By Magalí Cohen
Food carts fly under the radar of New York City food culture, but they’re one of its most important parts. The smells range from burnt sugar to floral-perfumed fruit to sage meat, and the vendors — the Habibs and Lees and Johns — dole out opinions and gossip along with their tasty and cheap eats. Some of the best food in New York comes from those metallic sanctuaries of scrumptiousness.
In Chinatown, Canal Street will open its mouth and eat you alive if you don’t watch your step. To avoid buying things you’ll probably never use, like a singing dragon or a poster of a Chinese baby, it’s best to look straight ahead. At the food carts here, lingering over the menu posted at the top of the wagon is just not done. Point and pay should be Chinatown’s motto.
People crowd around the vegetable roll cart on the corner of Canal Street and Mulberry Street, so it’s best to know what you want and have correct change. The $1 fried vegetable rolls are basic: just pickled cabbage wrapped in egg-roll casing, then deep fried. But the first bite belies their simplicity, and soon the tart cabbage and deep-fried wrapping are dancing in your mouth. It is important to eat them right away because when the heat leaves, so does the crispiness, and you might as well be eating cabbage wrapped in fried paper-towels. You can get a big container of vegetable chow mein for $3. The noodles are al dente, the vegetables have sizzled on the grill, and paired with the smell of grease, the scent wafts off the cart and floats into the nose.
A block west on Canal, at Confucious Place, is a small, easy-to-miss cart advertising “mini-almond cakes,” made by an equally small Chinese woman. She takes batter from a large silver bowl and gently ladles it into a honeycombed waffle iron and swishes it around until the batter is evenly spread. It’s an awesome sight to watch her lift two waffle irons at once. The result is strings of small beads of cakes, 15 for $1. They taste like fortune cookies and are soft, spongy and only slightly sweet. Usually, the customers lining up here are Chinese. They toss their money at the vendor and are gone before you know it, lost in the hustle and bustle of the Saturday afternoon crowds.
At the Chinatown fruit stands, you can try exotic produce more cheaply than anywhere else in New York. Ten dollars buys sweet kumquats or three pounds of lychee nuts, spike-bomb fruit with soft and perfumed fruit inside. But don’t eat too many, or your stomach will pay.
Falafel And More
Times Square also offers some great food cart choices. One of the best for Middle Eastern food is the falafel and shwarma (spiced lamb) cart on West 46th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. For $3, you can get a pita with three falafel balls, cabbage, hot sauce and tchina, a sesame-seed based sauce. Be sure to grab napkins because it takes skill to eat a falafel without spilling. These falafel are as good as I’ve ever had, perfectly fried on the outside and just soft enough on the inside.
On West 45th, just east of Times Square, you reach a good sausage and knish stand. While the vendor, Habib, discourages customers from trying his sausages during the summer (“Eat that much salt in this weather, and you’ll end up like a balloon,” he cautions), the knishes are excellent. The knish I buy is like the Earth, with many layers to it. The outside is slightly flaky, the second layer is doughy, and the third is the peppery, fluffy potato. Like most street food, better eat it while it’s hot, or it’ll turn gummy.
Just about everywhere, you’ll see Nuts About Nuts carts. For a relatively expensive $2, you can buy a small white bag of candied cashews, peanuts, and almonds. It is best to wait a little before eating them because those nuts can be hot. When you can eat them without burning a hole through the side of your mouth, they are great. The nuts have absorbed the sugary taste without sacrificing their nuttiness. The vendor I met on West 45th between Fifth and Sixth Avenue couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t, tell me the mystery ingredients.
Anyway, as with most food carts, they’re probably best kept secret.
In Greenwich Village, you’ll find a terrific snack at the dosa and samosa cart in Washington Square Park. Dosas, crepes flavored with spices and lemon juice, are accompanied by thick chutneys. Several drinks are sold as accompaniments, and the vendor suggests the ginger beer, which he says is “the specialty of the cart.” Ginger beer is spicy and sweet and is great for soothing a burning mouth. Make sure you specify the level of spiciness you want your dosa to be. I would avoid the hottest because you will lose all sensation in your tongue. This meal costs about $6 and is well worth it.