Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Some like it hots

Inside Rochester's street-meat scene

Posted By on Wed, Sep 3, 2008 at 4:32 PM

Dave Miran has been on the streets for almost 22 years. A Rochester native, Miran is the proprietor of Dave's Sidewalk Café, a hot dog cart -- or "mobile vending unit," in Rochester City Code parlance -- that has operated on the corner of Court Street and St. Mary's Place for the past eight years. On any given day at noon, the line for the hots, burgers, and other sandwiches that Miran makes on his cart's massive grill can stretch halfway down the block. But that line moves quickly; Miran, a stocky man with a rugby player's build, moves gracefully behind his cart, effortlessly turning out order after order, rain or shine, warm or cold, six days a week from mid-March through Christmas. He rarely misses a day, and when he does, people wonder where he is.

"Go away for two days and people think you've either died or left town," he says as he turns his hots and slaps cheese on his burgers. "Sometimes it gets a little crazy," he says, "but that's why you are busy." Miran is busy because his steady customers know that they can rely on him to deliver every day, in any weather, fast.

At 50 years old, Miran, who came to the business through his parents, has no illusions about the rigors of the job of selling "street meat" -- a moniker that almost all the vendors interviewed for this article consider demeaning and disrespectful. "I love it when I hear someone say, 'I want to do this when I retire,'" he says. "This is a 12-hour, seven-day job."

He's not exaggerating. Every day, Miran and his wife, Suzy (who helps with the cooking and takes money during the lunch rush), hit DiPaolo's Bakery -- the near-universal bread choice for Rochester's street vendors -- between 5:30 a.m. and 6 a.m. Then it's on to their meat suppliers for hots, sausages, and burgers. After a stop at his commissary to restock the cart and pick up the day's supply of hot sauce, Miran makes his way downtown. By 9:30 a.m. he's on site and open for business. The rush starts around 11 a.m., and peters out around 2 p.m., when he starts thinking about packing it in for the day.

Breaking down the cart, hitching it back up to his van, and then cleaning up his space and the area around it (the city requires all vendors to leave their spaces exactly as they found them at the end of the day -- no trash, no grease stains on the sidewalk, not a crumb of food) is far from the end of his day. He returns to the commissary, cleans the cart, does prep work for the next day, and then heads to one of the area's wholesale clubs for prepackaged food, paper goods, and pop. Most days he's done at around 5 p.m., but some days are much later than others. This is not a job for someone looking for a quiet retirement.

What it takes to become a "hotdog guy"

For Miran, his cart is a second -- maybe even a third -- career. Before he was a "hotdog guy," he worked for Rochester Products, cooking at night and on the weekends. For nine years, he was sous chef at J.C. Crummers in Penfield. Like many area vendors, he stumbled into the business and just stayed there -- in part because the business, while labor intensive, isn't all that hard, and the money is good.

Exactly how good is an open question. It's enough to support the decision of a vendor like George Haddad, who owns at least six vending licenses, to lay out $750 per license each year. It's also enough to help some of the vendors -- including Miran -- to branch out into successful catering businesses on evenings and weekends. It may not be a glamorous living, but, if it's managed well, it can be a very comfortable one.

"It's a hotdog cart, not rocket science," Miran says. Characteristically, he sells himself short. Miran knows most of his regulars by name and preference, recalls much of what they tell him, and engages almost everyone in a little conversation, while never losing his steady rhythm behind the grill. "People love me because I don't hold back," he says during one of his infrequent breaks.

Miran is one of more than 200 vendors licensed to sell food on the streets in MonroeCounty. The carts they work from look fairly simple, but the regulatory world in which they live is anything but. Like their permanent restaurant cousins, street vendors have to meet strict standards of cleanliness and food safety mandated by the County. These standards are some of the toughest in the state, according to Mike Vaccaro, the Monroe County Public Health Sanitarian whose primary beat is the county's pushcart vendors.

Pushcarts must be covered with an umbrella or awning (thus the ubiquitous red-and-yellow Zweigle's umbrellas), they must have hand-washing facilities, and workers must wear gloves when handling food. Perhaps the most important innovation in the MonroeCounty regulations is the requirement that all cart operators complete the second level of food safety certification training in order to be allowed to work at a cart at all. (Owners of more than one cart must possess an even more rigorous Level 1 certification.)

There are also limitations on the kinds of food that can be offered by cart vendors. Vendors are limited to commercially precooked meats that are pre-portioned and pre-packaged. Hot dogs, pre-cooked sausages, and food service-ready chicken parts fall under that umbrella. The only raw meat -- and this is a bit disconcerting, given the recent rash of recalls -- is commercially pre-formed hamburger patties. Condiments do not fall under the guidelines, and the meaning of "condiment" can be very broad indeed. In fact, the creative way that some of Rochester's vendors work the rules lends the city's street meat its distinctive character.

Night and day

Rochester's street vendors break into two distinct camps: day and night. Vendors like Dave Miran and Donna Wert, owner of Donna Daddy's cart across from Village Gate on Goodman Street, are quintessential day folks. They serve office workers and passersby on downtown streets, opening up mid-morning and closing down mid-afternoon. The night, however, belongs to vendors like Jon "Mr. V" Verno, and Joe Margiotta, the owner of the "Street Meat" truck that used to be a fixture on Alexander Street.

The night vendors cater to the club and bar crowds. Their businesses start to pick up late in the evening, and most don't get into full swing until 1:30 or 2 in the morning, when the last drinks are downed, the last songs played, and the crowds take to the streets in search of something to eat. The difference between the day and night clientele in part explains the degree to which the regulation of the night-timers affects the day-timers, who serve lunch to a quieter, more sober crowd.

In addition to licenses and inspections by the Monroe County Health Department, Rochester street vendors must also be licensed by the city. If a vendor wishes to sell food within the city's two designated vending districts -- CenterCity and Harbortown -- he or she must enter a lottery for the limited number of designated spaces available on the streets.

According to City Clerk Dan Karin, the lottery originally encompassed only the vending spots on Main Street, but over the years the scope of the vending districts has expanded, in part, perhaps, to bring nighttime vendors under more close control. "Vendors thrive when they are meeting a need," Karin says. But the trick for the City, especially with night vendors, is to find "that sweet spot between vendors and the quality of life for people in the neighborhoods" that keeps everyone happy, Karin says.

The lottery complicates life for daytime vendors, whose businesses are identified with the spots that they occupy. For them, the lottery throws everyone's business up in the air every November, when the lottery is drawn. Most of the time the number of vendors is fairly stable, and the regulars choose their familiar spots. But when new vendors enter the field or an established vendor starts to covet his neighbor's spot, the street vending landscape can change radically.

The wheels and seasonality of the carts belie their true nature: these are fixed-point businesses in everything but name. Although the vendors don't own the land on which they park their carts, the spots are theirs as surely as if they did. Many of these carts have become lunchtime or nighttime destinations in their own right, and the lottery adds an element of uncertainty to the business that many vendors find frustrating.

Beyond the bun: the diverse tastes of "street meat"

Outside of downtown, the largest concentration of street vendors in the city is around StrongMemorialHospital, where there are eight carts. Six of them serve the standard hots and burgers, but two of them -- Angel Crespo's Heavenly Hots on Elmwood Avenue near the main hospital entrance, and Aristedes Rivera's Royal Hots on Crittenden Boulevard near the medical school entrance -- cater to the large Latino contingent working in the hospital. In addition to the usual fare, both carts serve both "Spanish" rice and beans and some variation on roasted pork.

Crespo's grilled pork sandwiches are simple and very good -- juicy, peppery, and accompanied by nothing more than lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. Rivera's pork is radically different. The orange-tinged and very flavorful cutlet is used on his very liberal interpretation of a Cuban sandwich. This "Cuban" is served on a twist roll and includes grilled pork, a slice of ham, cheese, peppers, onions, and a generous scoop of meaty hot sauce. The resulting sandwich is a delectable mess.

For those looking for a more authentically Caribbean meal, Rivera's rice and beans topped with the same pork cutlet is a pleasantly satisfying change from the usual run of street food. The ready availability of short-term street parking near Rivera's cart works in his favor -- while not exactly a drive-through, customers who are just passing through, as well as a steady stream of Strong employees, flock to his cart every day.

Dave Miran's Sidewalk Café on Court Street is another lunchtime destination. His menu embraces the usual hots and burgers, but what he does with them, how he dresses them up, makes him special. (And he, too, has the advantage of short-term parking right next to his stand.) You could get a plain burger or chicken sandwich at Miran's, but why would you when you could get that same sandwich with bacon, cheese, hot sauce, barbecue sauce, peppers and onions, mushrooms, and more? The number of combinations available from this cart is nearly overwhelming, and of surprisingly good quality.

The best chicken sandwich in the city is made by Donna Wert at her cart at Goodman Street and College Avenue. Wert's customers are a loyal and resourceful bunch -- one of them trained a webcam on her space, allowing her fans can see if she is there on any given day. (Wert doesn't come out when it rains).

Wert has been cooking for more than 20 years, even though she has only been working a cart for the past nine. She loved working in kitchens, but found that she could "only learn so much," so she took everything she knew and set out to "bring the gourmet... down to the street."

Her hots are good, her "Greek" hot sauce is among the best, and her chicken sandwiches are transcendent. Many other vendors rely on ready-made dressings and sauces. Wert makes her own pesto, lemon-pepper, and Cajun sauces. She gives the chicken a good char on the grill, and finishes the breast cutlets in tiny cast iron pans, adding sauces at the last minute to give them a final shot of moisture and flavor. Wert is a one-woman show, and her day is a long one -- 12 or 13 hours a day from mid-March through the end of November -- although she lives for "those days when it hits 60 degrees in January and I can come out and make everyone's day."

The king of late night

The very best of Rochester's street vendors push the envelope of the rules that limit their menus. Unlike New York City, you will not find falafel carts, or shish-kabob, but you will find vendors who revel in accessory excess. Miran is one of these, and Wert is another, but for sheer decadence you need to hit the streets around midnight from Thursday through Saturday night and go in search of Mr. V's.

Jon Verno got his start in street vending in the winter of 1995. While trying to make a go of a career in broadcasting, he leased a cart from Miran to supplement his income. The following spring, Verno set up on his own. He opened his first cart on the corner of Goodman Street and Monroe Avenue across from the old Paradise Alley bar. Twelve years later, Verno sends out two carts on the weekends -- one to his original location, and another to the patio behind Prepp's Bar on Park Avenue -- and devotes a significant amount of time to catering and festivals.

Verno's menu clearly took Miran's as a point of departure: there are the same basic menu items with the same exuberant use of toppings to fill out the buns. Mr. V's takes things to a whole other level, though. His "Back Alley Burger" stacks ham, bacon, American cheese, peppers and onions, and hot sauce atop a burger, rendering the very good burger nearly irrelevant in the tasty mix (you can even get a double "Back Alley" on a sub roll). His "Porta Bomb" puts a whole grilled portabella mushroom on top of a quarter-pound burger, along with whatever other toppings you might want.

If all of this were not enough, Verno offers a sandwich that must be seen (and tasted) to be believed: a portabella mushroom topped with spicy pulled pork, cheese, and hot sauce. The food is good, maybe even great under the right circumstances, but let's just say that it's good that you're eating it under the cover of darkness anyway.

Verno's big food is matched by his huge personality. Like all good vendors, he knows a lot of his patrons by name, and his booming voice cuts through the hubbub of customers who start to pile up around his cart around 1:30 a.m. On a recent Saturday evening, more than 60 people moved past Mr. V's cart in a little less than 20 minutes -- a busy night, but not an unusual one in Verno's estimation. His customers are young, mostly tipsy, and many of them seem to see him as some sort of uncle, insisting that he recall minute details of conversations he had with them weeks or even months before. And he does.

If anyone is a natural for this business, it's Verno. For him, Mr. V's is a "lifestyle" he wouldn't willingly give up, even when the weather turns foul. "Anyone can sell a sandwich right now," he says, "but if you are still going out in February, you are king of the hill."

That's why he's out every week, all year round, because "If it's different, and as long as you do it well," he says, people will keep coming back. Mr. V. does, and they do, and he unquestionably is.

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