Note: The 2009 Vendy Awards, a celebration of New York street food, will be held on September 26 at the Queens Museum of Art (buy tickets here). All proceeds will benefit the Street Vendor Project, an arm of the Urban Justice Center, advocating for the interests of New York street vendors. This year's five finalists will all be on hand to feed the crowds, the judges, and compete for the ultimate title in street food. Each day this week, we'll be profiling one of the finalists.
Given the general outrage and cries of foul play over Rickshaw Dumpling's Vendy finalist status, I had a great sense of trepidation before tasting their dumplings for the first time. Having never eaten them before, I was a bit taken aback by the response to our Vendy Award finalists announcement. I mean, were the dumplings really that bad?
To do this tasting right, I thought a trip to the brick-and-mortar location on West 23rd Street was in order. The menu includes six types of dumplings and an assortment of sides, but I only tried the three varieties that would be available at the truck: Classic Pork & Chinese Chive, Chicken & Thai Basil, and Vegetarian Edamame. All were generally lackluster for various reasons, but I decided not to pass final judgment until the official truck expedition. The Rickshaw Dumpling truck is in a different part of town each the day of the week, so Robyn and I ventured over on a Friday, when it parks itself in Midtown West.
Classic Pork & Chinese Chive with Soy Sesame Dipping Sauce
The classic combination here doesn't even come close to comparing with those in Chinatown or Flushing. Bland and boring.
Chicken & Thai Basil with Spicy Peanut Dipping Sauce
You could shout it from the rooftops, but the fact that you use Bell & Evans chicken doesn't mean anything when all I can taste is the basil. Even with the overwhelming basil flavor, the dumpling innards still managed to convey a dull blandness. The so-called "spicy" dipping sauce had not a hint of heat and the texture was alarmingly viscous and glue-like.
Vegetarian Edamame with Lemon and Sansyo Dipping Sauce
In a very healthy-looking whole wheat wrapper, the edamame filling consists of pureed edamame along with chunks of the bean interspersed throughout. It's more like a Asian pierogie, rather than a dumpling, and was the best of the bunch that we sampled. Sansyo, or Japanese pepper, is made from the round dried leaves of the prickly ash tree, the same tree that produces Szechwan peppercorns. The dipping sauce came across as exceedingly lemony, an effect perhaps exacerbated by the lemon zest in the dumpling filling.
At $6 per order, six dumplings to an order, these are not cheap dumplings. I would much prefer a $4 plate of chicken and rice and a later visit to Chinatown to fulfill my dumpling craving. But clearly Rickshaw Dumpling has its fans, and their votes are ultimately what counted in determining the finalists. While Robyn and I were there, there was always a line four or five deep. Service was a plus here, with an enthusiastic and very friendly cashier writing "WOO!" on my free dumpling card. Maybe it's the "WOO!" that wins people over?