A Look at the Inaugural Los Angeles Vendy Awards

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[Image: streetvendor.org/vendys/la]

The inaugural Los Angeles Vendy Awards were held at MacArthur Park on Saturday. Tickets were $50 ($60 at the door), and the money raised went to Las Loncheros, a group working to protect vendors' rights.

With the well-noted catering truck trend still going full throttle in Los Angeles, the event, which started in New York City six years ago, migrated west to honor both the new kids on the scene and old-school vendors alike.

The Street Vendor Project organizers (who really did a remarkable job) wrangled in a mix of chefs and local bloggers as judges. They certainly had a hard task in front of them. How does one decide if a short rib grilled cheese sandwich is better or worse than a bacon wrapped hot-dog? I mean, really! How?

Well, that challenge was presented to Evan Kleiman of Angeli Caffé (and host of Good Food on KCRW), Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal, Bill Esparza of the blog Street Gourmet L.A., and Javier Cabral of the blog Gluster, who all rose to the occasion.

It was the judges' job to decide which of the six finalists: India Jones Chow Truck, Hot Dog Kings, BigMista's BBQ, Nina's Foods, The Grilled Cheese Truck, and Tacos el Galuzo—who were all chosen as finalists in an online poll and are all worth getting to know—would receive the silver-plated cup.

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An estimated 200 people came out to enjoy the sunshine, a cumbia band, and all the food and drink they could handle. It was pretty terrific. Even the volunteers got a chance to eat, dance, and enjoy the sunshine. It was just the right size crowd to make it festive but not so many as to create the insane waits some food-festivals are plagued with.

Hot Dog Kings

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Beloved for their take on the most Los Angeles of all street food (no, not Korean tacos)—the bacon-wrapped hot dog —Hot Dog Kings, aka Elizabeth Palacios, have been a Los Angeles staple for more than 20 years.

She cranked out her snappy dogs for hungry visitors at a brisk pace. Serving them topped with everything: onions, guacamole, mustard, ketchup, and mayo with a side of grilled jalapeños was democratic, delicious, and everyone was thrilled. One of the judges refused to snack on anything in the lead up to the actual tastings, because she wanted to make sure she'd have room to finish hers and still sample all the other entries. (There was only one woman judging, so you can probably figure out who that was.)

India Jones Chow Truck

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India Jones Chow Truck was offering a limited (but still extensive) menu of their Indian cuisine, the best of which is their phenomenal butter chicken. The line here was the longest, but the food still came out fast and piping hot. We've eaten at this truck a few times and are always impressed.

It's my personal contention that a few bites of their aloo partha (potato filled roti) with raita is the secret to preventing hangovers. Try it and get back to me.

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Oh and did I mention that ticket prices included free beer and wine? And the line wasn't that long? Yet another reason this event was so amazing, well thought out and well organized.

Grilled Cheese Truck

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Our awesome friends at The Grilled Cheese Truck also offered a "limited" menu, but with so many options for add-ons, it didn't end up that limited at all. We tried ours with pork and onions—yeah, perfection. Every ooey-gooey toasty sandwich was served with a two-ounce shot of tomato soup, too. Co-owner Michele Grant gave us a quick tour of the fully-rigged truck and we were amazed at how efficient it all seemed. (Plus, we liked the cute cooks.)

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They also had their brilliant tater tots served up hot. One of the most popular trucks rolling the streets, GCT has a loyal following and some seriously fantastic cheesy mac and rib sandwiches.

Tacos el Galuzo

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At Tacos el Galuzo chef-owner Juan Torres seemed mildly bemused when I asked to try the tripe and the stomach tacos. (I know!) He gave us a sample of the meat first, just to be sure we were sure what we were asking for. (We were.) In this case, I don't know from authentic, but I know those were pretty damn tasty bites.

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His Jalisco style tacos normally cost about $2 each. They're certainly worth a try when you see this truck out and about.

Big Mista's BBQ

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The crew manning BigMista's cart (@Bigmistasbbq) were all smiles while cranking out their flawless pulled pork as fast as people could queue up. A soft bun, some smoky-juicy pork with just the right amount of crispiness, topped with classic coleslaw kept everyone coming back for more. (And more. And more. I think I ate four. Five? OK fine, six.) I was also pretty charmed to learn that the people volunteering to serve the food came from the Four Q crew, another local competitive barbecue team. Let's hear it for supporting our peeps!

Nina's Food

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20100515 Nina Garcia.jpgWith only one category at the Vendys (for the very best vendor) the winner was announced at 7 p.m. sharp. The prize went to (drum roll...) the extremely gracious and truly humble Nina Garcia of Nina's Food (@breedstscene).

Much of the crowd seemed to agree with the judges' choice. Nina has been serving her food for more than 20 years in East Los Angeles and her specialty quesadillas and pambazo (red chile smothered torta) in particular were so perfect, it was almost no contest.

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20100515 Nina's, Winner of LA Vendy Awards.jpgThey make their tortillas to order and there just aren't words that can capture the chewy-pillowy, griddled happiness that they are. We started with the pambazo and moved on to the squash blossom quesadilla, the corn smut (you'll have to search for the Spanish term for that—it's a mouthful) quesadilla, then classic pork and chicken. We went a bit gaga for the squash blossom version and the chicken was tossed with pumpkin seeds that added a bit of crunch. All kinds of fantastic.

If you are in Los Angeles, and don't follow Nina on Twiter already, you really should.

The Judges

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Javier Cabra

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The whole gang!

With the award having been awarded, the crowd quickly dispersed into the dusk. Overall it was a lovely day and I for one, cannot wait to do it again next year. Hope to see you there!

About the author: Rachael Narins lives in Los Angeles. She is a chef and the Chick in Charge of Chicks with Knives, a roaming sustainable supper club. When not cooking, Rachael volunteers as a Master Gardener, and grows her own hops and barley.

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