Monday, October 13, 2008

My Vote For the Vendy Awards Does Not Go to Soler

In a series of coincidences, I got in line at a food truck parked in Red Hook Park in Brooklyn on the same day it happened to get a write-up in the New York Times. Rafael Soler, the 58-year-old Dominican who sells dishes like tamales and pupusas from a tricked-out van every Sunday in the park, along with about a dozen other Mexican, Caribbean, and Central American vendors, seemed like a really nice guy. But I waited for an hour--more than half of it standing at the window wondering if Soler and his three assistants were actually filling my order as about ten other customers go their food first.

The problem was ordering off the menu. While the truck next to Soler's offered meat-only pupusas, his did not. But Soler was happy to accommodate, or so he said. "She has to make it," he told me, pointing to a woman who has kneading the stuffed tortillas. But she didn't make it. She grinned at me and kneaded tortilla dough for about 25 minutes while I stood there like a chump.

I don't know why I was so patient. Mercifully, a friend who wondered why I was waiting so long brought me a beverage and stood with me for a bit. Finally, after Soler came back from a long break, I asked him if they were making my pork-only pupusas. He looked surprised and asked the tortilla dough-kneader something in Spanish that I couldn't follow. Ah. Now they were making it. 10 minutes later, I had a lousy pork pupusa--one instead of the customary two.

Another of Soler's assistants looked bewildered when I got my money out and asked through gritted teeth how much I owed. She smiled uncomfortably, obviously not understanding my English but either too dim-witted to follow the natural conclusion of a food order or too embarrassed about the transaction taking five or six times the length of the average one. "Tres," she finally managed, speaking so softly I had to ask twice.

After all that, was the pork pupusa worth it? Absolutely not. It was dull and not very flavorful. I'd rather have an empanada. Or a taco or a tamale. But the shrimp ceviche from a small cart that had no line was exceptional.

According to the Times, Soler is one of five finalists for a Vendy Award, the annual New York street food contest. I'm betting my experience was a bizarre anomaly, but just the same, I'd put my vote behind Meru Sikder's Biryani Cart, the Midtown weekday seller of kati rolls.

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