Can great food come from a street cart?
One New Yorker eats his way to the answer.
New York City’s street-cart food vendors are typically viewed with a combination of fear and awe by out-of-towners. While their do-more-with-less-space ethos and their ubiquity earn admiring nods, their vittles … don’t.
The vendors commonly, and unfairly, are stereotyped as mere purveyors of limp pretzels and bottles of water priced to appall at $6. Their brusque, harried demeanor unnerves patrons used to being addressed as “sir” or “ma’am.” Reactions to their venerably briny frankfurters range from “this is soggy and lukewarm” to “what I just ate may or may not have been processed kangaroo bits.”
But those subscribing to such antiquated notions would do well to think outside the hot-dog bun. For hard-core New Yorkers and knowledgeable visitors alike, few meals appeal as reliably to both the gullet and the wallet as those meted out by elite street-cart vendors.
Yep, you read that right: elite.
The quantum leap from Ralph Kramdenesque pedigree to elite status began in 2005, when the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project decided to confront the vendors’ Rodney Dangerfield problem -- you know, no respect. The nonprofit, unionlike organization, which supports the 10,000-plus vendors hawking everything from crafts to kebabs on the streets of New York City, was brainstorming ideas for a fund-raiser. When somebody mentioned that he’d seen an awards extravaganza on television the night before, it was a light-bulb moment. Thus were born the Vendy Awards, which celebrate the area’s finest street-cart cuisine.
With nominations coming from the general public, the first ceremony was held in the garage where many of the vendors stored their carts at night. The 2007 edition, which raised $20,000 in $60-perhead increments, upgraded the location to Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. Although the original intent was simply to showcase the best cart cuisine in the city, the finalists do compete in an Iron Chef-style cook-off for the right to take home the Silver Vendy Cup.
“I think we touched a nerve,” says Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendor Project. “They’re taking it seriously, the competitive aspect of it -- which sort of wasn’t the intention.”
LAST YEAR’S FINALISTS were notable more for their culinary skills than for their geographic diversity, as four of the five are based in Manhattan. Still, these aren’t obscure operations patronized solely by neighborhood denizens. Even on chilly, drizzly March afternoons, the lines for these top vendors slink halfway down the block. Two of the finalists (Veronica’s Kitchen and Super Tacos) offer delivery; Veronica’s Kitchen even accepts catering gigs.
After speaking with Basinski and hearing the raves -- well, I got hungry. So I visited four of the five (the fifth vendor, vegan magician and 2007 champ Thiru “Dosa Man” Kumar of NY Dosas, was absent from his Washington Square South perch during each of my three attempts to visit). My verdict? I’ve been missing out on some serious eatin’ during my 12 years in town.
Early-bird diners will likely miss the six-strong Super Tacos crew, which doesn’t set up shop in Manhattan’s Upper West Side until six p.m. on weeknights and noon on weekends. Their boxy silver vehicle suggests a tricked-out, retrofitted ice cream truck -- that is, until you notice the dark-haired gal painted on its side. It boasts a plastic enclosure on the other side, roughly 15 feet long and four feet wide, just large enough to shield six diners during the winter months.
One of Manhattan’s darkest secrets is its nigh-embarrassing deficiency of savory tacos. You can find them in plenty of neighborhoods. But if you’re looking for good ones, Super Tacos may be the city’s best bet, even if a handful of its offerings -- the chivo (goat) and suadero (strip beef with pepper and onions) tacos, in particular -- call for a dousing of the green and red sauces found on the thin metal counter. Stick with the pork, especially the al pastor (roast pork).
The chorizo (sausage) and carnitas de cerdo (little pieces of pork) sandwiches require no such saucin’ up. Better still are the daily specials such as Saturday’s caldo de pollo (chicken spicy soup) and Wednesday’s chileajo (spicy sauce with pork). The former’s spices will prompt your nose to drip a bit; the latter’s will cause a full-scale sinus meltdown, leaving you feeling as if your nasal levee has failed. This is a good thing, by the way. Wash them down with a sugary atole or a cinnamon-tinged agua de horchata.
The glory of Super Tacos is that you can purchase practically an entire week’s worth of food for around 18 bucks. Affordability is also a characteristic of Veronica’s Kitchen, located downtown in the Financial District. While many of that neighborhood’s eateries gouge consumers as badly as the Central Park vendors do -- shame on you, you $4-for-a-Snapple profiteers -- Veronica’s serves up a borderline intimidating pile of eats for $5 to $6.
For example, take my orders of the jerk chicken and stew chicken over a bed of rice and beans and accessorized with plantains. By the time Veronica Julien, owner of Veronica’s Kitchen, finished loading the Styrofoam container, it weighed around four pounds -- no exaggeration. Her side dishes, especially the fresh mixed vegetables and awesomely gooey macaroni and cheese, are the perfect complements.
Alas, if you take nothing else away from this story, let it be this: Do not order the curry goat unless you are stalwart of stomach. Like everything else Julien serves, that dish tastes delightful on the way down. The problem, at least for those without alloy-lined digestive tracts, is that its mix of spices can irritate. I woke up the next morning feeling as if my small and large intestines were attempting to escape my torso.
I hate to even bring that up, given Julien’s almost superhuman graciousness. Upon handing you your order -- right after she meticulously wipes off the sauce overflow with a paper towel -- she offers a smile and a warm “Bye, dear.” Even her napkins and plastic utensils are presented with care, wrapped lovingly by hand and secured with a small rubber band.
The cherubic Farez “Freddy” Zeideia, the self-anointed King of Falafal and Shawarma, approaches the job a little differently, alternately joking and jousting with the customers who line up on his block in Astoria, Queens. To wit: A cabbie who idles up on a bright April afternoon leaves his car unattended on a nearby corner and approaches the cart. After quickly taking his order, Freddy shoos him off: “Watch the car, watch the car. You get a $115 ticket, I’m not going to be the one crying.”
Zeideia cemented his place as a local institution during the blackout of 2003, when his cart and its trusty generator basically fed an entire neighborhood. The truth is, there’s a good chance they would’ve patronized the King of Falafal and Shawarma even if they’d had other options. The enormous beef and chicken kebabs are as juicy and well flavored as anything you’ll find in the five boroughs, and the famous falafel has just the right consistency. It’s hard to do a better job describing the essence of the King Mean Platter than Zeideia himself does on the menu placards bound to an adjacent fence: “So are you really hungry today so let the big man feed you with his special all in one plate over Salad and rice if u want yahhh baby who want it Talk 2 me.” I’ll say this, though: When Zeideia offers you the choice of hot sauce or mild hot sauce, opt for the latter.
Little of what Kwik Meal’s Muhammed Rahman offers at his cart has quite as much bite, but he makes up in flavor what he lacks in mouth-searing spice. Given the cart’s location -- Midtown Manhattan, only blocks away from both Times Square and Rockefeller Center – there is no excuse for missing his lamb pita, which may well be one of the most addictive bread-enclosed concoctions on this or any other planet. Bonus points go to the pitas themselves, which are warm, lightly charred, and wonderfully chewy.
Rahman’s food-cart offerings may be the only ones that would be equally at home on fine china or in a take-out container. Take the lamb polaw rice plate, for example. It features chunks of lamb, seasoned with what tastes like ginger and papaya to my uninformed palate, spread over a bed of rice and accompanied by a spicy yogurt-ish sauce. It feels almost sacrilegious to greedily scoop it from the aforementioned container, really. Rahman’s expertise on and around the grill should come as no surprise -- he reportedly honed his craft at the Russian Tea Room.
To sum up, then: Don’t fear the street-cart vendor. Sure, you might miss some of the amenities usually associated with fine dining in New York City. You won’t, for instance, get dessert, linen napkins, or a receipt (hear that, accounting department?). But you’ll get a dining experience considerably more authentic and memorable than one in Times Square. And isn’t that what a trip to the big town is all about?