Tomorrow, the 13th Annual NYC Vendy Awards return to Governors Island. Who’s duking it out this year for street food supremacy? Four very different trucks, all dishing out some of the city’s tastiest dishes to be eaten on the go. Here, an introduction to all of them:
It has been two years since Anton Yelyashkevich left his career in advertising to sell dumplings out of a food truck, and he couldn’t be happier. He turned his hobby into a career, shirking the nine-to-five in favor of commanding lunch crowds and late-night bargoers in the West Village from his solar-powered food truck, Anton’s Dumplings.
Yelyashkevich immigrated with his family to the U.S. from Belarus when he was six years old. Today, he proudly operates the first and only food truck in New York City to sell pelmeni, Russian style dumplings that are deftly rolled into thin yet sturdy mounds of dough (thinner than pierogis and smaller than momos) then stuffed with raw potato, cabbage or meat prior to being boiled and lightly sautéed. But Yelyashkevich takes it one step further; instead of keeping to the traditional ingredients and toppings, he’s created his own fusion forging the immigrant cuisine of his youth with unexpected flavors inspired by the wide-ranging cuisines he has been exposed to growing up in Brooklyn. The results have garnered enough praise to earn him a Vendy Cup nomination.
With the help of Argentine chef Eleazar Nun, Yelyashkevich created a menu that offers something exciting for New Yorkers as well as a taste of home for his fellow Eastern Europeans. Three flavors dominate: potato (the vegetarian option), chicken and Siberian (a mixture of beef and pork), along with rotating specials like teriyaki and chimichurri. All come served in crisp, red and white paper boats, and customers choose from standard toppings like sour cream and fresh dill, and unconventional ones like sriracha, soy sauce and (the most decadent) smoked gouda fondue. Yelyashkevich pays cheeky homage to his roots with a late-night special (offered only on Saturday nights) known as the Drunk Russian: pelmeni with sautéed mushrooms and onions topped with a fried egg.
Proud to mostly employ friends and offer them above a living wage, Yelyashkevich strives to keep paying it forward as his business expands. He’s not yet 30 years old and has quickly moved from pop-ups in Greenpoint and Harlem to launching a second food truck in L.A. with a retail line of pelmeni soon to follow.
From his perch in the West Village, Yelyashkevich can still be found leaning out of the food truck window wearing a floppy, cherry-red chef’s hat that bears his name in looping white cursive letters, his pale blue eyes squinting in the early afternoon light. The matching red truck and bold block letters in alternating Russian and English are evidence of his art school background. But at the end of the day, it takes more than an eye for design and culinary curiosity to accomplish what Yelyashkevich and food vendors around the world perform daily: the art of making slow food on the go. —Leah Kirts
DF Nigerian Food Truck
You can spot the bright red roof of the DF Nigerian food truck from a block away. Much like the cuisine served from its window, the truck itself is a colorful departure from its muted surroundings in midtown, across from the Nigerian embassy where it sits parked from early lunch to late afternoon. Clusters of bright green leaves and overly saturated photos of fried plantains and stewed meats flank bold letters that read, “Taste and Pride of African Cuisine,” an announcement interrupted only by a wide, open window through which steaming to-go containers and money are exchanged.
Inside of the compact stainless steel kitchen, the husband and wife team, Godshelter and Bisola Oluwalogbon, navigate seamlessly around each other, busily spooning spicy suya kabobs next to mounds of smoky jollof rice, or plucking a few spongy puff-puff balls (crisp deep-fried dough) for a customer’s sweet treat. These are just a few selections from a robust menu of Nigerian staples that have quickly launched the Oluwalogbons into popularity and onto the list of finalists for this year’s Vendy Cup, a coveted honor doled out to the best street vendor in New York City through the Vendy Awards, which supports New York City’s Street Vendor Project.
Born in Ghana, Godshelter grew up in Nigeria and immigrated to the U.S. in 2001 where he found work in the restaurant industry after which he catered for friends and his church family for ten years. But he grew dissatisfied with of the business and wanted to connect with the larger NYC food world, so he began selling Nigerian food out of his own car in midtown. He soon realized that his trunk wasn’t big enough to meet the demand, and in 2015, he and Bisola purchased their food truck. Now, after just two years in business, their rapid success is marked by a lease they recently signed to open their own brick-and-mortar restaurant.
The friendly husband and wife duo as known as much for their food as their willingness to take time to explain dishes to newcomers, recall their regular customers’ orders from memory, and work around, rather than dismiss, dietary restrictions—despite the meat-heavy menu, there are ample options for vegans and vegetarians. And the patrons have paid it forward in their support. “I felt like I discovered gold when I found this food truck,” one person raves. “This truck makes me so proud to be an African,” declares another.
The Oluwalogbons hope that their success will help to raise the interest in and perception of West African cuisine from outsiders, while they stay true to the rich flavors that keep their fellow Nigerians who crave a taste of home coming back for more. —Leah Kirts
Go to the corner of 145th and Broadway around lunchtime and you can spot Maria Palacio, owner of Yolanda’s Tamales, wearing a black apron and a bright smile. Her gloved hands move methodically as she pulls fresh tamales out of a blue cooler nestled inside of a shopping cart. A single tamale costs $2 and is served open with a plastic fork stuck into its steaming center, but she’ll likely talk you into getting at least two or three, which are swiftly wrapped in crisp sheets of aluminum foil and bagged to go. Don’t let the humble presentation deceive you; the subtle heat and flavorful depth steamed into each tender husk has garnered Palacio a loyal following of patrons who rave about her tamales online and on the street, and the business she has built over the last ten years using her grandmother Yolanda’s tamale recipes now ranks among the top five Vendy Cup finalists in this year’s 2017 Vendy Awards—the celebrated street vendor competition from which proceeds fund New York City’s Street Vendor Project.
Palacio immigrated to the U.S. from Guerrero, Mexico, as a 23-year-old and got her start working in grocery stores. When she realized there were no street vendors in her neighborhood selling the Mexican tamales she had grown up eating and learned to prepare, she decided to venture into the business of street vending.
For the last decade, Palasio has done more than just feed commuters and City College students along Broadway from 137th to 145th Streets. She has built friendships and brightened the lives of those she encounters. “I see her almost every day and she is always smiling and talking with customers,” a Yelp reviewer gushes. “I can’t wait for my mom to visit next so she can try them, too.” Regulars consider her tamales a daily staple and have even hired her to cater their office lunches and New Year’s Eve parties. “I didn’t know that a tamale could change my life,” one patron exclaims. “Find this woman and buy a tamale, or three, from her right now.”
Even more than the nostalgic taste of tamales — a traditional and labor-intensive Mesoamerican dish made of masa dough and filled with a range of ingredients, from savory frijoles and spicy pollo to sweet dolches and creamy arroz con leche — it is Palacio’s friendliness that keep people coming back for more.
For first-time customers, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish Yolanda’s Tamales from the other tamale vendors who have since set up shop near Palacio’s stomping grounds, but her small cart is distinguished by a small vinyl sign decorated with the colors of the Mexican flag that reads, “Delicioos Tamales Mexicanos.” Once you unwrap your first tamale and get a dose of Palacio’s warmth, you can be sure you’re in the right place. —Leah Kirts
Adel’s #1 Halal Cart
Once only the patronage of a cadre of FiDi-working locals and taxi drivers, Adel’s #1 Halal Cart, on the southeast corner of Maiden Lane and Front Street is now a favorite of international bankers, constructions workers and tourists who queue in long lines for delicious “street meat” and tasty falafel.
The halal — in reference to food and drinks permissible to be consumed by Islamic law — cart is owned by Adel El Nagar, who immigrated to the United States from Egypt in 2000 after a career in sales that took him to Iraq, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in western Asia. After working at a cart near the famous Halal Guys on Sixth Avenue, he struck out on his own downtown, “catering largely to the limousine drivers who would line up outside the former Goldman Sachs building on Front Street in Lower Manhattan,” according to the Vendy Awards website.
El Nagar is himself an East Elmhurst, Queens resident; he lives in the borough with his wife and four children. But he said, “My business brings customers from uptown, the Bronx, Brooklyn and from Queens.”
Yelpers and other enthusiastic eaters tout the cart’s chicken and lamb over spicy rice. “The guys in the cart are extremely friendly, and their meat, rice, sauce, and veggies are basically perfect,” said user Cheryl L. from Los Angeles, California, and Gothamist gives Adel’s #1’s falafel its top spot. “It’s loaded with green herbs like mint and parsley, bringing the fritters to life,” the site wrote in 2015. “Adel… fries up the falafel throughout the day to ensure a fresh, crunchy experience.”
“As far as the taste, I use a certain blend and add certain ingredients that create this taste and flavor that is different than any other,” El Nagar said. —Pooja Makhijani