Vendys bring together food masters — vending chefs and eaters

Joseph Bernstein samples chicken from Gigi Big R truck during competition at the Vendy Awards. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)
Joseph Bernstein samples chicken from Gigi Big R truck during competition at the Vendy Awards. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 09, 2011

A new breed of food truck is giving the ubiquitous cheesesteak a run for its money as the city's preferred curbside delight.

The inaugural Philadelphia Vendy awards, a culinary showdown among eight of the city's elite mobile food vendors held Saturday in Northern Liberties, sought to identify and reward the leaders of that breed. And nary a steak was in sight.

"It's been a long hard day, but it's been a beautiful day," Thomas Bacon, also known as Gigi, of Gigi and Big R Caribbean/American Soul Food, the crowned victor of the event, said as he clutched a gleaming trophy cup. "The Vendy Cup is a trophy that I can drink cool beer out of - after standing over a deep fryer, frying chicken, cooking cabbage and greens, and serving the customers."

For the hundreds of street food vendors in Philadelphia, serving the customers is the bottom line.

"Food trucks in Philly are big," said John Suh, co-owner of Sugar Philly, a food truck in the competition known for its French macaroons. "You see chefs with talent having the ability to essentially run their own operation, to see the customer and see their food hitting the hands of the people they're serving."

Suh's truck lost the Dessert Award to the other sugary confection maker at the event, Sweet Box, the three-month-old project of pastry chef Gretchen Fantini, which features premium cupcakes in such flavors as espresso hazelnut praline.

The People's Choice Award, based on the votes of about 500 attendees at the event, went to Rob and Ruk Zapata, owners and head chefs of Cucina Zapata, a mobile mainstay at Drexel University that fuses Mexican and Thai food.

A panel of five judges, all foodies - including Mayor Nutter - selected for culinary excellence. The event was a fund-raiser for the Food Trust, a Philadelphia nonprofit that promotes healthy food and farming.

"We've got some of the best vended food possibly on the East Coast," Nutter said in an announcement to a crowd of the hungry during the event. "So we'll be taking over the country shortly."

Philadelphia is the third city to host the Vendys, an annual competition event among food carts that started in New York eight years ago, and expanded to Los Angeles last year. The Vendys is coordinated by the Street Vendor Project, a New York advocacy organization promoting mobile food culture around the country.

Held from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Piazza at Schmidt's, just south of Second Street and Girard Avenue, the event attracted about 500 people who paid for an all-you-can-eat experience. Each cart served a select few specialties designed to curry favor with the judges and ticketholders alike. Dishes included jerk chicken, falafel, fusion tacos, artisan cupcakes and French macaroons.

Philadelphia was chosen as the newest addition to the Vendys last year when three Philly food carts made a splash at the New York competition, a 20-vendor event that attracts about 20,000 attendees.

"Philadelphia hasn't been recognized for its street food on a national level and I think this is a great opportunity to show off how much it means here and how deep and old the tradition is here," said Helena Tubis, managing director of the New York-based Vendys movement.

The traditional street fare of cheesesteaks, hot dogs, hoagies and water ice. But in the last five years, an influx of younger chefs has helped reinvigorate the scene with more experimental cuisine. Half of the eight carts feature talent from around the globe.

Traditionally, street food vendors have served a relatively unchanging fare of cheesesteaks, hot dogs, hoagies and water ice. But in the last five years, an influx of younger chefs has helped reinvigorate the scene with more experimental cuisine. Half of the eight carts feature talent from around the globe.

Cucina Zapata, which hit the city's streets for the first time this spring, prides itself on its sweet potato chicken curry, crafted by Ruk Zapata, originally of Thailand. The Zapatas hope to one day bolster their special sauces with organic chilies imported from their small farm in Thailand, according to the Philadelphia Vendy Awards website.

Gigi and Big R Caribbean/American Soul Food marries the subtropical island cuisine of Haitian Elukene Rene with the down-home traditions of Bacon, a Philly native. The pair, who have been in business for 10 years, prides itself on producing platters with enough food for the whole family. Their specialties include barbecue jerk chicken and Rene's specially seasoned fried whiting fish.

Guapos Tacos, a Mexican cuisine cart established last year, is the chimerical child of Chicago-born Jose Garces and Jun Aizak, of Japan. Guapos offers Mexican-style sodas, guacamole, esquires and tacos. Garces is owner and executive chef of Amada, a Spanish tapas restaurant on Chestnut Street, and several other dining locations, and took first place in the 2010 season of television's The Next Iron Chef.

A stalwart in the city's mobile food scene, King of Falafel has been pedaling Middle Eastern cuisine curbside since 1989. Owners Nabil and Hined Akkeh, electrical engineers from Syria, claim credit for helping introduce the city to homemade falafel and hummus.

The veteran contestant is Magic Carpet Foods, a 27-year-old Middle Eastern and Mediterranean influenced cart operated by Philly natives Dean Varvoutis and Deborah Carson. Magic Carpet says it provides "the gateway to vegetarian eating for the common person," according to the Philadelphia Vendy Awards website.

La Copine, a brunch cart only four months old, has its roots in Garden Variety, a local open-air weekend food market founded this year. The cart prizes naturally raised, locally sourced food. Head chef Nikki Hill hails from Salt Lake City; co-owner Claire Wadsworth grew up in Houston and Summit, N.J.

The two final contestants, Sugar Philly and Sweet Box, specialize in gourmet desserts.

The eight represent only a small slice of what Philly food carts have to offer, contestants said.

"Everybody has something different, and it's all good food," Bacon said. "There's an etiquette and respect that we have for each other because we're out here doing the same thing and we want the same result. We want happy customers and a couple pennies and nickels to flip around in the air."


Contact staff writer Gregory Thomas at 215-854-5289 or gthomas@philly.com.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|