Street Food Stories: All-American Diner, Whitehall Street's Diner on Wheels
New York's Financial District has been through its share of change over 24 years, and Tommy Krisko, Jr. has seen most of them from the windows of his food truck, All-American Diner on Whitehall Street.
The Brooklyn native is actually following in his father's footsteps. In 1972, Tommy Sr. opened the All-American Diner just up "over there" on Water Street, part of his diner mini-empire in New York City and New Jersey that started six years earlier. Those diners are where Tommy Jr. learned the ropes, even though he admittedly wasn't living the most righteous lifestyle at the time. "Sometimes I shamed my father," resulting in the old-fashioned Catholic guilt instilled in him at St. Thomas Aquinas.
It wasn't until after his father's death in 1985 that Tommy Jr. decided to do something more with his life. He originally opened a coffee cart at the base of Broadway where he would be known as Mr. Muffin, selling upwards of thirty dozen a day. Then in April 1989, he and his wife opened the truck on Whitehall Street at Water Street, keeping the second cart at its spot on Broadway. He then became a fixture of the neighborhood, noticing subtle changes occurring around him.
"It used to be you had to walk in the street at 5 o'clock—there were too many people on the sidewalk, but now all of the times are staggered." You can be sure that a good number of those same office workers not only got their lunch from All-American, but likely their morning coffees as well.
All-American's menu makes it easy to stop by every day. Like any good New York City diner, there's a laundry list of options with everything from a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or potato and egg on a roll to club sandwiches. Or there's tender roast pork on garlic bread with savory brown gravy, a sandwich that comes with the instructions to "eat it hot!" Customers waiting on a rainy day rave about anything that comes off the truck; ask a regular and they'll declare the entire menu a winner. During that wait, Tommy catches up on and jokes around with his regulars, just another way for him to show he appreciates their business. He is hoping to pare down his menu soon, but insists that he'll still make anything off the menu. When talking to him, the palpable tiredness from days that begin around 2:30 in the morning—the truck is usually in its spot by 5 a.m.—make it easy to see why the menu needs to get a tiny bit smaller.
Tommy's midtown parking spot has seen its share of tragedy The truck was already open and serving food on 9/11 when two airplanes struck the Twin Towers. The smoke and debris from the collapse sent "a wall" of debris barreling down Whitehall Street. With his wife working the Broadway cart, he waited for her to come to him through the throngs of people fleeing the island. That day, he picked up a nameless man in a suit and drove him to Midtown to escape the scene of chaos.
Then there's Hurricane Sandy, which not only flooded Tommy's truck, but also his home neighborhood of Gerritsen Beach. The outpouring of donations and support from volunteers still touch him to this day, especially the memory of having a hot Thanksgiving dinner. "I want to do something for these people," he promises when thinking back to the events a little over half a year ago.
It took a few months for All-American Diner to come back and feed Downtown's workers, but naturally it did. Now Tommy watches as the neighborhood rebuilds once again amid waves of tourists and locals pouring off the Staten Island Ferry, some knowing enough to get a bite to eat or a cup of coffee from this diner on wheels.
Tommy is hoping to makes changes beyond the menu; he's looking into setting up an internet delivery account, possibly offering the option to pay by credit card. "Tell him he needs to get the delivery, the Seamless," his workers mentioned to me, and I wondered what Tommy Sr. would think.
About the author: The non-Blondie half of Blondie & Brownie, Siobhan Wallace somehow fits in writing and promoting her book New York à la Cart: Recipes and Stories from the Big Apple's Best Food Trucks, while working towards her MA in Food Studies from NYU. You can follow her on Twitter at @blondiebrownie.