“I’m the only person selling these dumplings on the street,” says Mo Rahmati as he dishes up some of the last of his steaming mantu, labor-intensive Afghan dumplings. He often sells out, and business is only going to get busier. Saturday, at a celebration of street food on Governor’s Island, his Nansense cart won the Vendy Award for the Best Rookie of 2018.
The Vendy Awards are given every year by the Street Vendor Project, a non-profit that provides legal and small-business guidance to vendors and lobbies to get New York City to remove a limit on food vending permits. Rahmati’s win means a lot to the 32-year-old, who was born in Woodside, Queens, into a family of Afghan refugees. He previously worked in retail and as an Uber driver, and was a banker at a Citibank in Chelsea. He started operating Nansense in January and now parks it every day on the southeast corner of 20th Street and Sixth Avenue. There are many Afghan street vendors in New York City, he notes, but most of them operate typical carts selling coffee and bagels. Rahmati wanted to serve Afghani home cooking inspired by his family’s recipes.
In the following conversation, we talk about the challenges of operating a food truck, Rahmati’s plans for his menu, and the surprising origin of his truck itself.
I have wanted to open up a truck since 2011, but I didn’t really start putting a real effort until 2016 because I had another job. The process was a journey for sure. Finding a truck, finding someone to retrofit it with kitchen equipment, obtaining a permit from the Department of Health, etc.
I got the truck first—at a USPS auction. It’s an old mail truck! Then I drove it down to Virginia to be fitted out, because that is too expensive down here. Only then did I start looking for someone with a permit who would agree to become my business partner. I thought it’d be easier than it was—it took some time, but I eventually found someone through a family friend. It’s better to find someone with a permit first who can be your business partner, and then get a truck, but I didn’t know that.
The above mentioned were all difficulties, every step of the way. The key was patience and persistence.
Great. I tried a couple of neighborhoods before I settled on this one, and I love it. First I tried Midtown, and then the Upper East Side, but people in Chelsea are the friendliest, and you get a great mixed crowd of everyone—students, workers, etc. A lot of vegans. In Midtown I’d sell out of meat, and the potato stew and the vegan soup would just sit there. Here those are much more popular.
My regulars are always happy to see me, which is great. I was away for a little while helping my brother open up a Afghani bakery called Kabul Bakery in College Point [Queens]. I grew up in Woodside, where is nearby, and I still live in Woodside with my family. That’s where a lot of the Afghani community in New York lives. There are three or four Afghani restaurants around there, but they serve a different type of food than I do. I decided not to do kebabs because that’s what people think about when they think of this kind of food, and I wanted to do something different—Afghani home cooking.
The most popular item is mantu (beef and onion dumplings) steamed on a bed of garlic yogurt, then topped with a little more garlic yogurt, then topped with a split pea korma, dried mint, and cilantro. The most popular platter is kofta korma, seasoned ground beef and onion patties served on a bed of basmati rice infused with onion and cumin. Like my other curries, it comes with a side of kabuli (carrots and raisins sautéed with a bit of cardamom and sugar) and salata (blanched red onions, with tomatoes and cilantro, lime juice and dried mint and a dash of salt).
I often do sell out of food—if I don’t sell out in the early afternoon, I’ll stay later until I do sell it all. If I have any leftover food, I usually donate it to a local mosque or pass it on to my family. On days I can’t do that I have to throw it away, but I hate doing that. I would rather run out of food than make too much and have to throw it away.
Yes, before I took a break in order to help my family open that bakery, I served a traditional milk pudding called ferni, and a kebab burger on Afghan bread with spiced fries—I can only serve the burger again if I can find someone to help work the grill. You need two people for that dish. I would also like to introduce bolani, which are stuffed flatbreads. One with chives, scallions, and cilantro (it’s vegan), and another with potatoes and cilantro (also vegan)—both with traditional seasoning, of course.
I get up at 4am, and I go to the commissary in Long Island City [Queens]. That’s where the van is parked, and I rent kitchen space there too. A lot of other food trucks are parked there too. I get a lot of prep done there from about 5 to 10. Then I head to my usual space on 20th and 6th. If someone gets there before me, I miss out and I have to look for a different spot, but I usually make it. I usually open the window around 10:30am, and I’m still doing some prep. Then I handle the lunch rush and end by 4 or 5 at the latest. I head back to the commissary, gather ingredients, and repeat the next day. So I don’t have much of a social life, but I love that I’m building my own thing.