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Vendy Finalist: El Rey del Sabor

The 2010 Vendy Awards, a celebration of New York street food, will be held on September 25 at Governors Island. 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 masses and compete for the city's ultimate title in street food. Each day this week, we'll be profiling one of them. Up first, El Rey del Sabor! —The Mgmt.

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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

Anyone who doesn't believe "real" Mexican food exists in Midtown (I'm looking at you California transplants) please do yourself a favor and get to one of El Rey del Sabor's three carts in Midtown (49th Street and Park Avenue, 60th Street and Third Avenue, 43rd Street and 6th Avenue). They're open on weekdays between 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., and usually pretty slammed with the chalupa-ravenous Midtown office crowd.

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Look for Ofelia "Rosa" Cardoso behind the window. She's the one smiling. As in, always smiling. As in, I'm pretty sure her face is incapable of anything but smiling, even if she did wake up at 5 a.m. to lug over the cart and make sure the ingredients are the freshest. She and her brother Vilio, who also helps out and actually named the cart (which means "The King of Flavor") are originally from Puebla, Mexico. For the past five years they've been making the food they grew up on, fresh to order.

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I'd bet some of their Vendys votes came from the $7 chalupas deal. You get three with your choice of pork, chicken, or steak (they'll happily do one of each, but three of just the pork wouldn't be a mistake) and it's served with rice and beans. They're basically the tacos except the corn tortillas are fried on the griddle for a bit, then folded with all the goods. The chalupas aren't too overstuffed, but once you have all three, you're plenty full. And there's something great about getting three of something, no?

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The tortas ($6) win for the most splurty-all-over-the-place food. Maybe don't eat this before a big meeting. The roll isn't sturdy enough to keep all the meat, and fixin's (pickled jalapenos, onions, lettuce, sour cream, guacamole) inside, and if you wait a subway ride to eat it, the bread will soggify. But it's definitely tasty, especially the al pastor we got, and a mondo sandwich for $6.

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The chicken tamale ($1.50) has a soft and thick exoskeleton that flakes apart into a center of pulled chicken mixed with salsa verde.

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The huaraches ($7) aren't the monstrosities they sell at the Country Boys truck in Red Hook (last year's Vendy cup winner) but they're still big to boot (they still have to crouch in a styrofoam clamshell). What makes huaraches special is their sandal-shaped base made with masa, or cornmeal dough, that's thicker than a normal taco tortilla and griddled until crispy around the edges. When you're hungry for more than a taco but still want the folded experience, this is the answer.

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Rosa also makes her own mole sauce, which you can try on the enchiladas ($8, comes with three, plus a side of beans and rice). It's nicely spiced with a bit of a a roasted, dark chocolate bite, but not too intense.

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Chorizo taco.

And finally, the tacos ($2.50). Doubled-up tortillas topped with any meat (carne asada, chicken, al pastor, lengua, and chorizo) and chopped cilantro onion bits with salsa, rojas or verde, both of which Vilio makes fresh.

"Ha, I'm not nervous about the Vendys. Because I'm gonna win," said Rosa when asked about the big V-Day. Even though she later admitted that she hasn't really tried the competing vendors' food. She just knows hers is the best. All of this was said with the hugest smile, obviously. She plans to serve a smattering of the menu at the Vendys, so people can try a bit of everything. (Good call, Rosa!)

Where to find El Rey del Sabor

49th Street and Park Avenue (map)
60th Street and Third Avenue (map)
43rd Street and 6th Avenue (map)

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