Twenty years ago, business was booming for downtown street vendors. Now the boom has decreased to just a handful.
“There would be walls covered by people, eating and chatting … there was never a spot open and it was sometimes hard to get food for lunch,” said Mike Thompson, an avid connoisseur of street vendor food for the past 20 years.
All of today’s vendors have distinct styles and personalities, and all maintain classic street vendor traditions: fast service, great company and even better food. However, of the many street vendors that Tampa once had, only five remain at the top of people’s lunchtime lists. Here are the best to check out:
Located directly across from Nick’s Grill is Far East, a different kind of street vendor. Owners Henry and Theresa Nguyen differentiate themselves from the norm, offering their customers homemade Asian creations. Their daily specials include beef ragu on Mondays and Tuesdays, stuffed green peppers on Wednesdays, and roast pork lo mein to round out the business week.
They also serve coconut chicken everyday and offer side orders such as egg rolls. The chicken teriyaki was delicious, though the rice was not up to par.
Despite the less-than-outstanding rice, Theresa’s spunky personality overshadows any lack of flavor the dishes may have. Prices are low, ranging from $1-$4, which has kept customers coming back for 12 years.
“I like it here,” Henry said. “Especially when the weather is nice.”
With a line as long as downtown itself, Marty’s has proven to be one of the most popular and long-lasting vendors Tampa has seen. For 25 years, Marty Greenwald has been serving a variety of hot dogs to the public, cultivating a loyal fan base.
“I’ve been eating at Marty’s for about 15 years, five days a week,” Thompson said.
It is easy to see why customers keep coming back for more. The hot dogs were cooked to perfection, New York-style.
Marty’s also offers his popular mustard paired up with horseradish. Apart from the usual condiments, Marty’s serves Sabrett beef franks, jumbo beef franks, Polish sausage and Italian sausage with prices from $2.25-$4.50.
Greenwald, who graduated from USF with a degree in business, started Marty’s on the corner of 131st Street and 19th Street by the VA Hospital in 1981. Years later, customers are still flocking to Marty’s – now on the corner of East Kennedy – with only positive remarks.
“I like it because it’s New York quality, because of the taste and because of the sauerkraut,” said Francisco G. Burac, a local worker. “The mustard is not like any other. It’s pretty good. From a scale of 1-10 when we talk about hot dogs, I give it a 10.”
For those in the mood for Americana cuisine, stop by Nick’s Grill, which boasts a menu containing burgers, Philly cheese steaks, grilled chicken, Cuban sandwiches and more with prices from $1-$6.75. The owner of Nick’s – who chose to remain anonymous – has been serving food for 20 years, but he does not feel the same way he did two decades ago.
“The area is dead – there’s no business. It used to be better,” he said.
However, he continues to serve his regulars, like Eugene Manning from Plant City.
“Sometimes, I like to get high energy food,” Manning said. “I’m a construction worker, and we work hard. It’s much better to have a hot meal than a cold one.”
Though there is no real way to ruin sandwiches and chicken, Nick’s subpar supplies (such as stale bread) could deter some customers. Nick’s Grill also offers combo meals and is located on the corner of Kennedy Boulevard and Franklin Street.
With the slogan “The Deli Best,” Sodie’s specializes in hot dogs, Italian sausages – which can be topped with items such as peppers and onions – and corn dogs, with prices ranging from $2.25-$5.15. Though the menu may be restrictive, the short lines and low prices make up for Sodie’s shortcomings.
Instead of searching around town for his entire lunch break, Tampa Bay area employee Kevin Arnott decided to try Sodie’s.”I was looking for a Chicago-style hot dog, but I couldn’t find one,” Arnott said.Located on the corner of Franklin and Madison Streets, Sodie’s Inc. has been around for almost 10 years, but Senaf Pickhardt has owned the business since 2003. For more information, visit Sodies.citymax.com.
Sidewalk Cafe and Pizzeria
“I love my job!” Hernan Gomez proclaimed over the Top 40 music blaring from speakers at the Sidewalk Cafe and Pizzeria.
The number of patrons in line made it obvious that the gooey pizza was worth the wait. In fact, by the time some people got to the head of the line, there was no pizza left, which might put off potential customers since it was the middle of lunchtime. Regardless, the Sidewalk Cafe and Pizzeria features a menu that not only includes pizza by the slice – prices go up to $5.25 – but also breakfast and other lunch items.
Gomez, who has been at the pizzeria for eight years, operates the stand with his wife, Cheyenne. He not only loves his job, but he also loves the location.”The mayor is right there,” he said of the cafe’s Franklin Street location.And with a line that could definitely challenge Marty’s, there is a lot to be excited about.