By Bill Parry
Queens will be well represented at the 14th annual Vendy Awards on Governors Island Saturday.
Ten of the 25 finalists at the popular street food competition that draws thousands of food-savvy guests are residents of the borough, who prepare and sell everything from traditional Mexican tamales to Burmese flatbread.
“We come from the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the whole world. You go down Roosevelt Avenue from 46th Street all the way to 108th Street end you’ll find every kind of cuisine in the world being served by street vendors in this big melting pot that is Queens,” Nansense food truck owner Mo Rahmati, 32, said. “There’s everything you would ever want right there under the 7 train.”
Rahmati would know, having grown up on 69th Street and Northern Boulevard in Woodside. After graduating from Bryant High School in Astoria, Rahmati took a series of jobs in retail, drove for Uber and worked at Citibank. The son of Afghan refugees who fled their country in the 1980s during the Soviet-Afghan War decided to sell real Afghan food just like his mother, Veiagul, makes — from kormas to salata, to his favorite mantu: steamed dumplings stuffed with beef and onions.
“It’s just something I wanted to do. I grew up in Woodside visiting different street vendors along Roosevelt Avenue and I thought they were cool,” Rahmati said. “I wanted to introduce my mom’s cooking to the public.”
Rahmati is nominated in the Rookie of the Year category.
“It would be great to win Rookie of the Year,” he said. “It would mean my mom’s recipes are being received well in the public and that her food is being enjoyed.”
Twister Cake, owned by Radu Sirbu, is a family owned and operated bakery which sells their namesake dessert also known as Chimney Cakes, which originated in Romania over 400 years ago.
“I grew up in Transylvania eating my grandmother’s cakes but when I came to the USA in 2002 I couldn’t find them anywhere,” Sirbu said. “So I decided to start making them myself.”
Sirbu works as a chauffeur during the week and spends his weekends making Twister Cakes, which consist of hand-rolled dough, shaped into a cone and then baked over a firepit and sprinkled with sweet toppings. He began selling them at street festivals and private events but found a wider audience as a vendor at the Queens Night Market at Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
“You want to know why there are so many Vendy finalists from Queens?” the Astoria resident asked.” It’s very simple. It’s because Queens is the most diverse borough in the world.”
Myo Lin Thway came to the United States from Burma to continue his education in 1994 and settled in Elmhurst. Long before customers flocked to his stand at the Queens Night Market, he got his degree in mechanical engineering and then worked in the diamond district as an operations manager before starting Burmese Bites.
He operates his stand alone food cart that is open five days a week in Long Island City serving his signature Keema Palata, flatbread filled with seasoned chicken, as well as mango salad and Ohno Kaukswe, a coconut curry chicken noodle soup.
“The main reason is I wanted to be my own boss and run my own business,” Thway said of his inspiration to open Burmese Bites. “I started at street fairs but the environment was not what I was looking for. A friend told me about Queens Night Market and I love everything about it. The culture, the variety, all at an affordable price. The whole thing is like one big family. Everybody tries each others food and joke and talk with one another.”
Thway was nominates for Best of Market vendor in 2015 and now returns to Governors Island as a 2018 Vendy Cup finalist.
“Being nominated is something that I’m very proud of,” he said. “It would be nice to win but I’m looking forward to meeting the other vendors and learn a lot of things I didn’t know previously and it’s good exposure.”
The Vendy Awards benefit the Street Vendors Project at the Urban Justice Center, a non-profit organization that provides legal representation and advocacy for the 20,000 street vendors in New York City.
“They do really good work pushing the city to raise the cap on mobile food licenses and defend vendor’s rights,” Rahmati said. “They help individual vendors fight exorbitant fines for violations and even they help replace broken equipment. It’s a fund-raising event for a good cause.”
Other notable Queens vendors heading to Governors Island include Franky’s Souvlaki from Astoria, El Saboroso De Aracataca from Jackson Heights and Evelia’s Tamales Mexicanos from Corona.
The event is open to the public and draws nearly 2,000 visitors each year who pay $100 for a general admission ticket that includes unlimited samplings all day beginning at 12:30 p.m. VIP tickets are also available for early entry at 11:30 a.m. To purchase tickets, or for more information, visit www.vendy
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr