Street Meat Palooza 2: Our New York City Chicken/Lamb Over Rice Showdown Crowns A New Champion
One year ago this month 20 Midtown Lunch’ers converged in Bryant Park to taste 13 plates of street meat and rate them in an event that became known as Street Meat Palooza. The Famous Halal Cart on 53rd & 6th was crowned the winner, and we vowed to return one year later to give another set of carts a chance at unseating the champ. Last week a new group of lunchers once again converged in Bryant Park to blind taste test and rate 15 different street meat carts, many of them nominated by you. Food was consumed, scores were given, and a new winner has been crowned. Ladies and gentleman, Midtown Lunch’ers, and street food enthusiasts from around the world, I’m excited to give you STREET MEAT PALOOZA 2.
Some of you may be asking, “What exactly is street meat?” Well, for the purposes of this contest it is an order of chicken and lamb, served over rice, with “white sauce” and hot sauce. In Midtown it is often referred to as “Halal Food” (the Muslim equivalent of Kosher), but in this case the method of preparation (or its degree of holiness) is not important. As long as you serve something called chicken and lamb over rice (with white sauce and hot sauce) it could be Palooza’d. 7 carts from last year were granted automatic entry, while the other 8 were culled from your nominations. Carts received separate scores for chicken, lamb, rice, white sauce, hot sauce, and value, plus received an overall score (the most important.) Every judge was also asked to choose a top 5 at the very end.
Keep in mind there are no losers in Street Meat Palooza, just different degrees of winning (I see the good in all street meat). Just getting picked to participate meant that somebody likes the cart, and every single entry showed up in at least one judge’s top 5. In other words, this isn’t a contest as much as a celebration- and just because a new champion has been crowned doesn’t meat that last year’s winner is no longer great. It just means that on any given day, any number of amazing Midtown street food vendors might be putting out “The Best” plate of street meat.
Here are the results…
#15. Halal Food
Somebody has to come in last place- it’s just surprising that it would be a cart that came in 4th place last year! A number of judges complained about the chicken from this cart, saying it tasted “wrong” and had a “sweet aftertaste” (in a bad way.) Of course there’s no accounting for taste… one judge put it in their top 5, and praised the “gamey” flavor.
#14. Untitled Halal Cart (on 53rd & 3rd)
After the original Street Meat Palooza, a number of commenters came forward asking why their favorite cart wasn’t included and this one came up a number of times. I promised that it would be included in Street Meat Palooza 2… so here it is. The “pilaf-like” rice got a few good scores, but most judges complained about its “mushy” texture. Overall most thought it was pretty generic.
#13. Biryani Cart (Sandwich Land)
Sadly a year didn’t make any difference for the Biryani Cart, which admittedly is more known for their chicken tikka masala, biryani, and kati rolls. In fact, they don’t even serve regular chicken and lamb over rice anymore from the main cart… it has been relegated to the newer “Sandwich Land” cart parked directly next to the original cart. Nobody had anything bad to say about the food, but nobody had anything great to say either. It just seemed to languish in the middle on all the judges’ scorecards- and after two years of not being able to crack the top 10, I think we can give up on the Biryani Cart’s chicken and lamb over rice. Want their best version of chicken over rice? Order the chicken tikka masala instead. It’s out of control good, and is more like a Bangladeshi version of halal chicken over rice, than the cream sauce covered dish served at most Indian restaurants. Check out all the Midtown Lunch posts about the Biryani Cart.
#12. Mr. Khan’s Best Halal Food
Location: NE Corner of 45th & 6th
Price: Chicken or Lamb or Combo over rice, $5.50 for a large, $4 for a small; On a pita, $4
Last Year’s Rank: NA
Special Award: The “Cardboard Won’t Stop ML’ers from Eating This Food” Award
This cart is a testament to how hardcore our panel of Midtown Lunchers are! (Especially the ones that would volunteer to judge 15 plates of street meat.) A few minutes into the Palooza, one of the judges found a rubbery piece of matter that was neither chicken, lamb, or rice (after much debate we were pretty sure it was cardboard.) Simultaneously another judge complained that this entry had a “weird chemical flavor” (not a surprise). Rather than automatically disqualifying the entry (after all, street meat is partially about mystery), the discovery was announced to the entire crew of Midtown Lunch’ers so that people could avoid eating it if they wanted. Not only did people continue to eat it, some gave it high scores! Enough to pull it out of the basement, and land it at #12. The ones who liked it seem to praise the moistness of the meat, and its ketchup-like flavor. Go figure!
#11. Carnegie John’s
Location: NE Corner of 56th & 7th
Price: Chicken or Lamb over rice, $6; Combo over rice, $7.50; On a pita, $4.50
Last Year’s Rank: 8th
Special Award: The “Best Tzatziki Sauce” Award
Carnegie John’s came in 8th last year, and I had planned on leaving them out of SMP 2- but it got a ton of nominations, hence their second chance. Once again they got incredibly high marks for their large chunks of chicken (John grills an entire chicken breast, before slicing it) and their thick, yogurt based tzatziki sauce. As a disciple of the Tony Dragonas Cart (on Madison & 62nd) there is no question it’s a good plate of street meat, but once again their horrible pre-cut circular gyro meat, and waterlogged rice did them in. Recommended for those who like to know that their chicken is real white meat chicken breasts (just avoid the “lamb”.) Check out all the Midtown Lunch posts about Carnegie John’s.
#10. 100% Halal & Healthy Food
This cart is more known for their awesome greek salad with grilled chicken, and their sandwiches on pita, than their plates of street meat. But if you like vegetables, this is the cart for you. The giant chunks of zucchini, carrots, and peppers, helped the plate of food stand out among the other entries, but the “really dry chicken” and “mild hot sauce” made for a less flavorful experience than some of the other plates. Good enough to crack the top 10 though! Check out all the Midtown Lunch posts about the 100% Halal & Healthy cart.
#9. Trini Paki Boys
Everything you ever wanted to know about this already popular cart can be found in this post, but last year they surprised everybody by not breaking the top 5. Many blamed it on not getting the white basmati rice (last year, the person who picked up the food chose yellow rice), so this year we gave them automatic entry and made sure to order correctly. Sadly it didn’t make a difference. The Trinidadian style pepper sauce gives this plate of street meat an incredibly unique “island” flavor, and clearly it’s not for everybody. The judges who liked it, loved it… but the judges who didn’t, really didn’t. So it ended up only just cracking the top 10. Check out all the Midtown Lunch posts about the Trini Paki Boys cart.
#8. Royal Halal
6th Avenue and Park Ave. are well represented in Street Meat Palooza, but I wanted to spread the love to those lunchers working in the southern reaches of Midtown. This cart came recommended by Profiled Midtown Lunch’er Jason from the blog Me So Hungry, and after seeing the unique brownish red hot sauce I could understand why. It was really different, with a slight sweetness that I was really into. Some of the judges agreed with me, but not enough to place it higher than 8th. Either way, if you work near this cart I would definitely recommend checking it out for the hot sauce alone.
#7. Fresh Food Halal Food (FKA “Adham’s”)
Location: NE Corner of 40th & Broadway
Price: Chicken or Lamb or Combo over rice, $5
Last Year’s Rank: 3rd
This cart got automatic entry into SMP 2 after coming in 3rd place last year, although it looks like it’s not the same cart anymore. Either way, their food was still good enough to make it into the top half of the entries thanks to their inclusion of veggies- most notably broccoli, carrots, and green peppers.
#6. Halal Cart (aka the “Imposter Cart”)
After all the coverage the “Imposter Cart” (on the SW corner of 53rd & 6th) has gotten this year, how could we not give them a chance to go head to head in a blind taste test with the “Famous Halal Guys” cart they try so hard to impersonate. Of course, if you ran a cart across the street from last year’s Street Meat Palooza winner, you’d probably do the same thing! They did surprisingly well, not just holding their own against the Famous Halal Guys- but besting them on a number of scorecards. They’ve switched their packaging from rectangle to circle, so to the untrained eye their plate of food now looks identical to the Famous Halal Guys cart- and some people even mistook them for the famous cart in the comment section. It wasn’t enough to beat out last year’s winner in the standings though (their weaker hot sauce, and inferior rice were the giveaways), but they still came close to cracking the top 5. Maybe those long lines aren’t a mistake…
#5. Express Power Lunch (XPL) Halal Food
Last year’s big surprise 2nd place finisher couldn’t quite pull off a repeat this year. I thought they would have a chance at winning the whole thing with their amazing rice, and unique blend of sweet and savory Indian spices- but it wasn’t meant to be. XPL suffered the same fate as the Trini Paki Boys, as those who were turned off the by the unique and “interesting” flavor counteracted those huge fans that scored the food really high. I guess you could say it’s a love it or hate it kind of situation. (I say love!) Other locations: 3rd Ave. & 48th; Broadway btw. 53+54th. Check out all the Midtown Lunch posts about XPL.
#4. The Steak Truck
In last year’s Street Meat Palooza everyone was really excited to “discover” XPL, a cart that came out of complete obscurity to take 2nd place. This year, I think that honor might have to go to the Steak Truck. Known more for their cheap steak and cheese subs, and overcooked hamburgers, I’ve never really thought of the Steak Truck as a place for chicken and lamb over rice. Not anymore! Their secret weapon took everybody by surprise, catapulting them into the top 5: waffle fries. That’s right. The Steak Truck’s plate of chicken and lamb over rice also had waffle fries (and a few tiny falafel balls snuck in for good measure.) The person who picked up the food didn’t ask for them, and didn’t know they were an option. Boom. They were just there. And the crowd goes wild. Overall the Steak Truck’s entry didn’t have the best meat, or the best rice, and the waffle fries didn’t even stand up so well covered in all that sauce… but everyone was really glad they were in there, and the nice peppery flavor of the dish was enough to put them onto everybody’s street meat radar. Check out all the Midtown Lunch posts about the Steak Truck.
#3. Famous Halal Guys
It would be hard to win every year, right? I don’t think that the Famous Halal Guys cart (which is parked on the SE corner of 53rd & 6th during the day) is any worse than it was last year. I just think that on any given day, there are 5 to 10 Midtown carts who could easily take first place in a Street Meat Palooza blind taste test. They still win the award for hottest hot sauce, but this year’s judges were a bit less excited overall by their heavy mayo based white sauce, and the lack of seasoning on the chicken. Of course it’s still a great plate of street meat… and the scores were good enough to land them in 3rd place. Other locations: During the day they have another cart on the SW corner of 53rd & 7th, and at night the original Famous Halal Guys cart parks on the SW corner of 53rd & 6th. Check out all the Midtown Lunch posts about the Famous Halal Guys Cart on 53rd & 6th.
It’s tough to say that Shendy’s came out of nowhere, since this cart has been plugging away on 6th for a long time. It received a ton of nominees, and its fans will not be surprised that it landed in 2nd place. A solid white sauce, and “pleasantly spicy” hot sauce meant solid scores across the board from a panel that also enjoyed the sauteed onions and green peppers tossed in the mix. I personally wouldn’t choose it above 53rd & 6th, the Steak Truck, or XPL, but in a blind taste test its quality couldn’t be denied. And since this year’s Street Meat Palooza winner costs $8, in some ways this runner up will be the default winner for those cheapos out there…
#1. Kwik Meal
When you talk about best street food in Midtown, Kwik Meal is almost always mentioned. The 2007 Vendy Award People’s Choice Winner has always been considered great, but last year its low scores for value kept it from cracking the top 3. Admittedly the $8 price tag is discouraging, and 9 times out of 10 you might choose entries 2 through 5 for as the cheaper option, but it’s hard to deny that on taste alone it’s practically the best plate of street meat available from a cart. The fact that Kwik Meal is the only cart in Midtown to serve actual chunks of lamb meat instead of gyro is only part of the appeal. Toss in a delicious, yogurt based tzatziki style white sauce, and a unique green sauce that will set your mouth on fire, it’s no surprise that this year’s judges said to hell with value, and crowned Kwik Meal the winner of Street Meat Palooza 2. Other locations: Kwik Gourmet on 47th & Park; Quick Delight on 3rd Ave. and 45th; Kwik Meal IV on 37th & 6th. Check out all the Midtown Lunch posts about Kwik Meal.
…to everyone who made this year’s Street Meat Palooza possible. First and foremost to the Bryant Park Corporation, for reserving a space for us (please check out their blog!) and the guys who run the chess area for lending us one of their tables. (For those who don’t know, you can play chess, backgammon, petanque, and ping pong in Bryant Park Monday through Friday from 11am to 7pm. Get all the info here.) Also many thanks go out to all the Midtown Lunch’ers who nominated carts, picked up the food, took photos, and judged. (Some of them have blogs of their own that you should check out if you don’t already: like Food in Mouth, Blondie and Brownie, Eating in Translation, VendrTV, The Girl Who Ate Everything, A Passion for Food, Me So Hungry, Fressagirl, Homesick Texan, and Talida Bakes.) Trying and judging 15 plates of street meat is not nearly as easy as you would think…
AND FINALLY… thanks to all the vendors for working tirelessly to serve up this cheap and delicious food. They had no idea this was going on, or that that these particular combo platters were going to be “judged”. They were just doing what they do, every single day of the week for the (hopefully) appreciative office workers of Midtown. The term “Street Meat” might sound shady and derrogatory to many, but I think speak for the majority of Midtown Lunch’ers when I say: to me it sounds like the perfect lunch.
Got any recommendations for Street Meat Palooza 3!? The comments are open…
Posted by Zach Brooks at 11:30 am, July 8th, 2009 under Biriyani Cart, Carnegie John's Cart, Cart, Famous Halal Guys on 53rd & 6th, Kwik Meal, Steak Truck, Street Meat, Street Meat Palooza, Trini Paki Boys Cart, XPL.
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