New York’s most celebrated street food vendors are out to dethrone the King of Falafel.
The Middle Eastern cart might be the only winner of two coveted Vendy awards in the same year — but this time, their competition is a lot tougher.
For the first time ever in the 10-year history of the street food competition, past winners will battle it out in a special Master’s Cup showdown. It all goes down at the Vendy Awards on Sept. 13 on Governors Island.
Facing off against the King of Falafel will be four other Vendy victors — Hallo Berlin, NY Dosas, Calexico, and Solber Pupusas — event organizers revealed exclusively to the Daily News.
“The Master’s Cup should be a great way to recognize how far the Vendy awards have come and where street food has come in the last 10 years,” says Sean Basinski, head of the Street Vendor Project, which hosts the awards.
Since its start a decade ago, the Vendys have expanded to events in other cities including Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans and Los Angeles. “Ten years ago, there really were no fancy food trucks across the country,” Basinski says. “The Vendys provided inspiration to a lot of people and really started a trend.”
All five competing carts and trucks in the Master’s Cup have won a Vendy Cup — awarded for best street food as judged by a panel of chefs, foodie TV personalities and executives — in a prior year. King of Falafel has the distinct honor of having won both a Vendy Cup, and a People’s Choice award (voted by event attendees) in 2010.
Winning a Vendy means attention — and many businesses have parlayed that into expansions and even opening brick-and-mortar restaurants.
“These Masters finalists are all famous for what they’ve done — and they should be,” Basinski says, noting they’ve changed the “street meat” perception of carts and trucks serving low quality food.
“Every street food connoisseur knows them, they’ve been written up in guidebooks, and tourists make a journey to see them, just like they do for Katz’s Deli or Bouley.”
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Tickets to the Vendy Awards cost $95 for unlimited food from participating carts and trucks as well as beer and wine, while $145 will buy VIP treatment with early admission. Attendees get to vote for the winner of the People’s Choice award, as well as the new Master’s Cup. vendyawards.streetvendor.org
Won: 2005 Vendy Cup
This German street cart was the original Vendy winner at the very first event. The cart, and a Hell’s Kitchen restaurant, were operated by Rolf Babiel until his death in 2009. The business is now run by his family, including wife Bernadette, brother Wolfgang, and sons.
“Dad was the first winner of the Vendy Awards, so when they called us about the Master’s Cup, it felt like the right thing to participate,” says Peter Babiel, one of Rolf’s sons. “We wanted to do it to honor him.”
Peter says the Vendy menu will include bratwursts and German potatoes.
“I’m pretty sure we can win,” he says. “It’s simple food — but people like that.”
Regular locations: Streetcart at 54th St. and Fifth Ave., and a restaurant at 626 Tenth Ave. halloberlinrestaurant.com.
Food: Sri Lankan vegan
Won: 2007 Vendy Cup
Thiru Kumar is a one-man wonder behind his Washington Square Park cart, which he’s operated since 2001. There’s always a line of people — which Kumar works through while fielding calls from regulars who make sure he’s there, and chatting with favorite customers who gather on the other side of the cart. For the Vendys, he’s making his signature dosas (pancakes filled with a spicy potato mixture), as well as a variety of Sri Lankan vegan dishes including samosas, veggie drumsticks and soups.
“I’m very proud for vegan food to be part of the competition,” Kumar says. “I don’t really think about my competition. I’ll keep doing the same thing I do and try to win.
“I’ll be bringing my award-winning pondicherry,” Kumar adds of the crepe made of rice and lentil flour and filled with vegetables and potatoes.
Regular location: Washington Square Park South and Sullivan St.
Food: Mexican and California fusion
Won: 2008 Vendy Cup
When Jesse Vendley was trying to convince his brothers to move from Calexico, Calif., which borders Mexico, to open a food cart, they were skeptical, thinking the New York City food cart scene consisted only of pretzel and hot dog stands.
The brothers visited New York for the first Vendy Awards, tasting food from current competitors including Hallo Berlin and NY Dosas.
“They saw they were putting out really great food, and we were really inspired,” Vendley says.
That same year, they set up their first cart at the corner of Prince and Wooster in SoHo, selling food inspired by the family cookouts they’d have back in Calexico, like carne asada and Baja fish tacos.
They competed in the Vendys in 2006, and lost, butgot some experience, came back in 2008, and won. Media attention from the win helped them open up their second cart and first restaurant in Red Hook. Now, the brothers have a mini chain.
Vendley says he’s glad to see some of the old school competitors come back for the Master’s Cup — and admits he’s fully intimidated by Thiru Kumar of NY Dosas.
“I think he’s the favorite to win. What he does with vegan food on a little cart by himself is really impressive,” Vendley says. “We’re going to have to bring our A game.”
Regular locations: Multiple locations. See Calexico.net for addresses.
King of Falafel
Food: Middle Eastern
Won: 2010 Vendy Cup and People’s Choice award
Fares “Freddy” Zeideia has delivered pastries, worked in a stationery store, managed a supermarket and owned a deli, but nothing held his interest until he set out in 2002 to make the best falafel and schwarma in the city.
“I was always bouncing from one job to another,” Zeideia says. “Everyone thought I wouldn’t last six months.”
He spent a lot of time perfecting his recipes with just the right mix of spices to keep customers coming back to his cart.
“Kids I used to serve when they were going to high school down the street will now come back and introduce me to their wives and kids,” Zeideia says of his original cart in Astoria.
In about a month, he’ll get a brand new food truck to replace the Astoria cart, complete with a deluxe 16-foot long kitchen. He plans to expand the menu, offering cold items like hummus and baba ghanoush, soups in winter, and a daily special. The Astoria cart will likely move to the West Village, making it his third location (he also operates a cart in Midtown Manhattan).
As the only vendor to win both the Vendy Cup and People’s Choice award in the same year, Zeideia’s ready to bring the heat again.
“It will be the return of the King,” he says. “The King will definitely be flexing his muscles.”
Regular locations: 30th St. and Broadway in Astoria, 53rd St. and Park Ave. in Manhattan. thekingfalafel.com.
Food: Salvadoran and Dominican fusion
Won: 2011 Vendy Cup
Rafael Soler and wife Reina Soler-Bermudez were so inexperienced when they began their business in 1999 at the Red Hook Ball Fields, that when a customer came to buy coffee from the makeshift stand set up from a van, they hadn’t brought any change to break a $20 bill, and ended up giving the coffee away.
Now, the couple run a state-of-the-art food truck — called Solber, a mixture of their last names — selling a fusion of food from their backgrounds. Reina’s an expert at making pupusas from El Salvador (cornmeal patties filled with a variety of meats and vegetables), as well as tamales filled with beans or meats. Rafael adds a Dominican flare to the dishes, and makes fried plantains.
The truck operates during the weekend in Red Hook, and the the couple also oversees stands at Smorgasburg and Brooklyn Flea.
Regular locations: Red Hook Ball Fields, Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg. solberpupusas.com.