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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Vendor in the Grass

From the Vault Dept.: Today’s Metroland review is about a food truck in nearby Hudson. Operating such a truck closer to home is a costly proposition, with the prime spots ringing Capitol Park in Albany. Here’s my report of the scene over a decade ago, with a nostalgic look at who was working for Metroland back then. You’ll find much the same fare – at higher prices – there today.


WITH FIVE BUCKS IN YOUR POCKET on a fairly nice day, you won’t go hungry in this part of Albany’s downtown. Bordered by State Street and Washington Ave, Capitol Park is what’s beneath the star on the map where Albany is signified. And every workday morning a series of vans pulls up to the curb to unload the day’s victuals, to be peddled from those vans or carts.

A more recent view of the proceedings.Photo by Erin Pihlaja.
Several years ago (eleven, to be exact, but to specify it makes us all seem so ancient) Metroland sent out a research team to comb the comestibles. Back then we even had a band playing in the background. We sampled fare from the Old Daley Inn, the Tabouli Connection (whose attendant lamented all the meat eating going on), Souvlaki, Gyro & More, Michelle’s Fish Fry and others.

Some of those names have changed or are no longer are there, but the profile remains consistent. The most popular item at Jack’s Subs is the $5.50 mixed meat sandwich; adjacent I saw one of several hot dog carts. Manor House pizzeria sells it by the slice, $1.50 for cheese, add a quarter for a topping, get two cheese slices and a soda for $3.50.

Michelle’s Charcoal Pit has a pasta of the day along with burgers and fries, chicken and fish, most items available with barbecue or Cajun seasonings. Get your gyros and souvlaki at the (you guessed it) Big Fat Greek Truck, while Weenie Boy and Big John sell hot dogs side by side. “Do you get along with each other?” I asked Weenie Boy. “We don’t talk much,” was the reply.

One of the newest entrants is the Brown Bagger. New to this park, that is; they were at the State Campus for many years. They offer an array of homemade food that included quiche ($2.50), chicken cacciatore ($4) and even their own macaroni and cheese ($2.)

And, of course, you’ll find frozen desserts – ice cream, yogurt, Italian ices – at the Guido’s stand. 

Lunch didn’t start out too promisingly. My daughter, the General Tso’s Chicken fiend, ordered same ($5.50) from the Lucky Dragon cart, and it turned out to be smothered in something more approaching brown gravy than the traditional orange sauce. With many other entrées to sample, however, including a “healthy choice” of stir-fried veggies ($4.25), you might otherwise do better.

John Rodat found a Philly cheese sandwich at a cart between the Mexican Food van and Michelle’s Charcoal Pit, but the cart was gone by the time I made it back to the Washington Ave. side to get more info. Nevertheless, he pronounced it more than adequate despite its topping of from-a-can cheese; the real winner was the side of shoestring fries that he found surprisingly crispy, nicely vinegared; “not,” as he put it, “those planks of potato foulness.” With a Riptide Rush, one of those Metroland editorial essential beverages, the total was $7.25.

Although I’d commanded my forces not to double up at any one vendor, the contrarians who staff the magazine laugh at such constraints. Thus, both Lisa Whalen and Kathryn Lurie hit the Healthy Café, the former snagging a Carm’s Chipotle Chicken Wrap, a beast of a sandwich for $4.75 with a hint of jalapeño. Chicken figured into Kathryn’s salad as well, a Caesar base with poultry and pasta added, priced with a Snapple at $7.

I thought I’d better check out that cart myself – I was getting hungry – but stopped to inspect Barb Purcell’s black bean taco salad, from the Mexican Food van. The $4.75 dish was a good-sized portion that didn’t break any culinary ground, but seemed solid enough fare for salsa fans.

Black beans also figured in Jan Thomas’s lunch, beans with carrot slices served as a side dish to the Old Daley Inn’s Cajun chicken sandwich ($7.50 with beverage). The Old Daley Inn has been doing this for something like 20 years, and their menu of salads and entrées, sandwiches and stuffed baked potatoes is optimized for quick service and parkside dining. So I thought I’d head for their State Street stand.

That’s when the milk guys arrived. We were on the steps of the Legislative Building, where a dairy exhibition was taking place. The milk guys – from Ronnybrook Farm Dairy in Ancramdale, in Columbia Country – were displaying their wares and shared with us a couple of quarts of chocolate milk, which was about as creamy as it can get short of being a milk shake. With no bovine growth hormone in any of their products, I sure would welcome more of an Albany-area presence.

Meanwhile, the aroma of curry was taking over – wafting from a plate on Travis Durfee’s lap. “It’s from Roy’s Caribbean,” he explained. “Goat curry. Served with cabbage and rice, and there are peas and beans here, too.” It’s $6.75 with a Snapple, and the flavor is persuasive enough to overcome any reluctance about goat meat. Watch out, though, for the little bone shards.

I’d all but decided on that for my own lunch when Stephen Leon showed (but didn’t share) his chicken teriyaki sandwich from the New Day Café cart. For $5.50, you get a plate that includes cold spinach fettuccine in a modestly herbed vinaigrette. And so off I went in search of one of those.

But it was nearly 2 o’clock, and I couldn’t find the cart. Others were packing up, some pleased with the sales on this sunny day, one so unbelievably grumpy that she wouldn’t identify her packed-away wares. By the time I was ready to place an order, it was too late. I had to stop somewhere on the way home.

Vendors in the Park
, Capitol Park, Albany. Serving lunch Mon-Fri 11-2 every reasonably nice day during the summer. Cash only.

Cuisine: sandwiches, wraps, curried goat; entrée price range: $1.50 (Hot dog) to $7.50 (Old Daley meal deal); ambience: al fresco; clientele: people wearing name badges.

Metroland Magazine, 19 June 2003

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