Last week, the first annual Vendy Awards were given out, honoring the city’s favorite street vendors and the food they make. I say it’s about time—why should restaurants get all the glory? Haven’t you had truly blissful eating moments standing on the street with your face in a pita, hunched so as not to dribble down your front?
The winner of the Vendys was Rolf Babiel, the man behind the ambitious, unique Hallo Berlin cart in midtown. While Hallo Berlin has been “worth a detour” since 1981, his movable wursts and potatoes are unfortunately only available during daylight hours. To me, the ideal time for street food—even more than an afternoon refueling—is around 4 a.m., to wash down too much drinking.
Generally, I’m the slowest eater you could meet. I take tiny, precise bites (you want to get the right ratio of sauce to pasta in each fork–full, don’t you?) But I get drungry (drunk/hungry) just like everyone else. In fact, I can’t go on any kind of bender without requiring a greasy, salty, and spicy meal before calling it a night. For such occasions, my eating style shifts appropriately. Like the animals we are, these are the moments to dive into food with a hunger verging on lust.
I’ve conducted a little “vendy” research of my own, sparked by a fancy new late–night operation on Sixth Avenue between 24th and 25th streets. More than a cart, this is a truck with a generator, a huge griddle, and a crowd of some of the dumbest dudes I’ve ever observed. Naturally, it seemed promising. The sign reading “Best falafel in NYC” was irresistible, but no—this wasn’t even a contender. (This place is a good example of the dangers of drinking: just as your standards for potential playmates drop precipitously, so does your palate become less discerning.) A much better option is to walk east to 28th and Madison to where an extremely popular halal cart does a huge taxi business. At certain times of the day, drivers are lined up down the length of the block with their koftas and kebabs.
On the corner of Stanton and Ludlow, the coordinates most likely to cause hipster overload, is Sam Talbot, who calls himself the Red Chef (according to his website, this refers to his political beliefs, not the kimchi he serves). His immaculate stand seems modest (not much bigger than a hot dog cart), but he turns out kimchi dogs (a perfect combination, though my bun was dense and dry), cheeseburgers, chicken wings, steak sandwiches, and more. In his words, the “finest” item on the menu is the kalbi roll. Inspired by and faithful to the Korean BBQ tradition, this consists of thin slices of marinated beef, rice, kimchi, and pickled vegetables wrapped in a big, crisp lettuce wrapper. It is made with extreme care and drips divinely. At $5—with a free drink—this may be the best late–night food around.
But let’s not overlook another Manhattan standby—a truck called “Super Tacos Sobre Ruedos” on 96th street, just west of Broadway. Super Tacos is elaborate, with three or four cooks inside at a time, who never seem to stop moving. Village people: it’s worth a trip, even if you have to plan your drinking around the snack. On a recent visit, I consumed an alarming number of tacos (with some help, I must admit), including goat (braised to stew–y perfection), carnitas (little pieces of pork, including some adorably crunchy bits of ear), bistec, spicy roast pork, and lengua (sliced, tender tongue). To make sure my belly was safely armored against a hangover, I topped it off with a “gordita,” (meaning “little fat one”)—a fresh masa pancake, split open and stuffed with carnitas, and sprinkled with crumbly white queso. The top of the sandwich was thin and perfectly crisp, while the bottom was like a warm corn pillow.
Feeling pleasantly gordita—like myself, I headed off to bed.