Curb your appetite? No way!

Joseph Bernstein samples jerk chicken from Gigi & Big R,the Vendy Awards winner at the Piazza at Schmidts.
Joseph Bernstein samples jerk chicken from Gigi & Big R,the Vendy Awards winner at the Piazza at Schmidts. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)

Street vendors show their chops in the haute cuisine category.

Posted: July 10, 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 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 & Big R Caribbean/American Soul Food, the victor of the event, said as he clutched a gleaming trophy. "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 confectioner 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 who paid for an all-you-can-eat experience, 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 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 at the Piazza at Schmidts, just south of Second Street and Girard Avenue. "So we'll be taking over the country shortly."

Philadelphia is the third city to host the Vendys, an annual competition 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 organization promoting mobile food culture around the country.

Philadelphia was chosen 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 Vendys movement.

The traditional street fare of cheesesteaks, hot dogs, hoagies, and water ice has been augmented in the last five years as younger chefs have introduced 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.

Gigi & 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.

Guapos Tacos is a Mexican cuisine cart established last year by chef and restaurant owner Jose Garces and Jun Aizaki of Japan.

Nabil and Hined Akkeh, electrical engineers from Syria, claim credit for helping introduce the city to homemade falafel and hummus with King of Falafel.

The veteran contestant was Magic Carpet Foods, a 27-year-old Middle Eastern- and Mediterranean-influenced cart operated by Philly natives Dean Varvoutis and Deborah Carson.

Brunch cart La Copine prizes naturally raised, locally sourced food from Nikki Hill and co-owner Claire Wadsworth.


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

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