A Street Food Walking Tour of Midtown Manhattan
Once a month the website Foodbuzz showcases 24 meals, by 24 bloggers, in the same 24 hour period around the globe. This month they chose Midtown Lunch to be one of the showcased blogs, and graciously agreed to fund a Street Meat Walking Tour of Midtown for 5 lucky Midtown Lunch readers and their guests. A contest was held, names were drawn (randomly), and on Saturday at Noon I lead 10 winners on a guided tour of the best street meat Midtown has to offer. We ate, met the vendors, ate some more, and compared. Here’s a little recap of the tour…
Nowadays you can pretty much get any kind of food you want from the street, from Indian to Jamaican, schnitzel to Korean, Mexican and sweets, the list goes on and on. But the goal of this tour was to highlight the predominant NYC cart food of the past 15 years: chicken and lamb over rice with white sauce and hot sauce- or as it’s affectionately called in these parts, street meat. Anybody who has ever been to Midtown, whether it’s for work or vacation, knows exactly what I’m talking about. It’s the chopped up mess of meat that you can’t help but notice being cooked on the flattops of carts all over the city. And the smell? Even the pickiest of eaters find themselves drawn in by that strangely intoxicating odor. To the novice, all the carts might look and smell the same. But eat them side by side, one after another, and it’s hard not to notice the little differences.
We started the day off at what I consider to be the center of street cart vending in New York City… 53rd Street and 6th Ave. At night the lines at this cart (parked on the SW corner) stretch down the block- fueling arguments over whether this famous cart makes the best plate of street meat in the city, or if it’s all hype. And while it will never be resolved there is one thing we can all agree on… the Famous Halal Guys on 53rd and 6th serve up this dish in its purest form. Chopped up chicken and lamb (aka gyro meat), over rice, with a little pita, and some salad, topped off with a heavy handed squirt of creamy white sauce, and a dab of spicy red sauce. They go real light on the seasoning at this cart, and there are no extras like grilled onions and peppers to confuse the situation. The plate of food relies on being the perfect sum of all its parts.
Since it was noon, we went to the daytime location of the Famous Cart (the SE corner of 53rd Street and 6th Ave.) and I explained to the group that the cart that parks on the SW corner during the day is actually an imposter cart. They’ve attempted to mimic everything about the famous nighttime cart, down to the round trays, the yellow sweaters, and the food. But how does it compare to the original? We decided to find out.
After finishing the combo platter from the Famous Halal Guys’ daytime cart, we headed across the street to the “Imposter Cart” on the SW corner of 53rd and 6th Ave. The plates look practically identical, and the rice has been improved since the very first time I tried their food. Their 6th place finish in Street Meat Palooza was no fluke! In fact while their hot sauce isn’t as hot as the Famous Cart’s hot sauce (and very few are), it had more of a pronounced flavor which a lot of people liked.
After finishing the 53rd & 6th side by side showdown, we headed down to 46th and 6th for a little something different. The Biriyani Cart, which is now famous for its chicken tikka, biriyani and kati rolls, actually started off as a standard chicken and lamb over rice cart. Their new dishes have distinguished them from the other carts in Midtown, even winning them awards (most recently the People’s Choice prize at the 2009 Vendy Awards), but I’ve always thought of their “chicken tikka masala” as just another version of street meat chicken over rice (with white sauce and hot sauce.) Unlike the chicken tikka masala you get at an Indian restaurant, this one has no sauce (or gravy). No cream (unless you count the white sauce) and no tomatoes. It’s just very well seasoned chunks of chicken that have been sauteed on the flattop, and served over rice, just like every other street meat plate in Midtown. The flavor is completely different, but the basic concept is still the same. Biriyani Cart owner Meru put together special sampler platter for everybody, which included a bit of chicken tikka, a scoop of biryani, and a kati roll.
After Biriyani Cart we headed one block south (to 45th and 6th) for what is probably the most written about street meat cart in New York City… Kwik Meal. Run by Muhammed Rahman, who famously worked at the Russian Tea Room before opening his cart over 8 years ago, Kwik Meal also serves chicken and lamb over rice with white sauce and hot sauce. But it bears almost no resemblance to the first two platters we ate on the tour. While every other cart in Midtown serves gyro meat as their “lamb”, Kwik Meal uses actual lamb. Little chunks of lamb leg get marinated overnight, before getting cooked on the flattop and covered in hot sauce. And that’s not all that’s different. Unlike most carts, which use mayo in their white sauce and some form of red hot sauce, Muhammed uses a yogurt based white sauce and a jalapeno based green hot sauce. Its those differences that catapulted this cart to the top of the heap in Street Meat Palooza 2 this year. It’s more expensive than the rest of the carts in Midtown, but in the end you get what you pay for.
So, after trying the industry standard (53rd & 6th), the Bangladeshi twist (Biriyani Cart), and the upscale street meat (Kwik Meal) it was time to finish the tour off with a bang. I would have liked to have gone to the Trini Paki Boys Cart (on 43rd and 6th) but they aren’t open on the weekend, and I considered taking the group to XPL (on 48th and Park) but I wasn’t sure they’d be there on a Saturday. So instead we headed to 39th and 7th, to Little Morocco.
More and more you’re finding halal street meat carts trying to distinguish themselves. Some do it with onions and peppers, a secret white sauce, or interesting spices. Others get a little crazier. Little Morocco will pretty much throw the whole kitchen sink into your chicken and lamb over rice platter if you ask. They’ve got beans (!?), french fries (hello!) and falafel. Plus their hot sauce is a Moroccan harissa’ish sauce, giving it a completely different flavor than any of the other 4 platters on the tour. It was a completely insane plate of food, and the perfect ending to our Street Meat Tour.
Plus if you are interested in taking a tour like this yourself, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.