentinean: a Sauvignon Blanc and a red they could not identify. I went with the red and then decided drinking nothing would enable me to use two hands, helpful since we were eating standing up.
I have spent time searching out good, cheap wine, my current favorite being Corvo, from Sicily. They make a red and a white both, I suspect, are blends of local grapes, both are good, and both can be had at Warehouse Wines on Broadway at Astor for six bucks. They’re never going to win an award but are still very drinkable wines. Why people that do these low budget things like art openings seek out patently bad wines to serve I’ll never get; and if they are donated, why not donate a nice wine?
We decided to start with Mohammed Aboulelenin’s Best Halal cart. I got a lamb gyro and Bubby got the chicken, figuring we could switch and try both. The high point of both was an exceptional hot sauce. The meat had nice flavor and the pita had a great chew from being steamed on top of the cooking meat. There was an incredible disparity in the amount of accoutrements. The chicken had lettuce, onion, cucumber, and tomato; the lamb had a little lettuce. The wait was also about 12 minutes from end of line to the sandwich, which would be upsetting if I were on a half-hour lunch break. The nicest part was when I tried to give Mr. Aboulelenin the six dollars for the two sandwiches and he asked me to put it in the donation box. That seemed very much in the spirit of the event, and won my allegiance for next time I am around 53rd and Sixth Ave.
Next up we had Dosa. I wanted Thiru Kumar to be best because his cart, at Washington Square South and Sullivan, is very close to my place. Not being very familiar with Dosa we had Octopus basically negotiate an Omakase for three. There was a dosa (rice and lentil crepe) with potatoes wrapped inside. The chef chose a fried bit on a piece of sugarcane, a salad, and a small soup to round out the plate. The high point of this for me was the salad; it had sliced chilies and bits of raw ginger in it and was very fun to eat. The fried bit we were convinced had to be meat of some kind turned out to be soy protein. I am not sure how healthy soy protein is after you bread and fry it enough to make four people assume it is animal protein, but either way it was very cool.
Rolf Babiel’s Hallo Berlin came next. At this point the fact that just a sausage on a roll was an option was good, having eaten what qualifies as a complete lunch for many New Yorkers twice at this point. I went with a Brat on a roll with mustard and sauerkraut. The sauerkraut was far more flavorful then the simple vinegary cabbage I am used to, the Brat had a good Germanic spiced flavor, the mustard was brown, spicy and perfect. The bun seemed too much bread for the little sausage but was good and chewy. For four bucks I would drop by any time I am around 54th and Fifth.
Tony “the Dragon” Dragonas was the big winner with me. Octopus and I split a steak-and-cheese sandwich and Bubby and I split a sausage and peppers. The steak was actually a small rib eye, grilled over charcoal, then sliced, mixed with peppers and hot peppers, and served on a toasted bun with fresh mozzarella. It was a great sandwich. The thing that put Tony over the top for me was the sausage. New York has many street fairs in the summer where sausage and peppers stands are ubiquitous and I stop almost every time I see one. This was something I could directly compare and it was far and away the best I have ever had. It was a sweet sausage on a bun with peppers, hot peppers and hot sauce and it was great. I will go to 62nd and Madison next time I need a proper street sausage.
Ultimately, the one that I was least impressed with (Hallo Berlin) won the day, but that happens. The idea of supporting local guys making unique and better versions of foods they care enough about to make for a living sits well with me. For this reason, I am willing to over look things like the fact that there was only one accessible garbage can, the power for the DJ went out about every eight minutes, and they were completely out of beer by 9 pm for an event that was set to run from 7-10:30. I am sure most of this will work itself out by the next event. I guess, in the long run, the cool thing is to live in a city with enough variety to justify these awards, with people that care enough about the little guy to work to see that attention is paid to his quality of life. Viva New York!