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Old school edges out new at food vendor contest

The Vendy Awards at MacArthur Park bring together traditional L.A. taco trucks and newer gourmet food purveyors in a test of tastes.

May 17, 2010|By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times

It was a battle of the old school versus the new — a cook-off that pitted some of the city's veteran vendors of tacos and bacon-wrapped hot dogs against a new guard of gourmet food trucks known for fashionable menus and for sharing their locations via Twitter.

But after the last bite was swallowed at the first L.A. Vendy Awards this weekend, tradition triumphed when judges crowned Nina Garcia the queen of L.A.'s street food scene.

Garcia, who has served up supple Mexico City-style quesadillas and pambazos on street corners in Boyle Heights for two decades, beat out street vendor newcomers like the Grilled Cheese Truck along with old favorites, like East L.A.'s Tacos el Galuzo.

Hours before she was cheered and handed a shiny golden trophy, Garcia had quietly predicted her win. "Will it be me?" she asked slyly as she kneaded masa and pressed it onto a simmering grill. "I think so."

More than a hundred people paid $50 to attend the Vendys and eat their fill of food from the six street vendors who were chosen as finalists.

The event was held Saturday on the western edge of MacArthur Park, where families lounged in the sun and vendors not invited to the event hawked fruit, ice cream and pork rinds.

Smells of the competition — and the sounds of a cumbia band that played for hours — drew a crowd of curious spectators. A handful of those who had paid for the event shared free food and drinks over a thin wire fence to those looking in.

A panel of judges made up of food critics and local restaurateurs judged the fare on three categories — taste, presentation and "vendyness."

Javier Cabral, who writes a popular food blog called the Teenage Glutster, had tried all but one of the food trucks before, but he promised he wouldn't be swayed by past experiences.

"I'm abandoning all biases," said Cabral, 21, "and I came with a starving stomach."

The first Vendy Awards were held six years ago in New York City, in a garage in the East Village (a sausage vendor won).

The competition quickly become a cult cultural event, catching the attention of food-world stars like Mario Batali, who called the Vendy Awards "the Oscars of food for the real New York."

The awards began as a way to raise money for the Street Vendor Project, a nonprofit group that provides vendors legal representation, offers micro loans and has published an illustrated guide to street-vending rules.

Sean Basinkski, whom New York Magazine has called "the Cesar Chavez of hot-dog stands," founded the organization 10 years ago after graduating from law school at Georgetown University. Basinkski, a former vendor who once hawked burritos on the streets of Manhattan, started the organization because he thought street vendors were too often mistreated by police and city officials.

He decided to hold a version of the Vendy Awards in L.A. this year to raise money for local groups like the Los Loncheros Assn. and because he saw an explosion of interest in street food in L.A.

"It's taking off," said Basinski, who on Saturday wore a straw cowboy hat and held, at all times, a plate of food. "We wanted to be a part of this."

Nearby, Libby Rego, 32, sat at a folding table covered with butcher paper, halfway through an apple and brie sandwich from the Grilled Cheese Truck.

"I'm lactose intolerant," she said. "But I took a pill before I came."

A self-declared foodie and "Yelper," she has posted 220 restaurant reviews on the website Yelp in the last year. Rego drove in from Whittier for the event. She said she and her boyfriend, Eddie Villa-Lobos, 28, had developed a strategy to ensure they sampled some of everything.

"I told him get one of everything, and we'll share it," she said. "He's not really a foodie, he's still learning, so he's like, 'Oh, I'm full,' and I'm like, 'No, sweetie, you've got to pace yourself.' "

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