Get Solid Indian Street Food From the 1 Penn Plaza Halal Cart
Prowling my way across 33rd en route to scout out something new and exciting on 7th Ave (spoiler alert: nothing yet), there has to be something good where all the union ironworkers and building tradesmen gather on their lunch break. The construction on Penn Station has them congregating on the north side of 33rd for lunches, where no less than five carts – three halal carts, one hot dog cart, and one fresh-squeezed juicery – seek to service the foot traffic on this exit from Penn. All five look like any other carts, but I happen to notice that one of them shows a list of Indian items. Okay, now we’re talking – lamb over rice is one thing and can be had almost anywhere, but if you say you do palak paneer then you have my attention.
If you’re not there at around 12:15 and can’t hone in on the workmen with bright neon helmets, the cart parks right under the 1 Penn Plaza sign on the north side of 33rd between 7th and 8th. It’s almost square in the middle of the block, across from the underpass leading to Penn Station and MSG, now blocked to vehicular traffic.
The Indian menu is on the left side of the front of the cart. For the image-impaired, on the menu are veggie samosas, chicken biryani, chicken tikka masala (because nothing says NYC halal cart like the national dish of Great Britain), palak paneer, samosa chaat, and vegetable curry. Chaat is the light of my life, fire of my loins, and something that I’d bowl over my mother’s grave to get some of. I attribute this only to hanging out with my wife’s friend from grad school, who is Indian and brought us to the Little India of central NJ in Iselin when I lived near there. The very best of crunchy, tangy, sweet, cooling, and spicy can be found in chaat. I ordered the samosa chaat, having some mighty high standards in mind.
Those standards were well met by the cart. When I ordered it, what did they do but drop two fresh samosas, not yet fried, into the fryer? I’m the kind of guy who’ll eat baby carrots when I brown-bag it, thinking that I’ll save my calories for the fried stuff worth having and not just dreck. This is the fried stuff worth having when they cook it up right there.
The samosa chaat is served with a very big helping of your basic, but fresh, iceberg lettuce and foodservice tomatoes. It’s not Comme Ci Comme Ca here, but that comes with the advantage of nowhere near Comme Ci Comme Ca’s prices. Still, it’s just iceberg lettuce. Is it that much of a price differential to serve romaine instead? It was fresh and crisp but that’s all I could say. The dressing was the cart’s yogurt sauce, which was thin and creamy, just enough tang to it. It’s a good step away from generic halal-cart white sauce.
The samosas themselves are crushed a little by the cart for transport, and served over a bed of cooked chickpeas that taste balanced between tangy and sweet, just barely sweet. This is a wonderful departure from basic rice and I want other halal carts to do the same – chickpeas are slightly less bad on the carb scale in terms of nutritional content, and they’d do a decent enough job of soaking up halal cart sauces to boot. Moreover, they’re a nice textural counterpoint (or “better mouthfeel” if that sounds too Ruth Reichl for ML) to the samosa.
On to the samosa itself. Two of them come to an order over the chickpeas, and these are darn fine examples of veggie samosas. The wrapping was a good solid piece of crispiness and the filling was smoothly mashed, filled with spices and peas, that had a low, spicy heat to it throughout. Layered atop the crushed samosa and peas were thin green coriander chutney to add a quick, herby spicy kick, tangy-sweet dark purple tamarind chutney, and more of the yogurt sauce that went atop the veggies. This is chaat right here, people – savory Indian street food writ flavorful. My only real complaint here is that most chaat is covered with something crunchy, usually a crisped rice or wheat thingy. Trust me on this one if you haven’t had chaat before – this is a copious and unfortunate absence that saps some of the authenticity away. Some, not all. Not enough to ruin, but enough to be noticeable.
All this for five bucks. People, what this cart does is a street meat alternative. Blink and you’ll miss it, but according to these guys, the insurrection of Indian food to break up halal cart routine is not an isolated incident at this otherwise cookiecutter halal cart. Wherein Little Morocco’s glory was its inclusion of unique Moroccan fare at street meat prices with street meat facilities, could we be seeing a sea change in the halal world? I for one would love the streetification of other foods served in carts to break up the anonymous Kronos-brand meat tornadoes serving spongy lamb and dry chicken. It’d be great if we could see more chaat out there in general, especially outside of Curry Row, to supplement the hole-in-the-wall cabbie-fare Spanish/Indian joints out there. I know for sure that I’m going back for a palak paneer attack, but if it’s as authentic as the samosa chaat, I can’t wait to see how it gets served up.
The + (What somebody who likes this would say)
- Indian street food options in the bowels of Midtown South!
- No skimping on quality samosas, fried fresh to boot!
- As cheap as any other street meat
- Great value for the money
The – (What somebody who doesn’t like this place would say)
- The chaat is lacking in authenticity and crisped stuff on top
- Chickpeas instead of rice?!
- I want my samosas whole, not crushed, transport be damned!
- Only six options, and one is a variation of the other
Unidentified halal cart, West 33rd under the 1 Penn Plaza sign (btw. 7th and 8th)