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.