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.