Street-Meat-Palooza: A 13 Cart Chicken/Lamb Over Rice Showdown
Not all street meat is created equal. It may seem, to the uninitiated, that many chicken and lamb over rice vendors are serving the same food, but the real cart aficionados know the truth. Sure there are the stand out carts that everyone has heard of, but even amongst the no-name carts there are some huge differences. Different rice, different quality of meat, different veggies or salad, bread, no bread, different sauces, and most importantly, different spices. Many of the vendors are from different countries, and usually that’s reflected in the way the food tastes. It’s not until you put 13 plates of it side by side that you realize no two are alike. And that was my dream; to bring together different street meats from all over Midtown to one central location and have a massive taste off (yes, I have weird dreams.)
Last week, in Bryant Park, that dream came true. 20 Midtown Lunch’ers converged, tasted and rated 13 different plates of chicken and lamb over rice, from 13 different carts in Midtown. Each lunch’er was instructed to bring two large orders of chicken and lamb over rice from their favorite cart (one topped with white sauce, one with white sauce and hot sauce.) We got the famous, “the best”, and not so well known carts, put them side by side and let them duke it out in a blind taste test. With separate ratings for chicken, lamb, rice, white sauce, hot sauce, value, and overall taste, we proved conclusively that sometimes the ”hype” is warranted, and sometimes it’s not. And as expected, with all of the judging done blind, a few unknown carts distinguished themselves with some surprisingly good scores.
The results of the First Annual Street-Meat-Palooza, after the jump.
#13. Magdy’s Philly Cheesesteak Cart
This cart is well known for its cheesesteak sandwiches, but their chicken and rice has some fans too. Unfortunately, someone had to come in last, and these guys get the honor. “Bland” was a word used by two different people, although it did get praise for the sauteed onions (which no doubt find their way onto steak and cheese subs.)
#12. Rafiqi’s Delicious Food
Location: Multiple in Midtown
Price: Chicken, $4.75; Lamb, $5; Combo with Vegetables $5.45
With more than one location in Midtown, and numerous around town you’d think this cart empire was doing something right. But blind taste tests don’t lie, and although one person called it their favorite, the scores were pretty low. Raw onion on the plate was popular, but the lamb was well done and crispy- a positive for some, negative for others. It may have also been done in by the “fat yellow rice.”
#11. Biriyani Cart
This cart became famous when they added Chapati rolls to their cart, immediately after Kati Roll moved from the same block to 39th St. I can vouch for the delicious chapati rolls, but their chicken and rice wasn’t good enough to crack the top 10. Their use of basmati rice was popular, and not surprisingly there were some Indian spices detected (possibly cumin?), but overall it didn’t have as strong a flavor as some of the other carts, and some people were not down with their use of cabbage and green peppers.
#10. King Tut
Vegetables seem to be what people remember most about this cart, as broccoli, peas, corn, string beans, and carrots make an appearance. The bright red color caused one person to compare it to tandoori, but others complained that the color didn’t match the flavor, and it was more sweet than spicy. Watery rice didn’t help matters either.
#9. SBS Indian Express
Location:33rd St. btw. 7+8th Avenues
Price: Combo Plate; $5.50
Mediocre scores seemed to place this cart firmly in the center. Nobody loved it, but nobody hated it. Very high marks for the meat.
#8. Carnegie John’s
Carnegie John’s is a Tony Dragonas disciple, although he’s more famous for his burger than for chicken or lamb over rice. A pretty popular cart, this is the perfect street meat for the squeamish. His chicken is cut in large chunks, from full chicken breasts- so out of all the Midtown carts, it seems the most like real chicken. Unfortunately, those large pieces can sometimes end up dry, and there are barely any spices. His white sauce is actually a thick tzatziki sauce (Greek yogurt) and was awarded the highest marks for white sauce on the day, but he lost points for his gyro meat, which were those pre cut oval slabs you get in Greek/American diners, and his rice which was slightly overcooked and watery. Two people called it their favorite, but in the end it wasn’t enough. And with a $7.50 price tag, people didn’t think it was a good value. If you go, stick with the chicken. Two people did call it their favorite, but only one other person put it in their Top 5. (Probably the healthiest of all the street meats.)
#7. Halal Cart (aka Trini Pak)
This is one of the more popular carts in Midtown, so I was slightly surprised that they didn’t score higher. Good scores for the meat, and a lot of complements on the curry flavor, but the low rice scores did them in. Numerous people commented on how spicy it was. One person called it their favorite, and three others put it into their Top 5.
#6. Halal Cart
Location: SE Corner of 40th St. & 7th Ave.
Price: Small One Meat, $4; Large One Meat $5; Large Combo, $5.50
Out of nowhere, this no-name cart breaks the Top 5 with chunks of shredded chicken being the main draw. I didn’t think this cart was that great, but the numbers don’t lie. Two people made it their second favorite cart for the day, and two more put it in their Top 5.
#5. Kwik Meal
Shocker of the day is the fact that the famous Kwik Meal cart was beat out by a few no-name carts. Run by Muhammed Rahman (who famously used to work at the Russian Tea Room) this cart owes a lot of its popularity to the fact that they serve actual lamb, instead of gyro meat. Though, in a blind taste test, more people seem to prefer gyro meat, to the slightly tougher chunks of real lamb meat; and despite the high white sauce scores, Kwik Meal may have been doomed by their price tag. Very low marks for value. Two people ranked it #1.
#4. Halal Food
Location:NE Corner of Park & 50th.
Price: Chicken, Lamb or Combo, $5
Another of the surprises, this cart earned high marks for its interesting spice mixture, and underlying sweetness which probably came from the addition of cinnamon or nutmeg. Decent marks for meat, and a high score for value, combined with the stand out flavor, put this no-name cart into the Top 5.
#3. Adham’s Halal Food
Location: 40th St. & Broadway
Price: Small Combo, $3.50; Large Combo, $4.50
Another surprise score from a less than famous cart, these guys have been toiling away anonymously on this corner for 5+ years. At under $5, it was considered pretty standard flavor wise, but got high marks for value. It’s super hot hot sauce got it some extra points, as did the meat.
#2. XPL Halal Food
The biggest discovery of Street Meat Palooza was this little-known cart with two locations on the East side. The hands down winner of the Best Rice Award, voters not only loved the perfectly cooked basmati rice, but the distinct Indian flavors that made this dish of food stand out in the crowd. 7 people put this cart in their Top 5, with one person making it their #1, and 3 more making it their #2. Out of all these carts, I will be returning to this one first.
Well, it just goes to show that some things are worthy of the hype. With 4 #1 votes, this cart ran away from the competition, winning best lamb, best chicken, hottest hot sauce and best overall score. In other words, the cart with the longest lines late at night, is the cart that came out on top. The high scores should also answer all the questions as to whether the daytime cart(on the SE corner) is as good as the nighttime cart (on the SW Corner). A good balance of spices, combined with a creamy, and delicious white sauce, this cart is also the only one that gave us bread, without asking. Consistently good, and hands down the winner of Street-Meat-Palooza. Related Post: Debunking the Myths of the Most Famous Chicken and Rice Intersection of New York City
Awards Broken Down by Category:
Best Chicken: 53rd & 6th Halal Chicken & Rice
Best Lamb: Tie between 53rd & 6th Halal Chicken & Rice & XPL Halal Food
Best Rice: XPL Halal Food
Best Value: Adham’s Halal Food
Best White Sauce: Carnegie John’s
Best Hot Sauce: 53rd & 6th Halal Chicken & Rice
Special thanks to all the judges, who were comprised of Profiled Midtown Lunch’ers and food bloggers who work in and around Midtown. Thanks to the person who organized all the lunch’ers (you know who you are), plus Danny from Food in Mouth, Blondie and Brownie, Kayoko from Umamimart, Talida from Talida Bakes, and Erin & Hannah from Serious Eats: New York.
Feel free to use this list as a checklist, and put your thoughts in the comments. There are no losers on this list, just different degress of winning (I see the good in all street meat). Just getting picked meant that somebody liked the cart… although admittedly the one thing our scoring didn’t account for was how you feel after eating at each cart. Surprisingly, after trying 13 different plates, I didn’t have any “issues”. I guess two years of hardcore Midtown Lunch’ing will do that to you.