By Amy Zimmer
DNAinfo News Editor
UPPER EAST SIDE — Hordes of hungry lunchtime workers and food bloggers snatched up samples from 17 gourmet food carts participating in Wednesday's popular "Taste of Parks" event at Central Park's Arsenal.
There was Rouge Tomate's white gazpacho with almonds and grapes, Food Freak's artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches and Coolhaus' dirty mint chip ice cream sandwiched between double chocolate fudge cookies — representing the best of specialty food carts currently in, and coming to, city parks.
"You see food carts, you think about the health conditions since they're out on the street," said Danita Armstrong, 40, a banker who works in Midtown, lives in Westchester and was lured by the free samples.
"But this has changed my mind," she said. "The winner for me was the mint chocolate chip ice cream sandwich. Food is great, but dessert is always the best. You can tell by looking at me," she said pointing to her hips.
Carts are often a symbol of budding entrepreneurialism, a way for newcomers to New York to gain a foothold in the world of small business with the hopes of one day opening a brick-and-mortar shop.
But one "Taste of Parks" participant is doing the reverse. Rouge Tomate, an upscale restaurant on East 60th Street, near Fifth Avenue that has a Michelin star, is opening a cart on June 29 on Fifth Avenue and 64th Street — right near the Central Park Zoo.
"It allows us to reach a new audience. What we're doing is totally different from the restaurant," said Peter Esmond, director of operations, who had the idea for a cart after finding few quality food options on frequent trips to the Central Parks Zoo with his kids.
The restaurant serves entrees including Maine lobster with asparagus salad and Hudson Valley rabbit agnolotti. The cart will be kid-friendly with grilled cheese and BLTs — but healthy versions, using fine ingredients and no cream or butter. Its BLTs, for instance, will use nitrate-free bacon from West Virginia, local lettuce, heirloom tomatoes and whole grain bread from Amy's Bread.
Using a food truck also allows the restaurant to expand its brand without making a huge capital investment in a new space, he said.
Other carts already seem to be developing mini-empires on city streets.
Coolhaus, which branched out from L.A. to New York, will soon be serving its fancy ice cream sandwiches on Central Park West and West 80th Street.
Eddie's Pizza Truck recently built a cart that's now under the High Line and will soon be serving pizza at Duane Square in TriBeCa, at Duane and Hudson streets and Richard Tucker Square on the Upper West Side at Broadway and West 65th Street.
Kelvin Natural Slush Co., which started a truck last summer, is building a cart that will soon make kids from the Little Red School House happy at the West Village's Little Red Square at Bleecker Street and Sixth Avenue.
Other newcomers to Manhattan parks include the Desi Food Truck, which is coming to SoHo Square at Sixth Avenue and Spring Street; Screme Gelato coming to Verdi Square at Broadway and 73rd Street; and Je and Jo Comestibles, which will be selling super premium cookie dough ice cream made from organic dairy products at Bleecker Playground, at W. 11th and Bleecker streets in the West Village.
And yes, there will be more wine and beer in Central Park: Pullcart will soon be at Bethesda Terrace with locally-sourced sandwiches and beverages, including beer and wine, Parks Department officials said.
The gourmet food carts may have gotten the cold shoulder from some members of the Upper East Side's parks committee for Community Board 8, who believe the large carts are a visual blight in Central Park, but they have legions of fans who tweet their way through meals. The trucks have also come under attack in other neighborhoods including Midtown and the Upper West Side.
"We really love food," said Jess Phoa, 17, from Westchester, who travels to Manhattan to visit food carts and blog about it with her friend Jacy Clare. The day before the Taste event, they visited Schnitzel and Things, Red Hook Lobster and Coolhaus.
"We've eaten at a lot of these," Phoa said. "We follow Eddie's Pizza. We've had Cake and Shake." She's a fan of street food, she said, because, "the people that run the trucks are nice and love what they're doing. The food is usually consistently good."
"I like chatting up with the guys or women working the trucks," said Laurel Moll, 27, who visits food vendors on breaks from working at home — and blogs about it. "It's fast. It's easygoing. It's tasty."
Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said his department was making an effort to bring a diverse array of food choices to parks based on park-goer surveys.
"People said, 'We want better food, organic food, healthier food,'" he noted. "'We want food so that we don't have to leave the park to eat.'"