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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

I Vend, Thee Crave!

Great news, friend! According to a stellar piece of reporting by The New York Times, Tim Zagat (above) has made a speedy recovery and is “almost over the shock”!!!

Shock, you ask? What on earth happened?!

It turns out... now make sure you're seated...

It turns out restaurant prices are rising. By 14% over the last two years alone. Which means that Cobb Salad you paid $12 for back in 2004 is now over $13. And this stunning turn of events has absolutely blindsided the founder and publisher of the popular Zagat Surveys.

Luckily, not everyone is taking the news without a fight. As attorney Barry Okun put it, “I blame Tom Colicchio” –Colicchio being the TONY Craft restauranteur who charges between $50 and $125 for “roasted” beef. Okun's solution to such outrageous price-points? Setting “a personal price limit” (of $50 to $60) for his entrees. Take that, fat cats!

Now I know what you're thinking, good reader: Zagat and Okun are exceptional individuals, models of courage, resourcefulness and resilience in these unbelievably trying times. But what about the rest of us? Those of weaker will and softer resolve? How are we to take a stand against alarming entree costs when, after all, we're only human?

Just when I thought all was lost, a single bright lining peeked out from behind dark clouds. Yes, hopeful reader: what should happen a mere day after the Times' stunning exposé? An answer in the form of an awards show: The 2nd Annual Vendy Awards, to be precise.To the uninitiated, The Vendys bring
together the finest street chefs in the five boroughs to name the year's most outstanding food vendor, and to celebrate the unique contribution that all vendors make to the life and culture of our city.
In other words, they celebrate curbside chefs de cuisine who serve some of the city's most delicious and reasonably-priced food. For less than a bucksaw you can sample savory halal meats and golden falafels, gooey arepas and terrific tacos, holy hot dogs and sumptuous ceviches. Which explains why, on a crisp October night, several hundred gathered at St. Mark's Church to bear witness.

And imbibe. This was an all-you-can-eat/drink-stravaganza. The four Vendy finalists had set up their carts and cooked up a storm, and The Porkchop Express was ready to grub down. The first thing that caught our attention? This is not fast food. Lines lumbered along at a leisurely pace. Which usually spells agitation in NYC: snarky lip-smacks, rolling eyes, edgy elbow nudges. But something about the Vendys (great eats) lent itself to peace and calm; not only were folks patient, they actually seemed happy to wait.

So who were “they”? A group as eclectic as the vendors themselves: a Suffolk County Corrections Officer and former owner of Hicksville's finest, The Tumblin' Inn (the first Long Island tavern to specialize in imported beers); a fine young couple (businesswoman and Googleman) from Michigan; a group of NYU Food Studies grad students; not to mention lawyers, writers, and vendors a-plenty (sporting “REAL LIFE VENDOR” stickers).
Muhammad Anjum (front) and Samiul Noor of Sammy's Halal

But where to begin? I wasn't sure, until I overheard a woman saying
“Meat on a stick, you can't beat that!”
So I joined the line she had come from, and waited. This, it turns out, was Sammy's Halal of 73rd St. & Broadway in Jackson Heights, Queens. About 16 years back, Samiul Haque Noor left his native Pakistan to earn a living in America. After a few odd jobs and an extended run as a Cabbie, Sami decided to revive a culinary career. He apprenticed on Worth Street and Union Square food carts, studying the trade and biding his time. And when the moment arrived, he took the plunge, got his own cart, and set up shop in the Q-borough.
Difficult choices: chicken, lamb... or both?

Sammy's was the first Halal Food Stand in Jackson Heights, and (although many have followed) he remains the undisputed champ. His specialty? Chicken and rice. But oh what chicken, and oh what rice. Sami takes a great deal of pride in his spicing, and with good reason. His family was in the import/export trade, and he knows a thing or two about flavor-mixology. Over 30 different seasonings go into this wonderful meat, bright orange, fragrant and moist, studded with peppers and onions. But don't forget the lamb, grilled chopped slices of seriously savory gyro. (Right now I'm wishing I lived in Jackson Heights so I could refresh my memory). The pita soaked up the juices nicely, but Sami's rice is just too tasty to pass on, a fluffy, aromatic, spiced basmati that paired perfectly with the meats.
Rush Hour: Sammy's Halal moving the crowds

Two other noteworthy observations: Sami worked with three friends, all of whom cut their culinary chops in Pakistan; and they were the last folks to pack it up for the actual awards ceremony, dishing up pitas and rice plates well after the “final call” to head inside. This was the real deal, and a great intro to the Vendys.
Maria Piedad Cano, The Arepa Lady and a Japanese film crew

Where to next? Colombia sounded good, so I got in line to see Maria Piedad Cano p/k/a the Arepa lady. If you've ever perused Chowhound, you've probably heard of her. Some folks describe her as “Saintly,” but I think “tough as nails” is more accurate. A former Judge, trial lawyer, police inspector and municipal Mayor, Maria left her native Colombia 20 years ago to escape mounting violence. Not that America was easy street: she got divorced soon after arrival, and had to raise 4 sons on her own. Even after Maria learned the vending trade from a fellow expatriate, she couldn't afford a license. But she set up shop anyway, dodging po-po and putting in up to 80 hours a week just to keep her family afloat.
Maria serves her storied arepas at 79th St. & Roosevelt Avenue in Queens every Friday and Saturday night. And how do they taste? As good as advertised. She uses a fresh corn batter, griddled til golden brown, and serves the round cakes stuffed with either melted cheese or salty grated cheese and butter. The effect is exhilarating, sweet and savory, slightly crisp and creamy... do a search on Chowhound for the full lowdown. And then head down to Queens, to round out your weekend night and show Maria some love. After all, she's the Rakim of Street Vendors, dead serious with legendary skills and take-no-prisoners resolve. No mistakes allowed, just pure arepa goodness.
I decided to take a breather outside the church grounds, only to come across a third Vendor: the aptly named Vendley Brothers–Jesse, Brian and Dave–from Calexico Carne Asada of Wooster & Prince in SoHo. These lads have what freelance author, Epicurious contributor, Brooklyn Record editor, and 2006 Vendys Judge Kara Zuaro labeled the best lunch deal in SoHo; so let the tasting begin!

The Vendleys hail from a California-Mexico border town, home to a “natural fusion food.” The sons of a farming family, they caught the street vendor bug at last year's Vendys. Eldest brother Jesse lacked any formal food training. But he took his time, developing and testing Cal-Mex recipes while saving up the money to get rolling. He called in reinforcements (his two brothers from Cali), and set up shop (cart) four months ago.Their appearance in this year's awards show testifies to the quality of their product. Not long on the scene, they have quickly become part of the neighborhood's landscape. How, you ask? Great food and hard work. By their own admission, they followed the lead of legendary Vendors like Arepa Lady and Dosa Man, folks who offer fresh, authentic food from their hometowns. Towards that end, the Vendleys have brought local and family recipes from the border to the boroughs.
Calexico makes everything except tortillas from scratch, but their specialty is carne asada. This is a flavorful, lime-marinated “knock you in your teeth” grilled beef. Their pulled pork isn't shy either, a smoky, tender, sweet/spicy/tangy mix of southern and southwestern styles. The plates were generous to boot: corn tortillas loaded with delicious meats, served with a refreshing slaw and grilled cobs of corn. I should add that the Vendleys' entrepreneurial savvy was on display as well: Brian (above) patrolled the line with chips and salsa and grilled chipotle shrimp (above!!!), a move that won me over with flavor and killed me with kindness.
We were all set to finish off with the last finalist, Thiru Kumar (the storied Dosa Man of Washington Square Park). But sadly, no such luck; he had already shut shop. Eating was done, and the awards were on, so we headed inside to watch a guy (Preacher Porkchop?) in a white suit spreading the gospel of the Street Vendors: community, diversity, resilience, flavor.

I tend to avoid awards shows on principle, the principle being they suck: long-winded, dull, etc. But this was a different creature entirely, a public affirmation of why everyone was there in the first place. Far from detracting, the ceremony lent additional focus to an already fine experience, and highlighted on no uncertain terms the cultural significance and contributions of street vendors in NYC. To many, vending is a means of achieving an American dream. Folks from such far-out places as California and Colombia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, are drawn to the Big Apple to earn a living; and they do so in the kindest way possible, by serving up the deliciousness.

To which I say thank you.

Why worry about triple-digit meals when you can feast on moist meats and creamy corn cakes for less than the price of a movie ticket? And why live in a place like New York, where people still do arrive from all parts hoping to start anew or carry onwards, without showing some love and sampling the fruits of their labors? It's win-win friend, no matter how you measure.
Furthermore, as Mike Wells, Chairman of the Street Vendor Project Leadership Board made plain, vendors can use our support. Towards this end, The Street Vendor Project acts as an intermediary to address “aggressive” policing tactics. The City loosely doles out violations running from $50 to $300... and that's a whole lotta arepas. To keep a fair playing field, the SVP works with all licensed street vendors; they represent up to 20 court cases every day; they provide translators, legal representation, and liasons to city officials; and, most importantly, on this fine night they put a face–sights, smells, sounds, smiles–on their community.
Victory is theirs: (l-r) Muhammad Anjum, Arshad Khan, Samiul Noor & Muhammad Shafiq

As for the finale? With the end of Ramadan nigh, it seemed only fitting that Sammy's Halal took the crown. But really, “everyone was a winner.” And I don't just mean that in a Special Olympics/Hippie drum circle way. Each vendor repped their hometown to the fullest extent of flavor allowed by law. And that, my friends, is certainly worth celebrating. Hands across the World? Hands across the boroughs, at least, with chicken and tacos for all.
#1 in the hood, gee: 2006 Vendy Champ Samiul Haque Noor

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

Some final bites...
  • To support The Street Vendor Project, click here.
  • A hearty porkslap to Sam Talbot, Vendy Volunteer and street vendor extraordinaire, for tipping The 'Chop off to these awards. Be sure to try one of his storied kalbi burgers with kimchee at his Lower East Side Cart (on the Southeast corner of Stanton and Ludlow), Thursdays thru Saturdays from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. And give his excellent website Pushcart NYC a browse as well.
  • Another porkslap to the charming Kara Zuaro, for sharing her thoughts as a street food enthusiast and Vendy Judge. Check out her website, The Brooklyn Record. And keep on the lookout for her Indie Rock Cookbook I Like Food Food Tastes Good (due out in early 2007).
  • Both Kara and Sam praised the work of Thiru “The Dosa Man” Kumar. As the only finalist we did not sample, The 'Chop vows to hit up his cart in the next few and report back.
  • As Kara noted, what happened to Brooklyn? Only two vendors were nominated (a hot dog stand at Poly Place & 7th Ave., and Rojas Ecuadorian at the Red Hook Ball Fields). Which, y'know, is too bad.
  • If you're in the mood for street food, Sam also recommends Sam's Falafel (no relation) at Liberty Plaza, and John's Grilled Steak (at 56th & 7th).


Blogger elias said...

samiul haq noor, would never win if his friend shawn was there.it was all propaganda.and who said he was 36.sammy is 44 year old

4:39 PM  

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