By Zoe Miller | Philly.com
The scene on the JFK Boulevard Bridge resembled a caravan with a culinary slant on Saturday, as 12 food trucks parked on both sides of the bridge for the Vendy Awards, the fifth annual Philadelphia iteration of the food-truck cook-off.
“We were hoping to really put the trucks in a really public place,” said Zeina Muna, the Vendy Awards’ managing director. “We wanted to break the boundaries and do something new.”
The hot and humid weather did not dissuade the crowds, as an estimated 1,000 people packed the bridge over five hours.
A hopscotch board was chalked in front of SeoulFull Philly as a playful method of crowd control. The Korean-fusion truck, which won Rookie of the Year, featured David Song’s Korean cheesesteak of marinated beef with kimchi, onions, and whiz.
Upbeat music from the DJ tent – think Meghan Trainor’s retro brand of pop – and brews from Slyfox, which were unlimited with admission, helped ease the (literally) thick atmosphere.
The day’s heat inspired Kristen Wente, owner of Jimmies Cupcake Co., competing in the dessert category, to eschew her standard offerings in favor of cooler creations. She served ice cream sandwiches with caramel vanilla ice cream between salted toffee brownies and cinnamon-dusted pie crust filled with sweet baked apple ice cream.
Another dessert nominee, Luscious Bakery, also had ice cream on the menu. The Spaceship Express, which hinted at chef-owner Jamie Landers’ previous career as an aerospace engineer, featured a chocolate chip cookie plunged in vanilla ice cream, trickled with Maker’s Mark caramel and chocolate sauces, and topped with whipped cream, sprinkles, and spiced pecans.
“I attended the Vendys the second year they were in Philly, before I even had a food truck,” Landers said. “I’ve come full circle to competing.”
Though food trucks selling hot dogs and pretzels have deep roots in the city, gourmet trucks started popping up here only about five years ago.
“It’s been a staggering progression of growth,” said Rob Mitchell, president of the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association and owner of the Cow and the Curd. He estimated the total number of food trucks in the city to be between 250 and 300.
“The whole food-truck movement started as a bit of a fad, and then it grew into a scene, and then over time that scene became a bona fide culture,” not just here but around the country, Mitchell said.
Ultimately, all the frozen confections lost to Michael Ostrofsky and Robert Rifkin of Undrgrnd Donuts, who won the dessert category with their vanilla-dunked, bacon-bedecked Homer doughnut and the subtler French toast doughnut with maple and cinnamon sugar.
But the big winner was Foolish Waffles. The crowd – and the judges – went for the sweet and savory Belgian specialties, which earned both People’s Choice and Vendy Cup honors.
The winning dish was Foolish’s pork belly banh mi. A riff on the Vietnamese staple, Robin Admana and Flo Gardner’s version is served on a rectangular waffle, flavored with coriander black pepper, and layered with pickled red cabbage, jalapeños, and cilantro. Foolish’s other waffle was a seasonal item: a chewy, brioche-like Liège “sugar waffle” topped with strawberry rhubarb compote and rich mascarpone.
Though the contest drew a number of competitors, some food truck owners choose not to participate for economic reasons. Three nominated trucks – Mom-Mom’s (Polish), the Mixin Bowl (Caribbean Fusion), and Jerry’s Kitchen (American) – did not compete. Mitchell said it would be necessary in the future to compensate the owners for the food and labor costs they give up on a June weekend day.
“In Philly, we’re pretty much seasonal, from April until about early November,” he said, noting that the climate in Los Angeles and the population density of New York City make year-round vending more financially viable. “When the weather gets cold, it really dies off. It’s hard for trucks to earn a living during those months.”
Proceeds from the cook-off go to the Food Trust and the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association, which supports the city’s mobile food vendors.
Terri Burch, 33, was at the Vendys on a first date with Brandon Zeigler, 32.
“We were like, what are we going to do? . . . It was a good opportunity to eat some food, drink some beer, and have fun.”