Saturday, October 4, 2008

A welcome new addition to the midtown scene

Restaurant trucks, once a decidedly downtown phenomenon, have apparently garnered enough confidence and respectability to venture uptown into Suit Central, the valley of financial institutions otherwise known as central Park Avenue. Last Monday, the intrepid Paul Frumkin and I gave one of the newcomers a try, though it was a bit of a reunion for me. Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, one of my favorite Chelsea-area haunts, had parked its new truck on 57th Sr., where the (far inferior) second outpost of Rafiqi’s had formerly set up shot.

It was a delight to have Rickshaw’s Thai Chicken dumplings again, and even better to do it for lunch. Six dumplings cost $6, and I know from my patronage of the storefront Rickshaw that a serving wouldn’t be enough. So I also popped for the cold noodle salad, which is definitely in the running for Best Cart (or Truck) Side Dish of the Year.

The food was flavorful, seemingly fresh, and as hot or cold as it needed to be. What’s more, there was virtually no wait. The only downside: $9 for lunch is a relatively big hit for cart fans, and that doesn’t even include a beverage (teas and fruit-based drinks, including one made from watermelon, are a specialty of the non-mobile Rickshaw). It may be only a twice-a-week option.

Rickshaw’s truck has appeared every day this week at 57th St., just east of Park.

Next on my list of restaurant trucks to try: Dessert Truck, one of the city’s most publicized and celebrated mobile offerings.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

A cart that merits a return to posting

I'm reviving CartFood after a seven-month hiatus because sometimes a dining option on wheels just has to be noted. So it was with Halal Food (as opposed to Halal, 100% Halal and the now-near-legendary Halal Man; more on that, hopefully, in a subsequent post). The cart, interchangeable in terms of appearance from the scores of other flat-grill carts that feature halal chicken, is unique in several ways, starting with the distinction of having a reputation. I didn't stumble across it, or pick it because of convenience. Several people were talking about it--indeed, gushing about it with the sort of praise you once heard for newly released records. "Awesome." "Isn't it great?" "I love that place."

A cart with strong word-of-mouth support. This may not have happened since Choo Factory, the mobile cream-puff emporium, rolled into the sunset.

The reason for all the hullabaloo was evident in the ordering process. Most of the halal chicken places offer virtually the same thing--grilled chicken on rice, with a few outlander choices like a falafel plate or a shrimp selection thrown into the mix. This new option focused instead on salads topped with chicken. Indeed, a colleague had noted that outlet uses real feta, not those white blocks of styrofoam you tend to get these days in salads from so-called Greek diners.

Because the cart was so busy the day I tried it, the pressure of ordering got to me. I didn't have time to peruse all the salad options, so I fell back on the old standby, the equivalent of a scoop of vanilla for an ice cream parlor. I ordered the chicken-o-rice platter.

I've probably had that dish 200 times, from places all around the city. Yet this was a head-and-torso standout. It was served with what the grill man described as sauteed vegetables--carrots, celery, onion and a few other inexpensive types, but marinated in something that gave them a wonderful, almost vinegary flavor. They'd been grilled, yet hadn't turned to mush. And each piece retained its distinct taste, so the slice of carrot was not merely an orange version of that piece of celery.

And then there was the chicken. It was diced fairly finely, which was fine by me, given the delicious marinade that had been used for it. It was different from whatever the veggies had been soaked in, and the flavors, though each pronounced, were distinct and complementary.

The capper were the sauces. The standard options at the halal carts are hot sauce, a fiery-red choice, or white sauce, or what you'd get on a falafel. Hardcore fans of course opt for both, yielding a melange that can fall anywhere between ketchup and salad dressing taste-wise, depending on the caliber of the sauces. These sauces were flavorful, distinct, and somehow more "real" tasting. I didn't get the sense that the plastic squeeze bottles had been filled that day from 20-gallon vats of some low-quality, standard-issue sauce.

Now, of course, I have to return and try the cart's signature salads. I'll also have the benefit of input from my trusty cart colleague, Culinary Institute of America grad Paul Frumkin. He had already lunched that day, so he was merely there to get some fresh air. But he noted with considerable enthusiasm that the grill cook was actually cooking the chicken breasts right there. So often what they put on the grill is pre-cooked minced breast or dark meat. Clearly this place uses something far fresher.

The cart is located on the northwest corner of 55th and Park, just west of the Mercedes Benz dealership. Be sure to ogle the Ferraris in the showroom across the street.

Monday, March 3, 2008

A rule never to violate in choosing a cart

Searching for some new cart options today, I spied an old fav in a new spot. Hot Soup, a veritable fixture of 54th and Madison, has apparently relocated to 52nd and Lex. No doubt the news was lost in all the political coverage of recent days.

The twice-a-month lunch choice was apparently uprooted because of construction at its longtime site. Which explains why the burrito wagon next to it had pulled up stakes as well.

But there it was, beckoning to me with such worthy choices as Chicken Chili, Italian Wedding Soup, Vegetarian Split Pea, and Gumbo. Each priced at under $5, slab of bread included.

Yet the proprietor was not to be found. As I was surveying the situation, he dashed back to the cart—violating my Prime Directive in choosing a wheeled source for lunch: Never, ever, ever buy from a vendor who’s just returned from a “break.” A break equals bathroom time, which means conning access from some unsuspecting or sympathetic business with indoor plumbing, like a Barnes & Noble or a Ranch*1. Which means the vendor was dashing in and out, possibly to avoid detection, almost certainly to get back to his cart. And that means hand washing might’ve been a skipped step. The guy wasn’t exactly kneading his hands in a terrycloth towel.

So I doubled back to Indian Food, an old dependable that had also disappeared on Friday. I couldn’t get the story from the two women inside because they were chatting in their native tongue to a non-customer on the sidewalk. Instead, I walked away with a great Non-Vegetarian Platter (curried boneless chicken, sag paneer, rice, a piece of nan) for $5. And fewer worries about safety.

Can't a Martian take a joke?

The last installment of CartFood, I noted that many familiar lunchtime options had mysteriously disappeared. The explanation has yet to arise, but the wagons were parked in their usual places today, casting doubts on my theory that the outlets had been sucked into space ships by hungry travelers from other galaxies. CartFood apologizes to any space aliens who may have been offended by the accusation. Live long and prosper.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Who moved our cart?

My neck’s sore from scanning the skies all day, wondering if it’d be cigar-shaped or the classic saucer format. Clearly something must be up there, sucking up cart after cart. How else do you explain today’s disappearance of the burrito stand, the Indian food trailer and even the smoothies and fresh fruit wagon? Clearly someone is stealing the great carts of midtown.

My trusty brethren in plastic-utensil dining, the able Frumkin, set out in an admitted funk because of today’s big music news. The man has been despondent for years because the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame has refused to induct the Dave Clark Five time after time after time. Finally, the judges came to their senses this year and gave the one-time Beatles rival the nod. The band would’ve been formally installed in 10 days. But its lead singer, Mike Smith, died yesterday from pneumonia. He would never get to bask in the adulation he was due.

Obviously in need of solace, we headed out to the ever-trusty burrito cart on 54th and Madison. It was not to be found. We looked on alternate corners, and even a block north. All in vain.

Ah, said I, let’s hit that Indian cart, one of the under-sung sidewalk choices in our heavily suited stretch of Park Avenue. Gone. Ditto for the fruit-salad cart that parks next to it each day.

In our search for something out of the ordinary, we passed probably a half-dozen halal meat stand, all beckoning us with a whiff of curry and the sizzle of chicken on the flattop grill. But that was our cart stop yesterday. A repeat was out of the question for culinary adventurers of our distinction.

Yet our options were limited by the unexplained disappearance of some old favs. We could only speculate that the proprietors were driven away by some chilly temperatures. Either that, or the city has been cracking down again at the behest of merchants who feel they’re losing business to rivals who pay no real estate taxes.

So we settled for Subway. Write it off to grief over Smith.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Be careful with those cats

Marketing isn’t exactly a core competency of the city’s halal grill carts. My current favorite is called 100% Halal Meat, which doesn’t have Madison Avenue slapping its collective forehead and bemoaning that it didn’t come up with that grabber first.

Clearly theirs is a distribution game: Put a cart between customer and street crossing, and they will come. The stretch of Park Avenue between 53rd and 57th boasts three halal options. Further west, you can’t throw a dead cat without hitting one, though that missile may not be a prudent choice, given the caliber of meat used by some. My luncheon co-adventurer Paul Frumkin and I were hardcore fans of a particular stand until we started puzzling objects in the chopped-up dark-meat chicken. I thought it might be either whiskers or a carapace of some sort, but Frumkin, being a Culinary Institute grad, assured me it was merely bone.

Now our loyalties have switched to 100% Halal, a place that distinguishes itself by giving you a choice of six different rices, from what looks like New Orleans dirty rice, to Mediterranean-style rice and spinach. It also leavens the chopped-up grilled chicken with onions and what looks like (and what we pray actually is) peppers. The gyro meat used in the Mixed Grill Platter is actually juice, unlike the jerky-like matter that’s dished out at our spurned one-time favorite. Yet it’s in the same price range--$5 for a polystyrene-boxed platter that should come with wheels.

We opted to try it after detecting the telltale signs of a winner cart choice: A longer line than anyplace else in the immediate locale, and, more important, a high percentage of construction workers on that line. If they did their own guide to local food sources, Zagat would be rethinking its business model.

So what happens if the place you tried because of its line suddenly loses its following? That very thing happened Thursday, but that’s fodder for another post.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The CartFood Manifesto

Once upon a time, in a New York City not that long ago, one of the most reckless things you could do was hit a Sabrett cart for lunch. The vendor would bang open a metal box filled with strangely colored meat tubes soaking in what looked like chicken soup, if you were lucky, or dishwasher, if your risk quotient was running a little higher that day. He'd spear this rubbery eel that was unlike any hot dog you've ever eaten, slap it on a Wonderbread roll, and then ask for your choice of either onions--actually some sort of watery clay pot-colored sauce with a few scraps of onions thrown in--or sauerkraut. The purpose of both was apparently to mask the taste of the dog itself.

Today, if you work in the city, you'll occasionally spot the tattered blue and yellow umbrellas of those dirty-water-dog emporiums. But they've mostly given way to a new generation of wheeled food outlets, peddling an array that befits a city of New York's diversity. As the cost of opening restaurants has soared, carts have become the point of entry for immigrants looking to pursue their livelihood via the food business. The result is a traffic jam of carts along the sidewalks of any highly trafficked midday location, offering the sort of flavorful and sometimes exotic options that earlier generations could only find in ethnic neighborhoods. The only thing today's NYC carts have in common with the Sabrette carts of yesteryear are relatively low prices.

This blog is devoted to an exploration of that often overlooked component of the New York food scene. Accompanied by my friend and colleague Paul Frumkin, a cookbook author and Culinary Institute of America grad, I plan to hit the options that abound around our offices at 55th and Park. From there, we'll branch out to other areas, with field trips to renowned cart venues like Greenwich Village (awesome dosai near Washington Square; I've yet to try the area's new dessert trucks), Carnegie Hall (Ground Zero for soup carts) and Rockefeller Center (one-time outpost of Daisy May's BBQ, though we suspect the carts have been garaged for good). And someday, if we can get the necessary visas and shots, we may even venture to Ground Zero of the city's cart culture, Jackson Heights, with fare ranging from roast chicken to goat meat to tacos.

But for the near future, we'll likely have our mouths full from just trying the places in our immediate area. Within a few blocks, the hungry pedestrian could try pizza, Indian platters, burritos, soup, smoothies, several varieties of fruit salad, grilled Halal meat from any number of purveyors, sausage from an apparent Dale Carnegie drop-out who nonetheless should have his own CIA class, and enough empanadas to feed us for a month.

We hope you'll alert us to other carts worth trying throughout the city (we've already been tipped off from the staff of Food & Wine of a chicken specialist near there offices), and to comment on carts you favor, or what to try at any given wheeled outlet of note.

In the meantime, a recommendation: Fans of Rafiqi's would be well served to try the Halal court on the northwest corner of 54th and Park. There's usually a line, but it's worth the three or four minutes. Let us know which you like better, the lamb or the chicken.