Street Food Stories: Greek Souvlaki and Home Cooking at Uncle Gussy's in Midtown
The typical profile of a street cart vendor is of an immigrant looking to make it in the overwhelming world of New York City. The typical profile of a food truck vendor is middle to upper class American looking to test the market before opening a brick-and-mortar. The men behind one of Midtown's most popular food trucks, Uncle Gussy's, are neither of these. Instead, they're a mix of both.
During the mid-20th century, a burst of Greek immigration led to two things: a large population of Greek street vendor license holders and a large Greek community centered in Astoria, Queens. This chain of events would eventually lead Nick and Franky Karagiorgos to owning Uncle Gussy's, the blue and white Greek food truck parked nearly every day on East 51st Street at Park Avenue. For decades, the spot belonged to their uncle and his souvlaki cart. Nowadays, there is a near-constant line, one that is known to stretch down the block in front of St. Bart's. Customers line up for that souvlaki as well as home-style specials—and of course a friendly chat with Nick as he works the window.
Nick remembers getting into the vending business when he began helping his Uncle George sell sodas at the tender age of 9. He realized that by selling ice pops to office workers, he could get away with charging $1.50—quite pricey for a popsicle in the 80s. "I was making bank," especially since the suits would take pity on the kid and let him keep the change from $2.
Their Uncle Gus, as he was known, took his vending license to a spot on Park Avenue, developing relationships with the office buildings and other vendors in the area, until his retirement decades later in 2008. At the time, Nick and Franky were running a small breakfast cart in the vicinity. The opportunity to grow was golden, so they took it.
A small souvlaki cart wasn't going to suffice for the range and quality of a menu Nick and Franky wanted, so they quickly had a truck built out to fit their needs. To run the lunch service today, the truck needs four or five workers just to keep the line moving. Though they technically shouldn't be serving from the spot they're in, Nick and Franky rely on those longtime relationships first started by their uncle to avoid visits from the Alpha Unit, the NYPD squad known for busting street vendors in Midtown. Even when they are asked to leave, customers continue to come back the following day.
Uncle Gussy's isn't just another street food cart amongst a sea of gyro vendors. Their mother, Ekaterini, and their Aunt Georgia have a heavy hand in the daily specials, whether it's marinating pork chops or baking off baklava. While her boys are working the truck, Ekaterini heads to their local butcher in Astoria to pick up the meat for tomorrow.
That quality comes through in every dish, whether it's the chunks of pork in their souvlaki pita, the fresh tang in the roasted lemon potatoes, the smokiness of their loukaniko (Greek sausage), or the char on their usual Friday special, the bacon Swiss burger—which also comes with some of the crispiest fries ever had off a food truck. Of course, there's no typical mystery white sauce here; it's tzatziki, made fresh by Ekaterini.
Nick does hope to one day open a real restaurant with his mom at the helm, but worries it would ruin the meals their customers have come to love. Plus, "when I wake up, I love to come to work." Why ruin a good thing?
About the author: The non-Blondie half of Blondie & Brownie, Siobhan Wallace somehow fits in writing for Midtown Lunch and Citysearch, 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.