Like most people who have ever gotten delicious fare on the streets of this city, I’ve always been curious how food truck vendors do what they do. And with the third annual Vendy Awards—the ultimate cook-off between the city’s best sidewalk chefs—happening this Saturday, now seemed like the perfect opportunity to find out. To help guide me out of my culinary comfort zone and into a sweltering steel box on wheels, I reached out to the Vendy’s 2012 “People’s Choice” winner, Verna Swerdlow, co-owner of Vernalicious. (Due to a scheduling conflict, Vernalicious had to bow out of the competition this year, and I’m sure the finalists are more than happy not to be competing with Verna’s award-winning pulled-pork grilled cheese.)
Though Verna initially invited me to her main kitchen space in Upper Darby, I insisted on getting the authentic food truck experience (aka seeing firsthand what happens when you put four people in a small, poorly ventilated space for several hours a day). We arranged to meet just after the lunch rush at the Porch at 30th Street Station. (Find out where they’re going to be by following them on Twitter: @Vernalicious1). With the temperature outside creeping into the 90s and the temperature inside the truck presumably creeping into the 100s, I was a tad hesitant to step inside, but took comfort in knowing that Verna has never passed out from heat exhaustion on the job. (She’s come close, though.)
The truck was surprisingly spacious. Depending on the venue and/or event, Verna says up to eight people can fit in there at one time. I’ve certainly cooked in much tighter spaces and under far more restrictive circumstances: My sophomore year at Temple, I shared a one-bedroom “apartment” in which the kitchen was essentially just an extension of my closet, consisting of only a stove, sink and mini fridge.
Joining my photographer and I were Verna’s cooks, Nick and Chris, and her boyfriend/business partner David Jurkofsky. With Vernalicious being known for its fresh, classic comfort foods, it only seemed right that we craft the ultimate lunchtime sandwich: the turkey club.
After a failed attempt to impress me with his bread-slinging skills, Nick used a handy rolling device to butter our three slices of Texas toast (not the frozen stuff), then threw them onto the flattop for about a minute while Verna and I shimmied a foot and a half over to the counter to begin assembling our two-tier sandwich, starting with the sliced turkey.
Having never purchased any type of lunchmeat for myself, I immediately asked if she had any advice on the topic of buying cold cuts.
“You don’t want anything that smells bad or looks bad,” Verna says. “I think it’s important that you trust your sources.”
In other words: Don’t be buying no funky lunchmeat from some shady ass deli around the corner in hopes of saving a few bucks (something I would totally do). Verna demands only the finest ingredients, relying on local farms like Green Meadow in Lancaster County for her produce and poultry whenever she can, even if it comes with a higher price tag. “I charged $9 dollars for a club sandwich today, $10 dollars for a Cobb salad,” she says. “And you know what? It was worth it.”
As proof, both were sold out by the time I arrived. Knowing that Verna had gone through the trouble of reserving her remaining ingredients just for me, I had a hard time being completely open when she asked if there was anything on the sandwich that I didn’t eat. I casually noted that I wasn’t a big fan of veggies, keeping tight-lipped about one of my biggest and weirdest food pet peeves: bacon on anything other than an empty plate.
That’s right—I don’t want bacon on top of my burger, I don’t want it sprinkled in my mac and cheese, I don’t want it anywhere near my cupcake, and I certainly don’t want it tainting an otherwise delicious heap of sliced turkey breast. Do I have any sort of explanation for this? No. Perhaps I just love bacon too much to have its flavor muddled by other stuff. Later, when Verna wasn’t looking, I quickly snatched it out of the sandwich and ate it separately.
Since she and David hadn’t eaten lunch yet and because this was their very last club, Verna decided to cut it in fours for all of us to share. Now, normally, I’m pretty stingy when it comes to food. When you go from living with two older brothers to a bunch of stoners, you tend to fall into squirrel-like behavior to protect your stash. But having done all of the work, Verna seemed entitled to at least one fourth of a sandwich.
And given how satisfying that small fraction proved to be, along with the side of her mild jalapeño potato salad, I’m relieved I wasn’t left to tackle the full shebang myself. One might scoff at the sandwich’s simplicity, but personally, I appreciate Verna’s no-frills approach to lunch.
“To me, a club sandwich is a club sandwich,” she says. “I don’t mess around with what’s supposed to be in it.”
And messing with the quality isn’t good, either. The ingredients need to be fresh, regardless of whether you’re making a turkey club or something far more elaborate. But please leave off the bacon.
Find all the recipes Nicole has learned from Philly chefs so far online at forkingstupid.com.
Dinner with Luke Palladino