Fine fare from food trucks at Fishtown festival

Jen Hoang eats a potted pork and duck confit from the Whirly Pig at the Philadelphia Vendy Awards.
Jen Hoang eats a potted pork and duck confit from the Whirly Pig at the Philadelphia Vendy Awards. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 16, 2014

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in Penn Treaty Park in Fishtown, diners lined up for cups of chilled strawberry soup, as well as escargot with mushroom oatmeal and garlic scape cream.

The dishes emerging from the Heart food truck, one of 14 such competitors for the 2014 Vendy Awards, were no different from the ones Heart's owners once presented at their Pottstown restaurant.

"We're trying to take what we did in the restaurant and do it out here," said co-owner Tonda Woodling, who formerly ran Pottstown's Funky Lil' Kitchen. "People walk up, and they say, 'Escargot? On a truck?' But part of the fun is in seeing people try things they might not have ordered at a sit-down meal. And for us, that means a lot more flexibility."

The first competition series for street food, the Vendys started 10 years ago in New York City as a fund-raiser for street vendors. The Vendys have since spread to Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Chicago, as well as Philadelphia, where the contest is in its fourth year.

As the food-truck movement has blossomed nationwide, local foodies have witnessed a boom in Philadelphia, particularly in the last two years. Organizers sold out 750 tickets for Saturday's event, said Zeina Muna, managing director of the Vendys, which included unlimited food and local beer.

"People are becoming really comfortable eating on the streets, and they're becoming comfortable with trying new things," Muna said. "One of the things that's great about this event is it gives people a way to test out all these trucks that they might otherwise never see on their way home or on their lunch hour."

Saturday's event featured trucks bearing tacos, cupcakes, BBQ, crepes, and ice cream. There also were fried cheese curds courtesy of the Cow and the Curd, which this year won the People's Choice Award for the second straight year.

Nominees were chosen by public submissions, and winners were crowned after a team of judges cast votes. PieStand, which serves up sweet and savory pastries, was awarded this year's Vendy Cup.

Admission fees go to the cost of operating the festival, but any additional profits benefit the Food Trust, the organization responsible for the Night Market events throughout the city over the last two summers.

Rob Mitchell of the Cow and the Curd truck, which opened in January 2013 and already has opened a second truck dedicated to the cheese-curds-and-gravy dish poutine, recently got involved in the first NiteFare food festival in Lambertville, N.J. The event was a roaring success, he said.

"People are starving for good food and new experiences like this," Mitchell said. "It's clear now that wherever you are, if you want to get a few thousand people crammed onto a few city blocks, all you need is food trucks and craft beer."

Lily Cope, director of the Center City demonstration kitchen COOK and one of the Philadelphia event's judges, said the recent growth of the food-truck scene in the city was a reflection of its evolving culinary culture.

"Owning a truck is no longer a stepping-stone to owning your own restaurant," said Cope, who founded the Philly Homegrown initiative through the city's tourism bureau to promote local food sources. "That's not the end goal, where I think it was at one point."

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