The best street food trucks do everything their bricks-and-mortar counterparts do, only on wheels and in a kitchen not much bigger than a phone booth.
Eight of those food carts and trucks, serving up gustatory delights from cupcakes to Caribbean cuisine, compete Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia's first-ever Vendy Awards, an offshoot of the popular New York City cook-off that started in 2005. The winners get bragging rights, a trophy called the Vendy Cup and the street cred aimed at attracting more customers and potentially funding to expand.
"About six or seven vendors from previous (New York) Vendy Awards have ultimately been able to segue into a bricks-and-mortar establishment," said Helena Tubis, managing director of the Vendys. "It's not the path all vendors want to take but it's a trajectory we see a lot."
The finalists were the top vote-getters among dozens of Philadelphia vendors nominated through online ballots for the award. A panel of seven local foodies — including Mayor Michael Nutter, food critics and bloggers, and James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Solomonov — will gobble up offerings from the showdown finalists to choose the winner.
If you think of Philadelphia street food as nothing but greasy spoons serving up cheesesteaks and soft pretzels, the Vendys will come as a delicious surprise.
The culinary competitors have been in the street vendor business anywhere from a few months to more than two decades and offer epicurean experiences in soul food, gourmet desserts, vegetarian cuisine, Middle Eastern specialties, home-style brunches, even tacos from restaurateur and "Iron Chef" winner Jose Garces. Additional honors will be presented for best dessert, rookie of the year and the "people's taste" award.
Vendy organizers decided to create a Philadelphia branch of the contest after three local food trucks made the trip to New York last year and impressed the judges, Tubis said.
"What we found was phenomenal. Philly's had a strong street food culture for a very long time and many people don't recognize that," she said. "There's a food revolution that's going on in the restaurant scene and the food truck scene."
Gretchen Fantini left a legal career to start selling gourmet cupcakes; her Sweet Box truck is just three months old but made the Vendy final eight. Her advice to others with similar dreams: "Don't wait any longer, follow your heart and make it a reality."
At the opposite end of the seniority spectrum is King of Falafel, established in 1989 by Nabil and Hined Akkeh, former electrical engineers from Syria. They helped introduce Philadelphia to Middle Eastern food and, though they now have many competitors, maintain a devoted following who voted them into a final spot in the Vendys.
"The food cart thing has gotten kind of trendy but in a good way," Rob Mahon said as he walked off with a falafel lunch from the Akkehs' longtime spot near City Hall. "There's so much variety now and it's all pretty amazing."
The other Vendy finalists are Cucina Zapata's mash-up of Thai and Mexican, Gigi and Big R's Caribbean and American soul food, Guapos Tacos by celebrity chef Garces, La Copine's locally sourced brunch fare, Magic Carpet's world vegetarian cuisine and Sugar Philly's French macarons served from a former mobile post office truck once stationed outside the World Trade Center.
Proceeds from the $55-a-person event at the Piazza at Schmidts go to The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that works with neighborhoods, schools, grocers, farmers and policymakers to improve access to healthy and affordable food. The price of admission includes all food and drink.
The Vendys are the creation of the Street Vendor Project, which advocates for New York City's sidewalk sellers and is part of the Urban Justice Center.
Vendy Awards: http://streetvendor.org/vendys/philly/