Monday, July 11, 2011

1st Annual Philadelphia Vendy Awards

Saturday saw the first rendition of the Vendy Awards—now a New York institution—in Philly. They were held in the Piazza at Schmidt’s, which was bright and hot in the sun, but the humidity was low and shade was plentiful. The tent with unlimited water and beer (run by the over-the-top and always delicious PYT) didn’t hurt either.

The Vendys are a celebration of street vendor food and culture, with the actual awards being somewhat of an afterthought. There were eight trucks to try, selected based on popular votes earlier this year. Some attendees wandered over to the voting table, but most were just relaxing and enjoying the open space or waiting in line to get their hands on more grub. Some celebrity judges were present, too, including Jennifer Carroll from 10 Arts and Top Chef, Michael Solomonov from Zahav, and the food editors from both Citypaper and Philadelphia Weekly. Mayor Michael Nutter even made an appearance; his exemplary handshake technique should have been less of a surprise to me than it was.

The first truck we tried was Cocina Zapata, a Mexican fusion deal that parks on Drexel’s campus. Service was efficient and super friendly, and based on what we sampled, it would be well worth the walk over for lunch. A short rib taco with avocado and cabbage slaw was a well-executed reminder of what’s so compelling about the Asian taco, and a chicken satay version was even better, with a sweet and pungent peanut sauce. Sweet potato curry was a revelation—complex, hearty, sweet, and some of the best street food I’ve ever tried.

Next was La Copine, a farm-to-table (err, farm-to-truck) concept that parks in a garden at 2nd and Poplar on weekends only. Their line snaked across the Piazza, and moved at a snail’s pace, though service was ridiculously friendly. Unfortunately their cooks were overwhelmed, and it showed. Hash browns were soggy and saturated in oil, and a quinoa salad was spicy and not much else. Banana bread with PB+J sounded exciting, but was dry and unimpressive. The bright spot was a breakfast sandwich of egg and homemade vegetarian sausage, which was well spiced and could have passed for pork. Next we skipped the enormous line at Guapos Tacos, which has disappointed in the past, and went for Gigi and Big R’s, a Caribbean and Soul Food kitchen that has trucks on 30th and Market and 38th and Spruce, and a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the 50s. There was no ordering—they just gave you a little bit of everything, which varied throughout the day. We missed out on mac and cheese (darn!) but got some delicious, freshly fried whiting that was moist inside and assertively seasoned. Braised chicken was wildly tender, and coleslaw was refreshingly simple: just cabbage, carrots, vinegar, and mayo.

After that, it was time for dessert. A chat with the judges led us to a vegan chocolate cupcake from Sweet Box, and it was improbably moist and rich. We also hit up Penn campus favorite Sugar Philly for some French macarons. A milk and honey variety was sweet and light, though a bit drier than usual—perhaps the scale that the awards demanded was somewhat straining on them.

We had room in our stomachs for one more dish, so we eschewed old standby Magic Carpet for a plate from the King of Falafel, which won the New York Vendys last year. Despite that, we weren't blown away. Hummus was good but nothing more; tabouleh had too much lemon juice. Babaganoush was balanced and mild, and the namesake falafel was a nice specimen—very crispy, with a hearty chickpea taste. Overall it was certainly pleasing, but not our favorite.

The awards ceremony took place at the end of the event, and we were pretty happy with the winners. Sweet Box took the cake (ha! get it?) for best dessert, Cocina Zapata won the people’s choice, and the judges selected Gigi and Big R, which left with the cute Vendy Cup. It was a sweet scene on stage after the announcement, with celebrating family members from Gigi’s who had been helping out all day. Genuine pride shone in their faces, and as the event organizers made clear repeatedly, everyone was a winner. The Vendys set out to explore and celebrate the culture of street food vending, and for a first-time event they did a bang-up job. We can’t wait for a bigger and better Vendys in Philly next year.

-Alex Marcus

Despite the sweltering heat, the 1st Annual Philadelphia Vendys were worth it. The awards took place at the Piazza at Schmidt's, the enclosed plaza in No Libs, for the even ringed with the 8 nominated trucks. Arriving around 4, there were multiple winding lines criss-cossing the plaza, a girl playing piano on the stage at the far end of the space, and hoards of people sitting on the ground, with a sharp break in the crowd where the shade ended and the oppressive sunshine began. I wished again and again that the event were happening at night and not during the hottest part of the day. Fortunately, there were cold drinks on hand (though they ran out of beer and water later), and that made the waiting more bearable. I've never been one to throw tedious line inspired temper tantrums, but we waited for La Copine's brunch plate for over an hour, and even I started to get antsy, anxious that the other trucks were running out.

La Copine's food was all right, but not spectacular. I liked the breakfast sandwich (and would have happily eaten a bigger portion): juicy sausage, egg and english muffin. The hashbrowns were greasy, diner-fare standard. Not bad, but not necessarily anything to write home about. The banana bread with peanut butter and jelly was dry. I was a big fan of Cucina Zapata's Chicken Satay taco: spicy and tender with a thin slice of avocado topping it off. Chicken Satay is one of my favorite Thai dishes, and I loved eating it re-invented as Mexican cuisine. The sweet potato chicken curry was also a winning combination. I'm very excited to make Cucina Zapata my new go-to lunch spot, and it's no surprise they walked away with the People's Choice award. I didn't eat enough of Gigi's plate to really get a sense of the flavors, but they surely offered the most filling portion and the hottest food. Of course, being a Sugar Philly loyalist (full disclosure: they know my order), I had to pay them a visit for a milk & honey macaron. I enjoyed it, as usual, but as I didn't get a chance to try Sweet Box's vegan cupcakes, I can't compare the two.

All in all, a successful day: I shook the mayor's hand, met Jennifer Carroll, and ate delicious food, and really, what more can you ask for?

-Kiley Bense

Seeing as how I was thwarted from enjoying myself at the last Night Market due to the ridiculous heat and humidity (I swear I now understand what a rotisserie chicken feels like), I was particularly excited to attend Philly's first ever Vendy Awards--a celebration and showcase of Philly's finest street vendors and sidewalk chefs. FYI that I'm also a native New Yorker (hold your applause), and I've been dying for years to attend the New York Vendy Awards. So to be at the first ever Philly version was pretty awesome.

Although the ticket cost of $45 (at the early bird rate) was a bit steep in terms of food truck food, at the end of the day, two things rang true: 1) separate portions from each of eight food trucks would've cost more than $45 (especially with drinks included), and 2) the proceeds of the event went toward supporting the efforts of the Food Trust, which I think is reason enough to throw down the cash. (Of course, I can't speak for those who paid more than $45. Or those that didn't end up getting eight food trucks worth of food--explanation ahead. Sigh. Double sigh.)

When my foodie friend Erich and I arrived at the Piazza at Schmidts around 4:30PM (the event was slated to go from 3PM to 7PM), we were a bit blown away by the ridiculously long lines. We should've figured as much, but alas, we had to think on our feet and strategize quickly. With the sun beating down on us, we decided to get on line for liquids first. Per Erich's logic, we needed to hydrate in order to prevent ourselves from shriveling up like raisins, as well as to have something with which to wash down our various bites. With beer and water in hand, we forged ahead, agreeing to move from savory to sweet.

Considering that we were already starting to melt, Erich picked out the shortest line in the shade, so that we could focus and plan. The first vendor on our foodie adventure was Magic Carpet Foods--a food truck that many of my Penn colleagues have touted as the best on campus. Though I would've loved to have started with an unfamiliar cart, my stomach was ready to be filled--by anything. Unfortunately, we arrived at the front of the line right as Deborah (the executive chef) was about to prepare food for the judges, so were stalled, with Dean (the president) manning the cart alone.

After a bit of discussion behind the scenes, I was finally able to order my tofu meatballs. Unfortunately (again), Dean apologized that they only had broken-up tofu meatballs. At that point, slightly frustrated and somewhat starving, I was fine with whatever he gave me. (I mean, they all get broken down anyways, right?) Coupled with the tomato sauce, and slathered over rice, no one would've been able to tell these meatballs were meatless! The tofu tasted exactly like perfectly-done-and-not-overcooked ground beef. It was like eating a homemade meat sauce! And while I'm personally a fan of vegan/vegetarian cuisine, the bigger litmus test was Erich, who was happily surprised by the consistency and quality of my dish, as compared to his falafel, which he sadly found to be quite dry.

On a side note, I was randomly checked out by Mayor Nutter and his entourage while I was enjoying my first dish of the day. While some people might be disconcerted with strangers inquiring about their food, I actually like sharing my food experiences, so it was nice to be asked about the bites I was savoring. Considering that I'm still new to Philadelphia, it definitely took a few seconds to realize who exactly was asking. But I'd consider it a minor celebrity sighting, no? That said, I have to admit that I was much more excited about being at the same event as Jennifer Carroll and Michael Solomonov-- two of the event's judges. Very cool indeed.

For our next vendor, we decided to check out another Penn favorite--Gigi and Big R Caribbean/American Soul Food. While I've seen the truck many times parked at 38th and Spruce, I've never had the chance to order from it. Even though I absolutely love soul food (and would have it as part of my dying meal), I suppose I consider it an indulgence--all of that fried and yummy goodness. That said, I was ready to indulge on this particular day. But again, because all the vendors seemed to be preparing food for the judges at the same time, we waited for what seemed like forever. A serious flaw that persisted throughout the event.

Thankfully, the plate was most definitely worth waiting for, especially since we got a good sample of their wares. Erich and I split one plate (so as to make sure we had enough room for other bites) and it was still plenty filling. I found the fried fish and the fried chicken perfectly crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. The roasted/sauteed chicken drumstick was amazingly flavorful and juicy, with a nice bit of heat left behind on the tongue. The caramelized onions were a nice accompaniment, along with what Erich determined to be an egg-ey potato salad of some sort. Definitely a strong contender.

As we waited on the Gigi line, I was somewhat traumatized upon seeing the Sugar Philly truck--my favorite truck of all time--close up shop! We saw Dan (the executive chef) standing out front with his partners, and we speculated on whether they seriously could've run out of their oh-so-delicious macarons--and at only 5-5:30PM no less! (If only my use of exclamation points could truly convey my sense of trauma at the time.) After consulting with Dan directly, we found out that they had indeed run out, especially with a ton of repeat customers at the beginning of the event.

This situation was likely echoed at Sweet Box as well, because they ran out of their decadent cupcakes fairly early too. The worst part was that I'd actually seen their cupcakes roaming around in the hands of other attendees, which made the loss that much more acute. With my personal attachment to, and fixation with, sugar, I realized that "saving the best for last" can potentially lead to depression. And that "dessert first" can pretty much guarantee happiness. Life lessons--care of the Vendy Awards (and whoever uttered these sayings first).

While Erich had sought out Guapos Tacos on previous occasions, I'd never had the pleasure of checking out Jose Garces's food truck. Unlike the previous two vendors, which had offered a substantial amount of food, Guapos took a more minimalist approach, presenting a small, well-cooked piece of fish over a purple-colored slaw. Even with the fish doused in a bit of hot sauce (thanks for nothing, Erich), I was pleased with the light and tasty fish taco experience. As a Garces devotee, I definitely wasn't surprised by the quality of the dish. Perhaps fortunately, perhaps unfortunately, it simply made me wish there had been more on the plate.

Feeling sustained by the food of several vendors, we decided to wait on the ridiculously long brunch line at La Copine. This line took even longer than the line at Gigi, and I could easily have been emotionally damaged, as we barely made the cut to try all that the truck had to offer. Thankfully, Erich's friends (who'd showed up late and injected themselves into the line) offered to give us their fully-loaded plates. I found the breakfast sandwich quite good, with the fluffy egg and the juicy sausage. The banana bread with the grape jelly was nicely balanced as well, not too moist and not too sweet. Given my aversion to anything having to do with white potatoes, I passed my hash browns on to Erich, who didn't think they warranted any particular excitement.

During our semi-torturous wait for La Copine, I actually had time to wander over and pick up food from Cucina Zapata--one of the few street vendors I'd never heard about. With their blend of Asian and Latin flavors, I was excited to check out what they had to offer, especially since their line was way more manageable. After a short wait, I picked up the Thai short rib taco and the sweet potato chicken curry over rice. Even though I expected a big chunk of short rib, I actually preferred the smaller pieces with their crispy exterior. The beef was flavorful and the bite was scrumptious, but not particularly life-changing. The sweet potato chicken curry was good as well, though it was somewhat lost on me as I'm not the biggest fan of curry.

All in all, I have to admit that we were fairly disappointed. With no cloud cover, natural or man-made shading, we were pretty much roasting for half the time we were there. In addition, the fact that vendors ran out of food almost two hours before the end of the event was fairly upsetting, especially with attendees having paid up to $65 for their tickets. While we certainly can't blame the vendors (who were instructed to bring a certain amount of product), future iterations of this event will need to be better managed.

Food-wise, I was most impressed by the folks at Gigi and Big R. Their food was both delicious and substantial, both hot and tasty. And more importantly, they didn't run out! That said, it's not surprising that they took the top spot, winning the coveted Vendy Cup at the end of the event. Congratulations, Gigi and Big R! I'm thrilled I'll have the luxury of enjoying your award-winning wares year-round!

As a side note, I couldn't have survived the event without the wonderful fellow doling out samples of DRY soda between Magic Carpet and Guapos. I literally sampled 6 out of 8 flavors, with cucumber and rhubarb being top picks. And with my hopes for dessert dashed, I was thankful for the lovely woman giving out KIND bars right by the entrance/exit. I love how the fruit and nut bars are ridiculously satisfying without insane calories. Thank goodness for sponsors!

 -Hoi Ning Ngai

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