On Gettin' One Over: Food Trucks and the New Ethos of Quality
Like everyone else in NYC (and SFO and many other cities), I’ve been enjoying the recent explosion in Food Trucks and pop-up restaurants. Near my office in Midtown, I can often hit up any number of random food trucks, with my favorite indulgence being the Daisy Mae’s BBQ truck near Rockefeller Center. On the weekends, I love hitting the Kelvin and Kimchi Taco trucks, usually at the Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market, and I really miss Veronica’s Kitchen near my old office downtown.
There’s all kinds of ways to look at this phenomenon: too many rich people in NYC and the hipsteryuppification of NY; entrepreneurial business endeavors; menace to existing restaurants and old style water-dog and pretzel stands; or proof there’s not enough real jobs for college graduates. I like all of these simultaneously, but what is most striking about these to me is how different the ethos of these trucks is to what we’ve gotten before.
If you look at the recent, say 50 year, history of food trucks/carts in the City, they’ve been about one thing, really – ripping you off. Getting one over on someone who needs a quick lunch for not too much money. Give em a f-in dirty water dog. Or a crappy pretzel. Or a stale bagel that’s more expensive and worse tasting than the one at any corner deli. The customer has nowhere else to go. F-‘em
Now, not every vendor actually felt/feels this way. Many were/are struggling entrepreneurs, often immigrants, who were/are just trying to make a living, renting their cart for way too much money from another boss. It was what you did, what was expected. A way to make some cash. The history of the food carts, and how the City (from the bureaucrats down to all of us) have dealt with them is too complicated to explore here, but I think we can sum it up as - barely tolerable food, barely tolerated by the authorities and served up to suckers of either the tourist or harried worker variety. But whatever the motivation, giving a customer something good, decent, that had real value has not been a top priority.
The new food truck phenomenon is completely the opposite. Good, usually awesome, food that people will not just eat when they are desperate for a meal, but that they’ll hunt down via Twitter and follow obsessively. The vendors are usually quite serious about making high-quality food and giving you value for your money. Many are overpriced - yes, I could never eat at Rickshaw Dumpling knowing that I can get a better deal in Chinatown at Prosperity, but here’s the thing - at least they’re making quality food and you can tell they enjoy doing it. They’re also, by the way, not limited to hipsters - the food truck phenomenon is remarkably diverse, with the annual Vendy awards consisting of Red Hook vendors alongside Belgian waffles. Most importantly, regardless of the truck, you don’t get the sense they’re just “gettin’ one over” on you.
This to me is not just a defining attitude of food truck vendors. I think it’s something bigger and it might even qualify as a generational divide. Up until recently, we’ve been willing to live in a world of “getting one over.” Everyone was doing it - from the food cart vendor, to the McDonald’s franchisee, all the way up to MoMA. Yes, even MoMA. Every frickin’ museum in this City, including MoMA, has always had a crappy cafe where they’d sell you horrible, overpriced food created with not one ounce of love. It was endemic and accepted. “Eh, that’s what you get” we’d say. “Suckers” they’d think as they served up another steamed soy burger. Gettin’ one over.
Yes, the new food truck scene is sometimes overpriced, but I don’t get the sense I’m being ripped off by a scam artist every time I visit one of these trucks. I usually have an actual conversation with the owner, who is sweating it out right alongside his/her employees. I get quality food I’d actually recommend to someone else, not something I’d tell my visiting relatives to avoid.
It’s not just the food trucks. I rode my bike this weekend to the Morningside Park Market to buy sausages from “Brooklyn Cured,” my favorite food vendor in the City (he also does the New Amsterdam Market). The guy is working his ass off, and selling a quality product at a fair price because he loves doing it. I’ll keep going there because of this difference.
It’s very easy to knock this all down and say - just a bunch of rich people trying to find a new version of “authenticity.” I know all the arguments, but I’m putting them aside for now because I do think there’s an underlying ethic of providing quality goods to the consumer that we haven’t seen for some time. Oh, we’ve seen lip-service to it, and marketing to it, but not much of the real thing.
We’ll see it copied too. It’s already happening across the board, and you do see it in all the “authenticity” marketing going on, as well as in the move to “high-quality” in other places. My favorite example is, once again, MoMA. They’ve gone upscale with their cafe and their restaurant. They have a fancy chef instead of someone more used to school-cafeteria cooking, some craft beers and what not, but they’re still “gettin’ one over.” The restaurant is under-staffed, the feeling is still one of getting ripped off and the quality of the artisanal snacks (and entrees) reeks more of “how do we suck another dollar out of this jerk’s wallet” than “how do we make this a better, more valuable, experience.”
Contrast that with a place like the Rerun Gastropub Theater. The seats and environs are decidedly less fancy than at MoMA, but I’m getting food, beverage and a movie all of which have been created by someone who gives a flying fuck about the quality of what they’re giving me.
That attitude is relatively new as a mass phenomenon. It has its problems, but I like it more than the status quo. I see this same attitude in many of the newer galleries I respect, the filmmakers and film festivals that I tend to like, and that, to me, is something I hope to see more of.
I’m sure people in the worlds of food, film, art, etc will continue to get one over on us (I’m lookin’ at you, 3D), but I also think many of us will want something better, and demand it. Artists who take this to heart will have to work harder, just like the food truck vendors, and have a more direct connection to their customer/audience, but the experience will be more rewarding for both of them.
Photo of Veronica’s Kitchen from FeistyFoodie.Com
Vendy Awards 2012! Still delicious 2 weeks later
Okay, hello, here we go! “Yelena, the Vendy Awards were almost 2 weeks ago,” you may say. Well tough nuggets, life happens, kiddo. As a single parent, I am doing my very best but sometimes a food blog isn’t my top priority. Just kidding, of course it is.
The Saturday before last, I boarded a ferry to Governor’s island for the Vendy Awards - an homage and celebration of NYC’s burgeoning food cart/truck/stand scene. Why they let me in, I’m not sure, but I’ll take this opportunity to tell you most of what I ate.
Phil’s Steak won Rookie of the Year for their delicious Philly cheesteaks - they’re NYC’s first Philly Cheesteak truck. I desperately tried to eat two of these, but was glad for the discouragement - not good sportsmanship at a food triathlon.
THE CITY IS OUR PLAYGROUND X WEEKEND PLANS
FRIDAY X SEPTEMBER 14
Yesterday was the start of the 86th Annual Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy. This annual festival is one of the most anticipated culinary events in New York City. Although it is an annual celebration of faith, the Feast of San Gennaro has a huge variety of ethnic food delicacies, charming restaurants and cafes and even a world-famous cannoli-eating competition! Check out their site for more on all the activities, eating, and entertainment. And if you can’t make it this weekend don’t worry, the festival continues until the 23rd, or you could always just go everyday.
SATURDAY X SEPTEMBER 15
The Vendy Awards on Governors Island also take place this weekend. Lets just all come to the conclusion now that this is going to be a fat weekend. But hey who cares, after starving ourselves for Fashion week we deserve a break. The Vendys celebrate the city’s ever-growing ranks of mobile eateries doling out honors in categories such as Dessert, Rookie and—new this year—Market Vendor. More than 25 finalists will park on Governors Island and dole out their signature grub. Attendees will be able to cast their vote for their favorite alongside high ranking food officials such as Eddie Huang (Baohaus) and Kate Krader (restaurant editor at Food & Wine) Oh and there will be an open bar stocked with Brooklyn Brewery treats.
NYC Pizza Run + NYC Vendy Awards
Seems like NYC is getting busy this Saturday, September 15 with its annual NYC Pizza Run and NYC Vendy Awards all happening on the same day!
The NYC Pizza Run is happening in Tompkins Square Park at 11 AM. Participants will be running 2.25 miles while eating three slices of pizza at different checkpoints throughout the course. You might want to have a puke bag handy…
The NYC Vendy Awards will be taking place on Governor’s Island from 12:30 to 5 PM. So if you managed to keep down your pizza from the Pizza Run and are still craving some good food, you can head to Governor’s Island and enjoy some great food trucks.
“Seriously? NONE? That seems … wrong.” (nervousgnosis)
“For shame about none of the winners being from Queens!” (astoriapretty)
Alas, every cumin-infused cloud has a silver lining:
“The secret is still ours.” (@JeffreyTastes via Twitter)