State of the Cart – Halal Food Focus
With the hot dog having long ago left the dirty-water cart to be locally sourced and covered in kimchi, Halal Carts has become our street food staple. The carts themselves are almost interchangeable, with most using the same stock photo images, and the same consistently priced menus, consisting of chicken or lamb or falafel, served on pita or over rice. I’ve eaten so much of this stuff from so many carts that it’s all become one spicy blur. But since the only things in New York more ubiquitous than Halal Carts are opinions, I thought I’d see if the hive-mind could help me make any distinction.
According to Yelp (and every ‘best of’ list I could find) “The Halal Guys“ are the cart to beat. They’re not just a cart anymore, but a brand. Their carts (plural) on the corner of 53rd and 6th (not to be confused with their cart on 53rd and 7th, or their brick and mortar restaurant on 14 and 2nd, or the one in Chicago) are identifiable by the workers wearing bright yellow shirts and the long lines. I was told a probably apocryphal story about a cab driver who cut a ride short, kicking a passenger out, because he saw no line.
I ordered chicken and falafel over rice (which became my go-to order for the sake or fair comparison). The wait was nine minutes and fifty two seconds from stepping on the line to being handed the bag of grub. I placed the order with one guy, who yelled it up the line to another, who stood next to the guy who did the cooking, who then passed it to someone else, and by the time I got to the cart itself, my food was ready. They didn’t ask if I wanted white or hot sauce but instead gave me branded packets. I found this off putting. But, whatever . . . I don’t live in New York because I want warm human interaction. The food itself is the issue and it was . . . fine. Not great (as yelpers seem to think), not terrible (though the falafel was a bit cold), but fine. I have memories of loving the Halal guys. I remember standing on the line and feeling rewarded. But I also remember thinking “Return of the Jedi” was awesome, so what does that tell you? Now, standing on the line just feels like a thing tourists do because they heard it’s a thing they’re supposed to do. Is this a story about the dangers of mass-production? Maybe. But it might also be about group-think and the power of marketing. Maybe the wisdom of the crowd is overstated and the best Halal cart should be chosen not by its ability to appeal to the great unwashed but by the reasoned judgment of a privileged elite. Like an election.
The Vendy Awards are, well, awards, which are given to food trucks. Halal carts compete against vendors serving dosas, tacos, artisanal ice cream sandwiches, waffles, badger noses or whatever the hell else people eat. The big prize is the Vendy Cup and in 2006 it went to a Halal Cart called Sammy’s, which now sits on the NE corner of 6th avenue and 4th street, with a modest sign commemorating the accomplishment. When I went to Sammy’s there was no line, and I chatted pleasantly with the guys as they made my food. Much friendlier and less efficient than their neighbors 49 blocks north. The food itself was . . . also good. It had the freshest and tastiest chicken of any of the carts I visited. I was given a choice between brown or jasmine rice, which I appreciated, though once it’s slathered with white and hot sauce, there’s no way to tell the difference. The distinguishing thing about Sammy’s was the hot sauce, which had a sharpness that I loved.
But I don’t know those Vendy judges any more than I know Alex P. from Los Angeles, a Yelp user who gave the Halal Guys a rave. I wanted a more personal opinion, from someone I trust. The subject of halal carts came up one afternoon when I was talking to a friend and he swore by Famous Halal (which I’d never heard of, ironically). It lives on the North-West corner of 45th street and 10th avenue, across from a gas station and right by a garage that specializes in fixing taxis. Maybe it was the fumes from the pumps but the falafel was easily the best: crispy, hot, soft inside. The rice and chicken were a little bland, but tasted surprisingly fresh.
My personal favorite, though, was a fourth place, which didn’t have a name. It was down by NYU, on Greene and W. 4th, and I didn’t eat there for the purpose of writing this, but instead just found myself hungry and broke. NYU had started for the fall so the whole area smelled of beer. I got my stuff and sat in Washington Square Park. The food was charred. It was actually crispy, like it had been left on the grill too long or the grill had been too hot. Everything was kinda cut up and mashed together and between that and the charring, you couldn’t tell the chicken from the falafel from the rice. The red and white sauces almost masked how dry the rice was. And the best part? As I was eating, I found a french fry in there along with everything else. An extra bonus. Like the cart itself, a surprise treat.