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.
If you let Freddy Zeidaies, the self-proclaimed King of Falafel and Shawarma on 30th Street and Broadway in Astoria, he would also be the lord, mayor, and baron. And in this kingdom of chickpea fritters and rotating meat spits, the fair maidens would receive special treatment. "Sorry, but ladies first," he said giddily to a few men waiting to place orders—followed by a "Yahhh, baby."
Zeidaies may have Austin Powers beat in his frequency of "Yahhh, baby" (usually accompanied by a kissy face and raised eyebrows). The catchphrase also appears on his laminated menu descriptions, along with the adjective "yummmmey" (with enough m's to require two lines).
And indeed, the yummmmey claim is accurate. The falafel and rice plate ($5) includes five egg-shaped fritters—crispy but not greasy, and full of garlicky, parsleyed-out flavor. Zeidaies grew up eating this herb-packed Middle Eastern falafel style (the Egyptian approach, he explains, relies on fava beans). The oval shape is key. According to falafel geometry wisdom, the regular ol' ball formations don't offer the same perfect ratio of crunchy outsides to soft insides.
Zeidaies throws a freebie falafel onto every chicken platter ($6), which is smothered in gloriously tangy white sauce atop your choice of basmati or yellow rice, or a mix of both. Every platter (the kefta is $7 and the chicken with kebab is $8) also comes with magenta, freshly-pickled turnip rods and pickles shipped in from the West Bank. You know a vendor is pretty serious when he imports pickles from nearly 6,000 miles away.
In the pita sandwich department, Zeidaies insists on folding the innards up like a taco rather than stuffing them à la pocket approach. You get a much better balance of shawarma or falafel, hot sauce (and boy, is this the sinus-clearing kind), and crunchy lettuce shreds.
"Being a vendor in Queens is different from Midtown. People are headed to work, but live here, and you see them everyday. I want them to walk by and smile, not give me the finger," he said, reflecting on his six years as king. We observed a lot of teeth, no fingers.
"Saw you in the paper," one pleased-looking woman said walking by, referring to Zeidaies's recent photo in the New York Daily News announcement of the five Vendys finalists. "Did I look good?" Freddy asked.
This will be the king's second visit to the Vendys—he was also a finalist in 2007. And if you're wondering, the belly dancers will also return with him. "This time, they will be dancing the entire time, not just towards the end," he said confidently, believing the extra wiggle will boost his victory odds. Zeidaies plans to serve both falafel and shawarma sandwiches, along with mini portions of the chicken platter. But he might have to extinguish the red sauce kapow a bit—he heard that citizen judge Mina Fasolo isn't a big spicy fan.
"I'll be gentle," he told us (three females), assuming we also wanted him to go easy on the fresh red chili garnish. "Uh, not that gentle!" Grace chimed in. Zeidaies responded with a trademark "Yahhhh, baby!"
The King of Falafel and Shawarma
30th Street and Broadway, Astoria NY 11106 (map) 718-838-8029