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.