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The Concrete Elite


The Arepa Lady in Jackson Heights.  

54th St. nr. Fifth Ave.
For 24 years, Berlin-born Rolf Babiel has been slinging sausages from his just–off–Fifth-Avenue pushcart. That’s like 192 in street-cart years; factor in the Giuliani crackdown period, and call it 200. Five days a week, Babiel—or his brother Wolfgang—serves his super-snappy wursts on crusty rolls or sliced into bite-size pieces in a formidable contraption that looks like a cross between a paper cutter and a guillotine. Our favorite of about a dozen or so is called the Mercedes (bratwurst). Wolfgang’s favorite is the Skoda (alpenwurst). You can gulp down both in a Democracy Special combo—a choice of two wursts topped with a heap of fried potatoes, braised red cabbage, sauerkraut, and excellent homemade mustard and curry sauces, plus two meatballs for $9. In good weather, dine on one of the cart’s red-and-white-checked foldout trays and watch the Fifth Avenue world go by, while a Babiel brother lowers the sausage guillotine.

62nd St. nr. Madison Ave.
Even people who don’t eat street food eat Tony Dragonas’s street food. In a typical lunch-hour line, you’ll find an oddball assemblage of Bloomberg number-crunchers, fashionable Madison Avenue retail clerks, stout delivery guys, and traitorous cooks from nearby kitchens including Aureole, Amaranth, and Nello. Speaking of Nello, says Tony, “he wanted me to go into business with him.” He’s not the only one: “You’re the best! You’re the best!” barks a man wearing a black T-shirt, cargo shorts, and a mullet one recent afternoon. “I tell ya, Tony, I’m working on capital; we’re going to take this enterprise national.” What’s the reason for all the hoopla? Chicken breasts, shish kebab, burgers, sausage, steak, and an excellent prosciutto-mozzarella-and-basil sandwich. But the juicy char-grilled chicken is the thing, marinated overnight and available wrapped in a thick grilled pita or as a platter with yellow rice. A tinfoil container with a crisp romaine salad, all of it drizzled with homemade tsatsiki, it must weigh about five pounds and goes for $6, up from $5.50 the last time we checked. “Inflation,” Tony says resignedly.

56th St. nr. Seventh Ave.
To put it in SAT terms, Carnegie John’s is to Tony the Dragon’s as Mary’s Fish Camp is to Pearl Oyster Bar—the difference being that unlike those feuding fish ladies, should Tony and John meet up on the street, neither would attempt to scratch out the other’s eyeballs. Tony Dragonas, you see, taught his Greek compatriot John Antoniou the chicken-and-rice ropes, letting John run the show when he was away. When there was nothing more that Tony could teach John about grilled chicken breasts, Italian-sausage sandwiches, and combo platters, John, as straight-A students often do, struck out on his own—with Tony’s blessing, of course. What’s the most important lesson John learned from Tony? To start things off on the griddle, move them over to the charcoal grill, and then back to the griddle. “It seals in the juice and gives everything a nice flavor,” says John. Although the lines at John’s aren’t nearly as long as the lines at Tony’s, in a blind taste test, you’d be hard-pressed to tell John’s $5 chicken platter apart from his mentor’s. John also grills a mean $1.25 hot dog (Sabrett), which you’ll want to top with his terrific homemade onions. His pièce de résistance, though, is his $4 cheeseburger—a big fat-streaked patty of unknown provenance (“Maybe sirloin?”). Dare we say it’s better than the one you can get at the perpetually mobbed Parker Meridien Burger Joint right down the block? We do. And you won’t have to wait in line for a half hour either.

Grand St. at Bowery
The cheung fun cart might be the hot-dog-and-pretzel stand of Chinatown, only cheaper and less tourist-friendly. The steamed rolled rice noodles, snipped with scissors, topped with your choice of spongy curried fish balls, soft, ultra-fatty pork skin, or tripe, and doused with a quartet of sweet and spicy sauces, is a popular sidewalk snack everywhere from Elizabeth Street to Pike Street. You won’t pay more than a buck or two, depending on serving size (a smaller Styrofoam container or larger plastic pint cup). The proprietress of this one has been manning her bustling cart just off Bowery for twenty years, and she’s done well enough to open a four-items-for-$3 joint on Eldridge Street, where the cheung fun is offered for breakfast. Besides the ever-popular rice noodles, the cart also dispenses mei fun and the string-tied, leaf-wrapped sticky rice packets called joong, all of which can be enjoyed alfresco at the Hester Street Playground down the block, where the handball games are fast and furious.

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