WILLIAMSBURG — A neighborhood empanada vendor, who's been sizzling up meat, cheese, chicken and yuca pastries from a cart on Graham Avenue for the last decade could be crowned the city's best street vendor in this year's upcoming Vendy Awards.
Gladis Cocha, 46, of Gladis' Empandas, a cart she parks on the corner of Graham and Debevoise in Williamsburg, is one of four finalists competing for the Vendy Cup on Sept. 17.
Cocha will face off against Cachapas on Wheels (Venezuelan street food from Inwood), Tacos el Rancho and Traditional Chinese Cuisine in the Governors Island food bonanza.
When Cocha first got word that her customers had nominated her and then that she'd been selected as one of the top four finalists, she said she was a bit surprised.
"I wasn't ready to hear that news," said Cocha, in Spanish, though she's since come to see it as reinforcement of the glowing feedback customers have been giving her for years.
"Don't ever change your seasoning," Cocha's been told by loyal clients, she said. "I have a very special seasoning they tried in other places."
Cocha said she would rather keep the exact recipe a secret, though the key lies in a medley of fresh ingredients from garlic, green and red pepper, red onion, cumin and cilantro, and no powdered spices, she said.
She also whips up a special Ecuadorian dipping cilantro-based dipping sauce with red onions, adding extra zing to flavorful pastelitos.
Cocha makes the dough from scratch, stuffs the empanadas each day inside the cart on the corner, and fries up fresh batches throughout the day, she said.
"I've been making them since I was in my country ... since I was very small," Cocha said, who added that she moved to Bushwick from Ecuador in 1991 and has lived there ever since.
She's carried on cooking empanadas all these years simply because she loves it, she said — the precision it requires to nail that perfect flavor and the way it brings people together.
"[It can] unite the family, [and] unite the neighborhood," she said. Her son and daughter help out the empanada stand when they're done with school work she said.
Pedro de la Cruz, 59, a dedicated client who said he'd been eating Cocha's pastelitos as long as she'd been selling them, called the pastries "very flavorful, excellent."
"They're my favorite," de la Cruz said.
General admission tickets to the Vendy Awards are still available and will cost you $100. The event serves as a fundraiser for the Street Vendor Project and runs from noon to 5 p.m. on Sept. 17.