Move over Jamie Oliver and Wolfgang Puck, for here comes New York’s elite street food cart vendors to give the celebrity chefs a run for their money.
Who says the finest food is only served à la carte? In New York City, some of the best foods are served from the cart.
Think of Manhattan and the image of the fast-paced Wall St. and bustling Fifth Ave. sure comes to mind. With the frenzied hustle-and-bustle of city life, a typical lunch hour scenario involves hurried suits and worn-out tourists scurrying to the streets in search of a quick chow that appeals to both their bellies and their pockets. Long queues are not an option, hence, the popularity of street food carts and hotdog vendors that line the streets of Manhattan.
The search for a great quick meal means serious business to both hardcore New Yorkers and busy travelers that the Vendy Awards – the Oscars of street food carts – was born. With nominations from the public, the award is given to the crème de la crème of the street food cart chefs who compete in a cook-off, Iron Chef style.
It was one summer when some friends and I sampled some of New York’s best street-cart cuisines. Taking our cue from the Vendy Awards, we headed to five Vendy nominees. Three are located in Manhattan, so we checked out their stalls in between visiting the usual tourist spots and watching some awesome, as well as run-of-the-mill, Broadway shows.
A trip to the trendy SoHo district meant a visit to Vendy Award winner Calexico Carne Asada, on Wooster & Prince Streets. This gourmet Californian-Mexican street food cart was started by the Vendley brothers from South California in 2006. Specialties include the classic Mexican tacos, burritos and quesadillas, California-style. Servings are huge, but it is not a problem, as the tenderness of the meat and the richness of the sauces will make you want to scream ‘holy guacamole!’
After climbing the enthralling Top of the Rock – the moniker for the Rockefeller Center’s rooftop, and visiting the historic St. Patrick’s Cathedral right across, we headed to Kwik Meal on the corner of 45th Street & Sixth Avenue, in midtown Manhattan. The lunch hour crowd was out in full force, but the long queue was worth it, as the succulent lamb on rice and juicy falafels did not disappoint. The pita bread alone made it worth the wait, as it was the ‘pillowy’ kind and not the stale, dry type. Chef Mohammed Rahman perfected his skills in four cities on two continents, first as an assistant at his father’s fast food joint in Dhaka, Bangladesh, then as a restaurant owner in Montreal and sous chef in Toronto, both in Canada, before heading to the US to become Kwik Meal’s falafel master.
It was after watching the über-funny Legally Blonde, the Musical, on Broadway that we walked over to nearby Biryani Cart on 46th Street & Sixth Avenue, also in the theatre district. Chef Meru Sikder’s ‘fragrant-ful’ roti rolls and chicken biryanis seem to be really popular with theater-goers, as most headed to this halal eatery after the shows. Being a biryani fanatic, I tremendously enjoyed this joint that I called it the ‘street cart named desire’. Apparently, a lot of people did so too, since Biryani Cart bagged the Vendy’s People Choice Award for 2008. The $5 chicken biryani meal was so invigorating that we ended up watching another show – but an unforgettable one whose title I already forgot.
Then it was time to head to the other boroughs of New York City. After crossing the popular Brooklyn Bridge, it was time for me to have pupusas for the first time at Soler Dominican on Brooklyn’s Clinton & Bay Streets. A pupusa is a thick, hand-made corn tortilla stuffed with cheese and/or fried pork rind, squash, and beans. With my limited Español, I told the Spanish-speaking Chef Rafael Soler that his grilled-to-order pupusas are muy bueno and mucho gusto. The cart truly offers all things Latin, with a combination of great food and salsa music, but only on the weekends.
I also have a Bronx tale to tell in the name of Fauzia’s Delights, 161st Street & Sheridan Avenue. Chef Fauzia Abdur-Rahman draws a loyal, hungry following in this hometown of Jennifer Lopez. But if Jenny from the block is the star in Hollywood, Fauzia is the queen around this ‘hood. “She knows everyone in the neighborhood and takes care of them like family,” said one patron waiting in line that went halfway around the block. Almost everyone ordered the same thing, which happened to be the cart’s specialty. “The jerk chicken is nothing like you’ve ever tasted and I do a pretty mean rice and beans,” the chef explained.
So start spreading the news – you would want to be a part of this experience – only in New York, New York!
All rights reserved (Jennifer Ellson)
- NY Food Truck Lunch: Zach’s Combo From Biryani Cart (newyork.cbslocal.com)
- Vancouver’s food cart program: A taste of what’s to come in 2012 (blogs.vancouversun.com)