When it comes to New York street food, most people envision eating a hot dog or soft pretzel from an uninspiring cart off the street, but the city has an entire world of street food available for adventurous eaters, from halal chicken-and-rice carts to high-end food trucks run by chefs and everything in between. A new book, New York a la Cart: Recipes and Stories from the Big Apple’s Best Food Trucks (Running Press, 2013) by Alexandra Penfold and Siobhan Wallace, gives the low-down on the NYC street food scene—and even provides recipes to make street food favorites at home. We wanted to get the inside scoop on the book and on the best street food New York has to offer, so we chatted with Penfold over email about the city’s street food and what a visitor should look out for.
Describe the New York street food scene, for someone who’s never been here. What do you think distinguishes it from other cities? The New York street food scene is unique because it’s been an important part of city life for well over one hundred years. Three beloved Lower East Side institutions—Russ and Daughters (179 E. Houston St.), Guss’ Pickles (now mail-order only) and Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery (137 E. Houston St.)—all started as push carts. For years different immigrant groups have made their mark on the Big Apple’s culinary landscape with their foods and that legacy continues today. New York street food is so much more than hot dogs and pretzels, the diversity of our street food culture is unparalleled. Where else can you find Korean, Italian, Jamaican, Austrian, German, Taiwanese, Greek, Israeli, Belgian, Indian, Bangladeshi, Trinidadian-Pakistani, Moroccan and Mexican street food within walking distance of each other?
Everyone knows about pretzels and hot dogs, but are there other street food eats that are particularly common/popular in NYC? “Street meat,” a.k.a. halal chicken or lamb over rice, which typically comes with “white sauce” and “hot sauce,” is probably one of the most common street foods in the city. What exactly goes into the white sauce and the hot sauce depends on the vendor, though white sauce is typically a mayo-, yogurt-, or sour cream-based concoction. While there are lots of carts serving up pretty generic renditions, Kwik Meal (W. 45th St./6th Ave.), the “Famous” Halal Guys (W. 53rd St./6th Ave.), Uncle Gussy’s Greek Truck (E. 51st St./Park Ave.) and the Comme Ci Comme Ca (locations vary) truck serve exceptional platters. Every year the popular blog Midtown Lunch runs a Street Meat Palooza (http://midtownlunch.com/category/street-meat-palooza/) where it pulls together a panel of lunchers and friends and blind taste-test street meat platters from carts around midtown. Some of those older posts are a terrific place to learn about the nuances of the different carts with regard to how they prepare their meat, rice and sauces.
Falafel is also very popular here. Many of the halal carts serve falafel, but there are also terrific vendors that specialize in falafel, like Freddy King of Falafel, located in Astoria (Broadway/29th St., Queens) and Midtown (E. 53rd St./Park Ave.) and Taim Mobile (locations vary). Ever since LA’s Kogi truck launched the Korean Taco phenomenon, we’ve definitely been seeing more and more Korean-fusion street food in New York which can be found at the Kimchi Taco Truck, Korilla BBQ, Big D’s Grub Truck, Seoul Food and the Bob & Jo Truck (locations all vary).
If a person wanted to try just three street food spots to get a good sense of street food in NY, what would they be? I’d recommend Kwik Meal (W. 45th St./6th Ave.) for their Lamb Over Rice (be sure to ask for their killer white sauce and hot sauce), Hallo Berlin (54th St./5th Ave.) for real, authentic wursts, tasty sauerkraut and sinus-clearing mustard that put any sad dirty water dogs to shame; and for an awesome introduction to the city’s Latin street food, the Red Hook Food Vendors on weekends from April to October (Bay St./Clinton St., Brooklyn). There are 10 vendors that sell in Red Hook park and they sell some of the city’s tastiest Mexican, Dominican, Salvadoran, Ecuadorian, Guatemalan and Colombian food.
Are there any neighborhoods that are particularly great for street food? If you’re visiting NYC during the work week, Midtown is an awesome spot for chowing down on street eats. With the high concentration of office workers, there are always tons of options from both stationary carts like Kwik Meal (W. 45th St./6th Ave.), Biryani Cart (W. 46th St./6th Ave.), Trini-Paki Boys (W. 43rd St./6th Ave.) and tons of trucks visit the neighborhood as well. The area near Rockefeller Center is especially popular, as is Park Avenue from 47th to 52nd. Roosevelt Avenue in Queens has an amazing selection of Latin vendors as does Red Hook Park (Bay St./Clinton St., Brooklyn) on the weekends from April to October.
If someone wanted to seek out great street eats in NYC, what’s the best place to start? Besides our book, New York a la Cart: Recipes and Stories from the Big Apple’s Best Food Trucks? Seriously, though, we wrote the book to put the vendors and their incredibly inspiring stories front and center. We hope that it will serve as a good primer on New York’s robust street food history and whet people’s appetites to visit the carts and trucks (and recreate great street food at home).
For excellent blog street food coverage to plan your own street food adventure, I recommend checking out Serious Eats (seriouseats.com), Midtown Lunch (midtownlunch.com) and New York Street Food (newyorkstreetfood.com). For a hands-on experience, pick up tickets for one of the terrific NY-based tours run by Turnstile Tours (turnstiletours.com) or Jeffrey Tastes (iwantmorefood.com).