Street Cred

By David McAninch

Published on August 7, 2007


Many New Yorkers will tell you that their city's most exciting foods can be found as readily under the rubberized umbrellas of street carts as they can in fancy dining rooms. But until recently the hardworking small-time entrepreneurs, most of them immigrants, who man these ubiquitous mobile eateries have labored in obscurity, struggling to obtain vending licenses and relying on word of mouth to attract loyal customers. In 2004, the Urban Justice Center, a nonprofit legal-aid organization, decided to change that by inaugurating the Vendy Awards, a juried cook-off and fund-raiser that honors the city's best street vendors, nominated by the public at large._

If the Third Annual Vendy Awards, to be held at the William F. Passannante Ball Field in New York's Greenwich Village on September 29, are anything like last year's event, expect outstanding food, long lines, high emotion, and, yes, even some paparazzi. The four finalists competing for glory that night had set up their carts outside the St. Marks in-the-Bowery church in the East Village and constituted a typically eclectic cross-section of New Yorkers: Maria Piedad Cano of Queens, originally from Colombia, known to her customers as the Arepa Lady (after the fried cornmeal cakes she's famous for); Thiru Kumar, a.k.a the Dosa Man, a Sri Lankan immigrant who is celebrated in Greenwich Village for his excellent lentil-rice crepes; Pakistan-born Samiul Haque Noor of Sammy's Halal, which has earned a following in Queens for intricately seasoned chicken-and-rice dishes; and Jesse, Brian, and Dave Vendley, three California-born brothers who sell fresh, flavorful carne asada tacos from their cart in SoHo._

After sampling the vendors' fare, the nine judges—including SAVEUR'S food editor, Todd Coleman, and former New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton—retired to the church sanctuary to deliberate, judging the food on such criteria as presentation, flavor, and portability. As the nominees gathered in front of a stage set up at one end of the room and guests poured in, the Reverend Billy, a self-described street preacher and longtime fixture in the East Village, delivered a spirited sermon. "My body and soul are what I have eaten!" he shouted with evangelical bombast. "And what I have eaten comes from the street vendors of New York City!" The Dosa Man grinned nervously; the Arepa Lady stood poker-faced._

Finally, Sheraton took the stage and announced the winner: Sammy's Halal of Jackson Heights, Queens. Samiul Noor received his trophy graciously. "This is the first time I've ever won anything," he said, leaning into the microphone and brandishing the silver cup before a sea of flashing cameras. "I love New York!"

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