STREETCARTS OF DESIRE: NEW YORKS BEST STREET FOOD BRINGS FINE DINING TO THE HOD DOG JUNGLE
It's getting warmer outside and you're getting poorer. This particular confluence makes now the perfect time to check out the city's dizzying selection of street carts. And we're not talking about hot dogs of dubious origin or those stale pretzels that vendors sell to wandering tourists. We're talking about carts that cook up freshly prepared eats in nearly every type of cuisine.
And this year could see a surge in the number of carts out there. Carts offer a chance to be in the street food vendors business without risking the millions it takes to open a high-falutin' Manhattan restaurant. The number of vendor permits that the city issues is finite, but if lawmakers make more available, expect to see an even greater number of lunch options.
For this particular article, we limited the picks to Manhattan below Central Park. There are great carts in every borough (especially Queens), but we had to narrow the search somehow. Now let's eat!
Owner Kim Ima stocks her roving truck, Sugar, with a large selection of cookies ($1), cupcakes ($2), brownies ($2.50) and enough baked goods to give Augustus Gloop diabetes. Nothing experimental here -- unless you count the almonds and cranberries in the rice krispy treat. Just old-fashioned baked goodness.
Daisy May's BBQ USA
* 50th Street between Sixth and Seventh
Get your pulled pork on at this aluminum-sided outpost of Daisy May's BBQ, which serves up all the greatest BBQ hits, from the classic Carolina pulled pork sandwich ($8) to beef brisket ($8) and sweet tea with mint ($4). The sammies are surprisingly mess-free, too, with each element packed into containers for assembly at your office desk. Pork-tastic, yo.
* 46th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues
Not only do they have fish that's safe to eat at this vaguely Korean cart, but it's good. Not Le Bernardin good, but better-than-McDonald's good. A battered and breaded helping of flounder on a pita goes for $4.50, and the budget-conscious can hook a whiting sandwich for $1 less. For better or worse, they're not stingy with the tartar sauce.
The Jamaican Dutchy
* 51st Street at Seventh Avenue
Reggae videos greet patrons at this corner cart where regulars load up on tender, slow-cooked chicken, goat and oxtail in flavorful sauce. Meals ($8 to $12.50 for the small -- which isn't small at all -- and $10 to $14 for large) include rice, red beans, veggies and fried plantain.
* 46th Street at Sixth Avenue
Skills of cook Meru Sikder are evident at this cart, where regulars know to order at the window, then stand back. Chicken tikka masala ($6) features spicy chunks of seasoned chicken coated in an aromatic sauce (hotter than most masalas) and topped with peppers and onion, all served over delicate long-grain yellow rice. Other specialties include its kati roll and a spicy chicken biryani served with egg korma (both $6). Sandwiches are available at the sister cart nearby.
* 54th Street at Fifth Avenue
It's the best of the wurst at this rolling version of Hallo Berlin's 10th Avenue beer hall. Here diners choose from among 10 different German sausages, ranging from the knockfrank ($3) to a smoked cheese bratwurst ($6). Served on a 4-inch crusty roll, it's a hot dog as the Teutonic gods intended: steamed, seared and oozing flavor.
* 55th Street between Madison and Park avenues
The whims of chef Johnpaul Perrone determine the revolving menu at this truck serving Italian specialties, but Perrone is best known for his arancini di riso, softball-size mounds of steamed white rice filled spinach, cheese or ground meat ($4 to $5 each). The balls are lightly fried and topped with a tasty Italian red sauce. Artichoke pie ($3 per slice) and pizza rustica ($4.50 per slice) are other top sellers, when available.
Indian Food Cart
* Park Avenue at 53rd Street
Eating healthy and eating vegetarian aren't necessarily synonymous. Still, this place's $4.99 herbivorous dishes like cabbage with tarka daal, spinach channa masala and Nurathan Qurna with kidney beans are serviceable and certainly less soggy than what's found at neighboring carnivore carts.
* Park Avenue at 46th Street
It's a trip around the world via street cart here, where menu options include Italian sausage, Philly cheesesteak and the rather ambitious $5 tandoori chicken. The verdict: tenderized and seasoned meat over rice is a welcome departure from the usual grill-it-and-fill-it approach used by most chicken-and-rice merchants
* 25th Street at Madison Avenue
The line for Danny Meyer's Shake Shack too much? Walk a block to his Tabla cart. The al fresco extension of his upscale Indian restaurant dishes out chicken tikka and roti ($8), sparkling limeade with pomegranate ($4) and a salad of green apple, mango, puffed rice and chutney ($6). Opens Wednesday.
* Wooster Street at Spring Street; Broadway and Broome Street
Dave Vendley and his brothers launched their gourmet taco venture to capture the cuisine of their hometown, Calexico, Calif. The eats have Mexican influences, but also "a little bit of American BBQ flavor," Vendley says. Tender grilled steak ($4) gets stuffed into corn tortillas and topped with onions, cabbage and "avocado crema."
Wafels & Dinges
* Location changes daily;
The only decision to waffle over in front of this big yellow truck is whether you're going to cover your $5 dessert in dulce de leche, chocolate fudge, fresh fruit or all of the above. These Belgian waffles also make for a good breakfast, and there's even a lunch option for those who aren't counting calories or cardiac arrests -- Smokin' Joe's Pulled Pork BBQ Wafel at $8.50.
* Washington Square Park South at Sullivan Street
While most every other cart deals in piles of sizzling meat, Thiru Kumar's cart is all vegetarian. No dairy, no animal products of any kind. He cooks thin crepes to order and stuffs them with spicy potatoes and a medley of fresh peppers, lettuce and carrots ($6). The result is slightly overrated -- especially when the transcendent Kati Roll Company is just up the street -- but points given for novelty.
* Canal Street at Mulberry Street
These fluffy little balls are the dessert equivalent of black-tar heroin. They come 15 to a bag for $1 and are lighter and less greasy than doughnuts. The cook makes them to order, pouring batter from a tea kettle. Your first 15 will be gone in a flash.
* Centre Street between Canal and Walker streets
Meat on a stick is so played. Vegetarians can grab a skewer of three pieces of fried tofu, coated in barbecue sauce and grilled. Great snack. Militant vegans may not appreciate how their soy mingles with flesh kebobs, but what do you expect for one measly dollar?
* Front Street at Pine Street
Caribbean ex-pats, bankers and tourists alike line up for this oasis. The house special is a tasty blackened jerk chicken served over rice and peas for $5. For an extra $2, the famished can choose two sides from a menu of fried plantains, candied yams, string beans, mac and cheese, and callaloo -- a leafy dish popular in Trinidad and Tobago.
Rickshaw Dumpling Bar Truck
* Location changes daily; RickshawDumplings.com
This offshoot of chef Anita Lo's Chelsea fast-food joint steams up varieties of dumplings each day, such as pork-chive and vegetarian edamame. They may not be the city's top dumplings or, at $6 for six, the cheapest, but if the truck is outside your office, they are the most convenient.
Smackdown in Midtown
Chicken and rice is to street carts what Led Zeppelin is to classic-rock stations -- ubiquitous nearly to the point of nausea. But are all chicken with rices created equal? We dined at some of the city's more storied purveyors of the dish to find out.
Tony "The Dragon" Dragonas
* 62nd Street at Madison Avenue
The Dragon has been working this corner for some 25 years, so he must be doing something right. For his famous chicken and rice ($6), he uses marinated chicken breast, which is grilled over charcoal, then finished on the flat top. Dragonas slices it into hefty hunks and tosses it on top of a bed of yellow rice with creamy tzatziki on the side. The bird is so juicy and well-spiced, calling it "street meat" seems plain unfair.
* 48th Street at Park Avenue; Wall Street at Pearl Street
The name (XPL stands for X-Press Power Lunch) sounds like a place Gordon Gekko would eat while wearing a power suit in the 1980s, but you don't have to be Gekko to afford a fill-up here. The truck's chicken and rice ($5) has a truly exotic flavor -- are those Moroccan spices? -- and is served finely chopped over long-grain basmati rice. The flavor's amazing, but the meat could be leaner. And that shredded iceberg "salad" on the side? Just plain filler.
* 56th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues
The proprietor learned at the end of Tony Dragonas' spatula, and this cart shares many similarities to the famous one on 62nd Street. Whole, marinated chicken breast: check. Grilled then sliced: check. Served over yellow rice with tzatziki: check. $6 price tag: check. And while extremely similar, the edge still goes to the teacher.
53rd and 6th
* 53rd Street at Sixth Avenue
The line for this chicken-and-lamb cart stretches down the block after 7 p.m., and anyone who's seen it has to wonder what's so great on its grill, as opposed to the many similar-looking carts on the same block. We'll try to explain. The original chicken-and-rice cart is called 53rd and 6th, and it opens around 7p.m. Owner Mohamed Abouelenein claims he was the first to serve halal meat on the street, and fans love the cart's secret white sauce, even launching a Web site singing its praises.
Abouelenein's spot on the southwest corner is occupied by a different, unaffiliated vendor during the day (whose staff curiously wears yellow shirts, just like Abouelenein's crew). However, if you want the coveted evening meal at lunchtime, cross Sixth Avenue to the southeast side, where the 53rd and 6th staff dish during the day. There's rarely a line, seemingly proving that some New Yorkers only like something if other New Yorkers do.