Volume 76, Number 23 | October 25 - 31, 2006

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

The four Pakistani friends who run the Sammy’s Halal cart in Jackson Heights, Queens, celebrate winning the coveted Vendy Cup.

Vendors cook up some hot competition at St. Mark’s

By Jefferson Siegel

The next time you’re dashing out for a quick lunch, slow down when you pass the stainless steel carts of the street food vendors. You’re likely to get a better meal dining al fresco than you might expect.

Street food vendors are light years beyond the dirty-water hot dog carts of years past. Their fare is so varied and tasty that the mobile cuisine now merits its own awards ceremony.

Sunday night, the tastiest of the traveling chefs were honored at the Second Annual Street Vendor Cook-Off, known as the Vendys. The four finalists set up their elaborate mobile kitchens at St. Mark’s Church in the East Village.

Hundreds of connoisseurs paid $50 each to sample the carne asada and chipotle pork tacos of Calexico, the spicy grilled chicken of Sammy’s Halal and the vegan dosas and samosas of Washington Square’s own “Dosa Man.”

“We were thinking about opening a restaurant,” said Jesse Vendley, one of three brothers who run Calexico five days a week at the corner of Wooster and Prince Sts. in Soho.

“This is my hobby,” said Muhammad Anjum, a Pakistani immigrant, “so I love to eat and I love to cook.” As his partners, Sammy, Shafiq and Arsad, worked the grill of Sammy’s Halal cart, a long line waited to sample the chicken with rice.

Until a year ago, the four friends drove taxis. Now they run four food carts, and in a few months they’ll start operating another near Broadway and Lafayette Sts. in Noho.

Villagers and N.Y.U. students flock to the vegan dosas sold by Thiru Kumar, who operates the only dosa cart in North America. Kumar emigrated from Sri Lanka in 1995 and opened his cart five years ago.

“Most of the time, pretty busy,” he said as the irresistible scent of grilled lentils and other ingredients wafted over the crowd. At his regular location at Sullivan and W. Fourth Sts., Kumar serves up delicacies six days a week.

Restaurants know that sizzle is as important as the soy steak, and the award ceremony hewed to that belief. As diners filled the church sanctuary, many holding takeout containers of freshly cooked corn arepas and Indian-spiced chicken, the eminence of anti-consumerism, Reverend Billy, offered his own unique benediction.

“Street vendor, my teacher, my god, thank you!” the reverend intoned, his face turning beet red. “Here’s five bucks, I want the spicy sausage!”

The awards ceremony, hosted by the Street Vendor Project of the Urban Justice Center, was also meant to raise awareness of the daily travails vendors face. Sean Basinski, the patron saint of the footloose chefs de cuisine, spoke on behalf of the city’s 10,000 street vendors.

“They have many problems. It’s hard to get a license; it’s hard to find somewhere to work because many streets are off limits to all vendors,” Basinski explained. Street vendors must deal with seven different city agencies and adhere to 21 pages of regulations. “The tickets are very severe; it’s as much as $1,000 for one ticket,” he added.

The majority of street vendors deal in three categories of sales: food, merchandise and books. For those who complain vendors compete with rent-paying stores, Basinski set about to enlighten them.

“Big businesses believe in competition until there’s a vendor on their corner,” he said. “The truth is, vendors don’t hurt businesses, they actually bring people to many neighborhoods.”

East Villager Christy Kohser, a graduate student in food studies at N.Y.U., is a recent convert to sidewalk samosas.

“I’d walk by a food cart and think it’s not going to taste as good as a restaurant,” she said. “Now, it’s good food, it’s not what my perceptions were at all.”

This year’s winner of the Vendy Cup was Sammy’s Halal. The “Dosa Man” won second place.

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