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The Concrete Elite


Carnegie John's steak-and-chicken platter.  

Fifth Ave. nr. 53rd St., Sunset Park, Brooklyn
Although ears of corn slathered with mayo, cheese, and lime are as ubiquitous these days as bagels at a Sunday brunch, you still have to amble over to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, for a good Styrofoam cupful of esquites. Literally translated, esquites means “toasted corn,” but more commonly refers to the irresistible Mexico City street snack of corn kernels sautéed in butter and lard or vegetable oil and flavored with fresh epazote, the pungent herb whose name roughly translated means “dirty skunk.” Nearly every other taco cart along Fifth Avenue from 45th to 55th Street does a sideline business in esquites, but our favorite is the version served with a flourish by Luis Garcia, who operates from a red shopping cart near 53rd Street: A quick scoop or two of esquites from a five-gallon Igloo thermos, a wooden spoonful of Hellmann’s scraped off onto the side of your cup like a cocktail twist, a sprinkling of sharp cotija cheese, a dusting of cayenne, a squirt of fresh lime juice, and, for $2, you’re on your way.

Bleecker Street Park, Bleecker St. at Hudson St.
Over the past few years, so-called fine-dining chefs have made incursions into the gritty street-cart world, a trend we heartily endorse. While Mario Batali’s GelOtto ice-cream cart and Adam Perry Lang’s Daisy May’s chili and barbecue carts seem to have become mired in bureaucratic red tape, Jeremy Spector’s haute hot-dog cart has returned to the West Village plaza where it debuted last summer. The Employees Only chef is the co-creator of the “dogmatic gourmet sausage system,” a concept that utilizes a spiked gizmo to pierce and toast the insides of Pain D’Avignon baguettes, into which gourmet sausages are inserted, along with a choice of zesty condiments. The slender, spicy beef, turkey, and pork franks ($5) all have the finest credentials, coming from contented animals that have been pastured at Sullivan County’s Violet Hill Farm. They can be had, if tradition requires, with ketchup and mustard, but much more enticing are the creamy jalapeño-Cheddar, feta-and-sun-dried-tomato, and truffle-Gruyère. An asparagus-stuffed baguette makes a nifty vegetarian option, and the homemade ginger and strawberry sodas ($3) are flavored with vanilla bean, allspice, cinnamon, clove, and cardamom.

The Jamaican Dutchy cart.  

51st St. nr. Seventh Ave.
“I’m running low on plantains” aren’t words you want to hear when you’ve waited a good twenty minutes on a line that waddles so slowly down 51st Street you start thinking Le Bernardin would have been quicker. But at least the chef at this midtown newcomer, bless his soul, rations his plantains instead of taking a pushy paralegal up on her offer to pay extra for more. Although Wall Streeters have long had access to grab-and-go Jamaican at Nio’s truck, this gleaming new satellite-dish-equipped stand is an anomaly in midtown, and an affordable lifesaver for the West Indian expats (executives, secretaries, FedEx guys) who work there. There is a certain liberty taken with the Styrofoam platters, which never seem to contain all the sides the menu promises (boiled dumpling, white rice, rice and peas, plantain, yellow yam, vegetables). But what is there is choice, and—except for those plantains—plentiful: a quarter of a spicy, herb-rubbed jerk chicken, hacked with a cleaver on a cutting board; a flavorful if not fiery serving of tender goat curry on the bone.

Xinjiang-style hot dog on a stick.  

Division St. at Forsyth St.
No best-street-cart list is complete without some meat-on-a-stick, the irresistible scent of which can trigger a primordial drooling reaction in even the most abstemious vegan. Although its schedule fluctuates, the excellent cart that operates near the Manhattan Bridge, just past the bargain-bus brigade, is hard to beat. If you get lost, look for smoke and then a yellow sign that reads lamb, chicken, beef, chicken kidney, chicken heart, grill fish ball, grill corn, and more. The key is that it’s all imbued with the fire-licked flavor of hardwood charcoal, and, since every stick goes for a dollar a pop, you can linger about ordering sticks o’ meat as if you were at an alfresco tapas bar—albeit a rather gritty one. Our surprise favorite meat stick: the hot dog carved up like a street-cart mango, painted with a sweetish barbecue sauce, and sprinkled with cumin powder.

45th St. nr. Sixth Ave.
Sixth Avenue in the mid-Forties is a hub of Manhattan street meat, with competing chicken-lamb-and-rice carts occupying each corner. But only one cart is operated by a chef’s-jacketed, floppy-toqued veteran of the Russian Tea Room. Mohammed Rahman runs his gleaming silver box like a mini-restaurant, expediting orders to his busy crew and chatting up customers. The Bangladeshi immigrant’s claim to fame is his marinated lamb, a succulent triumph of cumin, coriander, yogurt, and green papaya that’s actual lamb meat, not compressed gyro, rolled up with yogurty white sauce in a puffy pita or served over basmati rice. His falafel is idiosyncratic and more Greek than Middle Eastern, what with tsatsiki subbing for tahini and the kind of pita you’re likelier to find at Greek gyro stands than Israeli falafel joints. Regardless, it’s a tasty, rich sandwich, and, along with his distinctive jalapeño hot sauce, part of the winning repertoire that’s enabled the sidewalk chef to branch out with two more midtown carts.

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