Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Let them eat snow

Winter farming in Rochester

Posted By on Wed, Dec 29, 2010 at 4:00 AM

On the Sunday before Christmas, the stalls at the Long Season Market in Brighton are heaped with fresh produce and the aisles are crowded with self-described locavores who are eager to take it home with them. There are beets that are still icy cold and wet to the touch, alongside parsnips, turnips, a few radishes, potatoes, and lots of winter squash. You can also find cold hardy greens in abundance: broccoli rabe, baby bokchoi, black and curly leafed kale. But there is also what appears to be a bumper crop of lettuce -- bright green against a background of earth tones. Outside, there is a foot of snow on the ground, temperatures flirt with the teens at night, and dusk begins to gather at 4:30 in the afternoon. Yet, here it is: fresh lettuce, grown within an hour of the market and picked only hours before it is to be sold -- in December.

            Some of it, like the delicate green heads of baby Boston lettuce that farmer John Bolton is setting out on his stand amid the cilantro, arugula, and other lettuces, is grown hydroponically in heated greenhouses that produce product year-round. But an increasing share of it, like the bags and bins of baby greens brought into the market by Brian Beh, owner of Raindance Harvest in Ontario, are grown in the ground in unheated greenhouses commonly referred to as hoophouses. At 8 a.m. on this particular Sunday, the lettuces and greens that Beh was selling a few hours later were still in the ground.

            These greens are the answer to the dilemma of what someone who is determined to eat fresh, local produce is going to eat during winter in upstate New York. They also represent both an opportunity and a challenge to both established supermarket chains and to local farmers looking to expand the market for their products, and make those products more reliably profitable to grow and harvest.

            These greens may be the start of a revolution in the way people think about winter vegetables and winter farming. But they may also be a manifestation of the emergence of a class of produce available to the fortunate few but beyond more than the occasional reach of those who are forced to stretch every nickel in a fragile economy.

Until very recently, if you were talking about winter farming in Western New York, you were talking about hydroponic farming: growing plants without soil in heated greenhouses. For more than a decade, hydroponic farms -- vast greenhouses whose sides are fogged over with condensation from October through May -- have proliferated in our area and across the border in Canada where rows and rows of greenhouses line the QEW. Among the largest of these is Intergrow in Albion. Started on 15 acres of land in 1998, Intergrow now has 30 acres of hydroponically grown tomato plants under glass, and has plans to add an additional 18 acres of greenhouse in the near future. Intergrow harvests in excess of 77,000 pounds (about 7000 11-pound boxes) of tomatoes every week, shipping them as far west as Chicago, south to the Carolinas, and all through New England. Of that produce, 60 percent to 70 percent goes to a single grocery store chain WHICH CHAIN? [Wegmans, of course].

            Everything at Intergrow is huge. The two biomass furnaces that heat the greenhouses consume three to four tractor-trailer loads of wood chips each day to keep them at a steady 60 degrees. The tanks where water and nutrients are mixed and stored are at least 12' tall. The staff uses an assortment of old single-gear bicycles to travel around the greenhouses. To stand in the middle of Greenhouse 1 and look down any of the rows of plants is to get a good idea of what infinity might look like: there is a dim glimmer of light at the other end of the row, but for as far as the eye can see there is nothing but perfect, red tomatoes and carefully supported and trellised horizontal-growing tomato vines. The vines themselves are two fingers thick in some places, and snake along the plastic channel supports for distances up to 40 feet. The plants are eased into horizontal growth after they climb beyond the reach of the cherrypickers that Intergrow's employees use to harvest much of their crop.

            Hydroponics are expensive. In this area, in order to keep the greenhouses warm through the winter, a greenhouse owner has to make a substantial investment in fuel. Water is plentiful and cheap, but the liquid fertilizers necessary to nourish the plants are not and they have to be constantly replenished. And labor is a consideration that cannot be discounted. Hydroponic farming is a labor-intensive undertaking. Intergrow employs about one person per acre during the winter, and twice that during the summer.

            To make a profit, hydroponic growers have to sell enough product to achieve economies of scale and grow their operations in ways that are impractical for smaller farmers with limited space, capital, and time. And that is part of the dilemma that T.J. Tyler, the manager of Freshwise Farms in Penfield, has wrestled with since he arrived in July 2009.

            Freshwise opened in 2002 as a "social enterprise" of the Rochester-based food bank Foodlink. Unlike other divisions of Foodlink, Freshwise was intended to grow pesticide-free hydroponic greens and vegetables for sale to the general public, rather than distributed to Foodlink's partner agencies. The profits on the venture were to be passed on to Foodlink to support its larger mission of eradicating hunger in the 10 counties that it serves here in Western New York. Freshwise was, in part, a successful enterprise. It produced almost an acre of hydroponic greens year-round in its greenhouse, offering retailers, restaurants, and consumers access to some of the freshest salad greens imaginable.

            The problem, according Tyler, was that the use of chemical fertilizers in hydroponic growing at Freshwise was environmentally (and, by extension, economically) unsustainable. In conjunction with the board and leadership of Foodlink, Tyler participated in the creation of a new vision for Freshwise, and the development of a three-year plan that would, among other things, phase out hydroponics in favor of cold-hardy crops grown in the ground in unheated greenhouses. The first step in that process was to rip out the hydroponic growing apparatus that filled the majority of the main greenhouse (while maintaining a smaller hydroponic greenhouse to fulfill contracts with local restaurants and schools) and begin enriching the soil for the planting of Freshwise's first winter crop of spinach in February 2011.

            The first time I spoke to Tyler on the phone in early December requesting a visit to Freshwise, he warned me that things were "a bit of a mess" and that the farm was undergoing big changes, so there might not be much to see. Just after the first big snow of the season, I paid a visit to the farm and immediately saw what he meant. About half of the main greenhouse was still producing hydroponic greens. Another portion of it, maybe an eighth, was devoted to growing microgreens -- tiny beet greens, arugula, mustard, and other plants -- on beds of wet, cotton-like fiber. The remaining part of the greenhouse looked like it had been intentionally bombed. Hydroponic trays and tubing, as well as the steel supports on which they had rested, had been removed and the soil underneath them roughly spaded up in order to prepare it for its new life as Freshwise's primary growing medium.

            Looking proudly at the destruction, Tyler informed me that by January 1 the entire greenhouse would look like this. At that point, he said, the heat would be turned off and the place would be allowed to "freeze out" in order to kill off any lingering pests in the soil. In early February, after the soil had been enriched with some of the 3000 pounds of compostable material Freshwise takes from the Penfield and Holt Road Wegmans stores each week, spinach seedlings would be transplanted into the unheated greenhouse for harvest some time in March.

            The new business model at Freshwise is derived, at least in part, from the writings and research of Eliot Coleman, owner of Four Season Farm in Maine. In organic farming circles, Coleman is a rock star, a guru whose books make it sound so practical and so easy to undertake winter farming that you might find yourself at Home Depot purchasing PVC pipe and plastic sheeting material before you've finished reading the first couple of chapters of "The Winter Harvest Handbook." Coleman's argument for winter farming is simple: it has precedent. More than a century ago, French market gardeners were growing and harvesting most of the food that was sold in Paris' markets during the winter months in glass-topped, manure-heated, wooden cold frames (it's worth noting that farmers in Irondequoit were doing similar things around the same time in order to get a jump on the area's short growing season). Coleman reasons that what was possible then is possible now, and on a larger scale.

            Winter farming, as Coleman explains it, requires an understanding of the practicalities and timing of winter planting and harvesting. Winter crops must be sown well before the first killing frost so that the plants are mature enough to withstand short, cold days by going "dormant" -- overwintering -- until the sun returns in late February. As Brian Beh of Raindance Harvest in Ontario, New York puts it, "From December through February your greenhouse is essentially a refrigerator," where your crops wait for spring.

            Coleman advocates the use of rounded or peaked greenhouse frames covered with as little as a single layer of heavy-duty plastic sheeting to protect vegetables from the worst of the cold and all of the wind. Used properly these hoophouses can help farmers achieve near-miraculous results: baby greens grown in the ground and harvested almost year-round; the sweetest carrots you've ever tasted harvested in March; spinach, chard, kale, and other frost hardy greens harvested until Christmas, and then overwintered for a second crop in early March as the days get longer.

It sounds like a fairy tale that organic farmers read to their children at night to inspire them, but this model of cheap, sustainable, and profitable winter farming has caught on -- not only at Freshwise, but also with local organic growers like Raindance'sBeh and Fred Forsburg of Livonia, with the Rochester-based supermarket chain Wegmans, and with the federal government, which launched a pilot program late in 2009 to encourage farmers to invest in high-tunnel hoophouses and give extended season farming a try.

            According to Ivy Allen, Public Affairs Specialist for the New York office of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, hundreds of farmers applied for grants that would potentially reimburse them at a rate of $2 per square foot for the purchase and installation of one or more hoophouses on their land. Forty-one of the grants were awarded statewide, and already her agency is getting requests for applications for next year's grant cycle.

            Robert Hadad, a regional specialist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension Service, says the robust interest in winter farming is a function of the burgeoning interest in winter vegetables on the part of savvy locavores. Demand, Hadad says, "is greater than supply, and I don't think we've come close to meeting the demand that is potentially there" for winter crops. Pointing to the success of late-season markets like the one in Brighton and the newly initiated Highland Park winter market, Hadad sees programs like the NRCS hoophouse project as a way to "encourage farmers to move up and make an investment in the next step" to invest in extended season farming with at least some of the risk taken off of the table.

            Hadad speculates that a hoophouse can pay for itself in three years or less. Still, finding the money, the time, and the labor can be a real challenge to growers who are already stretched to the limit and may not have the resources to invest in something that even the most successful of local practitioners admit is still largely an experimental enterprise.

            Fred Forsburg, the only recipient of an NRCS grant in Livingston County, says that he is "still in the experimental stage" of winter farming. Until now, he used the four hoophouses on his Honeyhill Farm to control the environment in which he grows organic heirloom tomatoes. This winter, he hopes to harvest a crop of leeks from his fifth, and newest, hoophouse, and looks forward to pulling overwintered scallions in March. Even veteran winter farmers describe their efforts as a work in progress. Brian Beh, who has been producing winter crops of lettuces and greens in four hoophouses in Ontario for the past four years, still claims that "this is still in the development phase. We are all just trying to work it through" to find the right balance between cost and profit that will make winter farming economically sustainable. "At the moment," he says, "no one is getting rich."

In Eliot Coleman's estimation, a good measure of the point at which winter farming is paying off is when the return on the investment in each square foot of cultivated ground amounts to $1.50. This is a number that kept coming up time and time again over the course of several weeks of visits and interviews with farmers both large and small -- a notional number, a holy grail that everyone is looking for. But few are the small to mid-sized farming operations that can afford to undertake the investment necessary to experiment with winter farming long enough to find it.

            T.J. Tyler of Freshwise suggested that without the support of Foodlink it would have been impossible to transition his greenhouse to winter farming without undertaking what he describes as "major loanage." Other farmers I spoke to are interested in extended season farming, but don't want to take on the additional debt that they would have to incur to do it.

            Enter the Wegmans Organic Research Farm in Canandaigua. On a snowy December morning, I'm standing on a windswept hillside overlooking Canandaigua Lake with StencyWegman and farm manager Jamie Robinson. We are brushing several inches of snow away from yellow-green heads of Romanesco, a broccoli that has some of the characteristics of cauliflower. Robinson looks at the heads and announces that they will need to be taken in before they freeze again: vegetables like this can stand to be frozen once or twice, but a long, hard freeze will ruin them.

            Up on the hill above the Romanesco bed stand two unheated hoophouses. Over near the treeline stands another. Inside them, it's not quite summer, but it feels and smells like early spring. In the houses closest to the Romanesco patch, densely packed rows of rainbow chard, arugula, and carrots are growing directly in the soil underneath cloth-like row covers that keep in the heat and most of the moisture. The chard and the arugula look like they will be ready to harvest in a few weeks, the carrots are the length of my pinky and intensely sweet because freezing temperatures cause carrots and other root vegetables to concentrate their sugars. All of these vegetables are slated to be harvested and on sale at the Wegmans flagship store in Pittsford before Christmas.

            In the next 30 by 40'/ 1,440 square foot hoophouse, tiny spinach plants stand dormant, strong enough to withstand the cold, but not to grow in any appreciable way until February. In another structure, row upon row of perfect spinach grows under the cover of a double-layer hoophouse (the gap between the sheets of plastic inflated to create an insulating pocket of air). The space is so well sealed that moisture rising from the ground condenses on the steel roof supports and "rains" back down on the deep green leaves that grow most densely beneath the drips. In the nearby barn, several dozen trays of microgreens sit under grow-lamps awaiting harvest and shipment in one-ounce containers to Pittsford, where they will sell for $4.99 each.

            What the team at the farm has accomplished in its first season of winter farming is stunning, and even more impressive is what it plans to do over the next year or so. StencyWegman tells me that while it currently produces some vegetables that are sold in the Pittsford store, the Organic Research Farm isn't intended to supplant the local growers with whom the grocery chain has developed a working relationship over the years. Particularly in regard to winter farming and extended-season production, the farm is intended to act as a research laboratory, and its findings will be shared with the 540 local producers who are part of the Wegmans farming "family."

            Wegmans Organic Research Farm began operation in 2007, but it was not until April 2010 that Danny and StencyWegman consulted with Eliot Coleman about a winter-farming project. Now in its first winter of production, farm manager Jamie Robinson describes the farm as a potential scale model of everything that a producer would need in order to produce organic winter vegetables according to the chain's exacting standards, and says that the company intends to start bringing local growers to the farm in time for the 2012 growing season to share what it has learned.

In the final analysis, winter farming, like all farming, is ultimately about matching supply with demand to make a profit. As both Robert Hadad and Fred Forsburg, who is also on the board of the Brighton Long Season Market, have observed, the success of winter markets, even during these tough economic times, suggests that while fresh and local produce is certainly more expensive than produce grown elsewhere and shipped in, that there is a "perceived value" in local produce.

            According to Walter Nelson, the agriculture program leader for the Monroe County branch of the Cornell Cooperative Extension, "People want to know who grew [their food] and where it came from," and they are "willing to pay extra to look the producer in the eye and say, 'How did you grow this?'"

            In a time when every penny counts, Hadadsays, "when people are spending money on vegetables they want to buy the best," not necessarily the cheapest -- although for some shoppers who struggle to feed their families that is certainly a prime consideration.

            When a bag of salad greens tops $5, even the most ardent locavore is likely to at least hesitate before pulling out his or her wallet. Brian Beh of Raindance Farms worries that he cannot compete with produce, even organic produce, trucked in from across the country: his $4 bags of lettuce sometimes approach twice the price of the out-of-state competition. At the point at which the cost of his lettuce is double that of the competition, he says, he begins to lose customers -- even "savvy, educated consumers...who are interested in nutrition, in minimizing their carbon footprint, and eating fresh, local food."

            Fred Forsburg is less concerned. While his customers demand quality, most of them "drive Chevys, not Mercedes," and see buying his produce as a judicious use of their food dollars. People who know and appreciate good food, in Forsburg's estimation, will always pay for quality over quantity.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

CHOW HOUND: Cheap Eats

Posted By on Wed, Jul 21, 2010 at 4:03 PM

*Amended on 7/21/10 to remove a restaurant that is no longer in business.

When it comes to finding good food at reasonable prices, Rochesterians have it easy. We are certainly not as challenged as those poor folks who live in larger, more expensive cities. And yet, with the ample choices we have for quality grub under a 10 spot, it can be hard to cut through the clutter and find the true diamonds in the rough.

For our first Cheap Eats guide, the City Newspaper Chow Hound has sorted her choices - none of which cost more than $10 - into nine popular cuisine categories to give you a glimpse of some of Greater Rochester's best deals, all of which will keep both your wallet and stomach full. This is in no way intended to be a comprehensive list of all of the great, inexpensive food in Rochester, just a starter list of some of our favorites. Did we miss a great menu item at your favorite restaurant? Share it with us at rochestercitynewspaper.com, and perhaps we'll include it in the next edition.

Breakfast

It may have the word "diner" in its name, but with its bohemian-chic decor (including its characteristic, tassel-adorned tables) and its German-, Polish- and Irish-inspired menu, the Flour City Diner(2500 East Ave, 586-7730) feels like anything but the traditional greasy spoon. Open since 2001 (though it has changed locations a few times), the diner offers lunch and dinner as well, but it's the breakfast menu that really grabs our attention. Just about everything served at Flour City is homemade, from the pierogies topped with sauteed onions and bacon ($7.95) to the popular hash served with eggs and toast ($7.45). Even the sausage is homemade, best sampled in the delicious sausage gravy over biscuits, served with two eggs for only $5.95. If you like your breakfast on the sweeter side, you can't miss with the Irish oatmeal - steel-cut oats drizzled with maple syrup and topped with whipped cream ($5.50).

Hicks and McCarthy (23 S Main St in Pittsford, 586-0938) has been serving the Village of Pittsford for more than 90 years, and the experience shows. From the apple walnut pancakes ($5.95), which can be served with real, New England maple syrup for $2.25 extra, to the sundried tomato breakfast burrito ($5.95) and signature flat frittatas (also $5.95), the casual, low-key restaurant offers upscale options at diner pricing.

When you're craving a sinfully satisfying, gut-busting breakfast, Peppermint's Family Restaurant (4870 West Henrietta Rd, 359-9169) in Henrietta certainly fits the bill. The Chef's Special - somewhat akin to a garbage plate for breakfast - offers heaps of corned beef, potatoes, onions, and peppers covered with two poached eggs, all smothered in Hollandaise and cheddar cheese for only $6.79. The Irish Benedict, made with corned beef and Swiss cheese, also packs a punch for $6.75. And the L.A. cinnamon bread ($2.49), a thick-cut slice of cinnamon-swirl bread drizzled with a cinnamon icing, will make you consider following breakfast with dessert.

Pizza and Italian

Sure, you can walk into almost any pizzeria in Rochester and grab a slice or two for a few bucks, but only Piatza's Pizza Gourmet (360 Park Ave, 271-4950; 1703 Crittenden Rd, 292-5770; 110 Packet Landing, 421-8118; and 2400 Macedon Ctr, 315-986-3665) offers the 14-inch "mega slice" that is literally larger than your head for only $3.99. The slices come from huge, 28-inch pies. To put things in perspective, that's a full foot larger than the average 16-inch large pizza.

At Pudgie's Pizzeria(1753 N Goodman St, 266-6605; 520 N Main St, Canandaigua, 394-6720) you can certainly grab some of the fabulously popular pizza, subs, or wings, but the real deal is Pudgie's inimitable stromboli, which is stuffed with pepperoni, Italian sausage, ham, roasted peppers, and four cheeses (mozzarella, American, Swiss, and grated Romano) for only $4.89 a slice.

Rochester has its fair share of Italian restaurants, but many of them fall into the upscale/fine dining category and very few offer delicious, authentic Italian dishes at affordable prices. For that reason, Rosey's Italian Cafe (350 E. Main St, 232-8400) is an extremely popular lunch spot (it is only open weekdays 11 a.m.-3 p.m. except for Fridays, when it remains open until 9 p.m.). The always-crowded restaurant offers one of the best lunch deals in the city: spaghetti, rigatoni, angel hair, or penne pasta with a huge meatball and a salad for $6.99, or homemade lasagna, gnocchi, ravioli, manicotti or stuffed shells for just 50 cents more. Mangia!

Burgers

I would like to argue that burgers are to Rochester what apple pie is to America. It's hard to go anywhere in Rochester that doesn't offer a burger on the menu. I'd also hazard a guess that we have more burgers and hots joints than most cities our size, thanks in part to a trend started by Don's Original (4900 Culver Rd, 323-1177; 2545 Monroe Ave, 244-2080; 2055 Fairport Nine Mile Point Rd, 377-1040), which was opened in 1945 as Don and Bob's (for owners Don Barbato and Bob Berl). When Berl left to focus on the Zweigle's sausage-products business he had inherited from his uncle, Barbato stayed on and the roadside restaurant eventually changed its name. The ground steak sandwich ($3.95), the cheeseburger ($4.30), and the bacon cheeseburger ($5.15) are all delicious choices with a taste of history.

Hand-pressed burgers, homemade root beer, and old-fashioned crinkle-cut fries are just three reasons that Tom Wahl's (eight locations, visit tomwahls.com for details) deserves a spot on this list. Plus, a burger for $3.89 is a good deal - but how about two? Insane. You can download a buy-one-get-one-free cheeseburger coupon easily from the restaurant's website. The Wahlburger - a ground steak burger topped with grilled ham, Swiss cheese, and special sauce - also tops the list of good deals here for only $4.49.

If you like your burgers with extra burger, then check out the Dad's Favorite at the Mount Hope Diner (1511 Mt Hope Ave, 256-1939). The sandwich, named after the owner's father who ate the sandwich all the time, features two 1/3-pound cheeseburgers topped with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and mayonnaise and served on French bread for only $6.20.

Subs/Sandwiches

When a sandwich has the word "bomber" in its name, you can bet it's a formidable foe for your stomach. The steak bomber at Campi's Restaurant (205 Scottsville Rd, 235-7205) is the largest this writer has ever seen. A full 12-inch roll (like a round loaf of bread) is cut in half and stuffed with Philly-style steak, onions, peppers and cheese - it's enough to feed two people, and it only costs $7.49.

When you hear steak sandwich around these parts, you usually think of something akin to the Philly variety, but at LDR Char Pit(4753 Lake Ave, 865-0112) it's a bit more literal: a quarter-inch ribeye steak is seasoned and flash-grilled (so that it keeps its pink center and stays tender) and then served on a large, soft round roll. It's $6.25 for just the steak on a bun, but you can add toppings like cheese and onions and peppers for just a few dimes more.

It may sound crazy to drive out to Geneseo for a sub, but any SUNY Geneseo graduate will tell you that they still crave the subs made at Aunt Cookie's Sub Shop (76 Main St in Geneseo, 243-2650). There's even a Facebook group called, "I could really go for an Aunt Cookie's sub right about now" with nearly 1400 fans. The sub options are standard fare - cold cuts like turkey, Italian assorted, roast beef. But combined with the homemade, toasted sub rolls, the taste is anything but ordinary, and the prices are good too: all half subs are $3.75-$4.25, and all whole subs are less than $8.

Barbeque/Southern

For out-of-towners, two things that really evoke Rochester are garbage plates and Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. For the best of both worlds, the "sticky icky plate" offered at Sticky Lips Pit BBQ(625 Culver Rd, 288-1910) features your choice of barbeque beef brisket, hamburger, cheeseburger, hot dog, chicken, or pulled pork mixed with French fries, macaroni salad, and barbeque baked beans and then smothered in meat hot sauce, onions, and cilantro ($8.95). The Pittsburgh sandwich (your choice of meat - including pulled pork, chicken breast, portabella mushroom, lentil veggie burger - paired with French fries, coleslaw, mustard, and tomatoes all between two slices of jalapeno bread) is an equally filling option offered at a great price ($7.49).

Barbeque and Pizza Too(3105 E. Henrietta Rd, Henrietta, 334 -3300) offers just what its name suggests, all with the convenience of delivery or quick pick-up service at low prices. Just to name a few: the pulled-pork sandwich is just $3.50, and a quarter rack of ribs is $5.95, or $7.50 with a side and a slice of garlic bread.

Many people mistakenly consider Cajun and Creole cuisine to be the same thing; just ask someone from New Orleans and you'll find out just how wrong you are. Beale Street Cafe (689 South Ave, 271-4650; 1930 Empire Blvd in Webster, 216-1070) is of the Cajun variety, but also offers other authentic Southern favorites to round out the experience. All of the food is delicious, but two offerings are the perfect fit for this cheap eats list: the "mud bugs" - crawfish dipped in Cajun batter and fried - for $7.99, and the gumbo, which features seafood and pork and is served in a huge bowl for $4.79.

Health food/Vegetarian

The common complaint about health food is that you often end up paying more for less, but at Hyjea(2120 Five Mile Line Rd in Penfield, 586-5683) the wide selection of tasty, good-for-you foods at low prices defy this grievance. Take for instance the Buffalo-style sandwich made with either chicken or organic tofu, topped with celery, greens, and light mayonnaise on a wheat wrap, wheat roll, or lettuce leaf, or the raspberry almond wrap with sliced almonds, craisins, low-fat feta, mixed greens, and a raspberry vinaigrette dressing, each only $7.

Places that become popular lunchtime haunts are almost guaranteed to provide good food that's fast, cheap, and close to the office. Grill and Greens(39 State St, 454-4890) is perfectly situated near several downtown office buildings, but it also offers a great, healthy lunch special for those on the go: a salad (your choice of lettuce, five toppings, and dressing) and a cup of soup (changes daily, but often includes options like tomato tortellini, chicken gumbo, and clam chowder) for just $6.49, $6.99 if you choose meat or vegetarian chili.

Mise en Place(683 South Ave, 325-4160) is both a market and restaurant in one, aiming to offer gourmet food for those in a rush. And while many of the restaurant's entrees are a bit pricey for this cheap eats list, healthy bargain hunters should get excited for the roasted and marinated red beets, which are served over mixed greens and topped with an herb vinaigrette, walnuts, and goat cheese for a mere $7.

Mexican

New to the scene, yet already popular, Hot Rosita's (17 E Main St, 454-2001) features a flexible menu where nothing costs more than $6.25. Choose from a burrito, burrito bowl, or salad and then pick a meat (chicken, ground beef, shredded beef or pork, or grilled shrimp) and your fillings (including cilantro/lime rice, salsa, guacamole, black or pinto beans, and more).

It's easy to see why John's Tex Mex (489 South Ave, 232-5830) is a South Wedge favorite. It offers a long list of items that could make this cheap eats list, but one particular lunch combo - two "fresca" tacos with a side and a drink for $7.75, with the option to add a third taco for just a quarter more - tops the list. Coming in second is the Mexican mush dip, which is actually on the restaurant's appetizer menu, but is plenty filling for a meal. It's served with homemade chips for just $3.

Seven layers of gooey, savory, spicy goodness that can't be consumed in just one sitting for just $6.29? Sign me up! That's the Lucky Seven Layer Dip served at Sol Burrito(521 Monroe Ave, 271-6470), filled with ground beef, refried beans, cheese, tomato, black olives, and jalapenos accompanied by homemade chips and salsa. If that doesn't float your boat, you can grab two tacos (choose from seven varieties) for just more than $5.

Mediterranean

Aladdin's Natural Eatery (646 Monroe Ave, 442-5000; 8 Schoen Place, Pittsford, 264-9000) could just have easily fit into the healthy eating category, but the selected deals seemed a better fit for our Mediterranean category. First up is the falafel pita, which is served with a delicious and tangy homemade tahini and mixed greens with sprouts. The spiced chickpea-and-fava-bean patties that stuff the pita are mildly spiced, yet flavorful and a steal for just $5.75. The moussaka carries a higher price tag at $8.75, but offers a much more filling dish of potatoes layered with ground beef and eggplant, topped with bechamel sauce and served with a choice of a Greek, Caesar, garden, or spinach salad.

A good sign of a popular cheap eats locale is a line that frequently extends out the door. Sinbad's(719 Park Ave, 473-5655) is no stranger to that concept, probably due to its healthy, tasty, unique, and often chic choices at unexpectedly low prices. For instance, the restaurant offers nine varieties of large-portioned salads, all of which are $6.50 or less, including the tabouleh (parsley, tomatoes and bulgur seasoned with olive oil and lemon juice), malfouf (shredded cabbage with tomatoes and scallions tossed in a Greek dressing), or loubieh (blanched green beans and artichoke hearts tossed with Greek dressing). The soups are a great addition to the salads at just $3.50 for one of five filling options, but the "cacik" - yogurt soup with mint and cucumber - is a specialty that should not be missed.

Drinks

It may seem like a stretch to add drinks to a cheap "eats" list, but when you're looking for something filling or refreshing on-the-go, the wide variety of bubble teas fromKC Tea & Noodles(363 S Goodman St, 271-1420) will do the trick just fine. At just $3.50 for a 16-ounce small or $5 for a 22-ounce large, the massive teas all include a good helping of the delicious tapioca "bubbles" (hence the name) that provide sustenance with your refreshment. The tea comes in many flavors, from standard green tea to fruit teas like mango, passion fruit, strawberry, and even honeydew.

You might go toLovin' Cup (300 Park Point Dr, 292-9940) for the live music, the yummy food, or the beer and wine list, but you shouldn't ignore the gourmet coffee selections either. While coffee may not sound very filling, if you add just the right ingredients, it can quench your thirst and your appetite. Take for instance the "instant karmal" made with espresso, steamed milk, and oodles of caramel syrup ($3.10/small, $3.95/large), or for those who like their hot coffee without the coffee, Lovin' Cup offers "the me," which features milk and your choice of a flavor shot steamed into a delicious drink ($1.95/small, $2.60/large).

For drinks that can double as dessert, head out to Moonlight Creamery (36 West Ave, 223.0880) in Fairport where you can find homemade artisan ice creams and other desserts. But for a tasty treat that can be slurped up through a straw, the signature toasted marshmallow milkshake ($5.49) cannot be missed - it tastes just like a marshmallow roasted over an open fire, blended into a delicious, frozen treat. You can also try a "Boston cooler," which was actually invented in Detroit, and is float made of Moonlight's homemade vanilla ice cream and ginger ale ($5.25).

Do you have a favorite local dish that costs $10 or less? Submit a comment on this article at rochestercitynewspaper.com.

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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