Has Street Meat Student (Carnegie John) Surpassed Teacher (Tony Dragonas)?
Believe or not I had actually never eaten at the super famous Tony “The Dragon” Dragonas cart on Madison & 62nd until last week. I am very familiar with his disciple, Carnegie John (on 56th and 7th), but have never made it up to see the man himself. I know it’s just a few blocks out of bounds, but there’s something about the UES that repels me- and if I do find myself up anywhere near that area, I usually eat at the original El Rey del Sabor Cart (on 60th and 3rd).
Anyway, a doctor’s appt. brought me right past the Dragon’s popular cart last week during lunch, and again those words popped into my head (like they have so many times before when faced with something delicious)… “how could I not?”
Like many carts in Midtown, this one has nothing that would indicate this is the famous Dragonas cart- but the big puffs of smoke, and the long line (even at 11:45 a.m.) were a dead giveaway. The mas was there, and working the flat top like a pro (with the two workers flanking him just trying to keep up.) It was actually a year ago this month that the city threatened to take away his vending liscense, but those issues have thankfully been solved (thanks in no small part to the Street Vendor Project.)
I got up to the front of the line, and went with the chicken and shish kebab combo, white sauce and hot sauce, with rice and salad (dressing on the salad). Not surprisingly, the similarities between this plate and Carnegie John’s plate are striking. Clearly The Dragon taught him well… the chicken was full white meat chicken breasts, cut in big slices, and nicely charred from the flat top (that also cooked the rest of the meat.) The shish kebab was charred and flavorful as well, which is probably due in no small part to the cooked sausages they cut in half and leave on top of the kebabs.
This is actually the magical trick of both Carnegie John and Tony Dragonas… cook everything on the same flat top, and all the flavors get mixed up. Your burger gets that extra bit of flavor from the street meat, the chicken getting some flavor from the beef. It’s kind of a picky eaters nightmare… if you eat chicken but not beef, or beef but not pork- you might want to stay away from this cart. It all gets cooked together.
Since Carnegie John cooked under the Dragon for years before striking out on his own, it’s no surprise that their two plates of food are almost indistinguishable from each other. The meat thing above is part of it, and they both use that same Greek style yogurt based sauce (with dill), rather than the mayo based concoction you get at most street meat vendors in Midtown. But eating my first plate from Tony Dragonas’ cart, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that maybe Carnegie John’s is better. Don’t get me wrong… it was a good plate of street meat- I just didn’t have that same “man, this is really good” feeling I get whenever I eat at Carnegie John’s. The kebab was a little tough, the rice a little watery, and some of the pieces of chicken were not the best. Of course, I usually go into eating at Carnegie John’s thinking it probably won’t be as good as I remembered it being from the last night. Maybe the Dragon had an off day? Did I order the wrong thing? Maybe my expectations for eating at this legendary cart were too high?
Truthfully, the food being served from the two carts is so similar maybe it’s not even worth mentioning… but could it be possible? Could student have surpassed the teacher? Lines at the Dragonas cart say no. What do you say?
Tony “The Dragon” Dragonas Cart, SW Corner of 62nd and Madison