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The Concrete Elite

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The Esquites Man in Sunset Park.  

15. CALEXICO
Wooster St. nr. Prince St.
There’s no such thing as a cheap lunch in Soho, you say? Then you haven’t been to this yearling cart, the joint venture of three brothers from Southern California. Most weekdays, hungry hipsters lean against the side of a nearby building, waiting patiently for tacos, burritos, and Mexican-style grilled corn. Come early or risk missing out on some of the more popular items—the chipotle pulled pork, say, or the medium-hot salsa verde. But Calexico’s raison d’etre is the marinated skirt steak called carne asada, a carefully cooked, well-spiced piece of meat cut into manageable chunks and piled into overstuffed $7 burritos or $3 soft-corn-tortilla tacos, properly garnished with cabbage, cilantro, and onion. The marinade recipe is a closely guarded secret, of course, but we thought we detected a subtle undercurrent of A1.

16. NY DOSAS
Washington Sq. S. at Sullivan St.
In a carnivorous cartosphere, NY Dosas is a beacon in the street-meat wilderness, attracting cash-strapped NYU students, spice-craving South Asian natives, and vegetarians of all socioeconomic stripes to the southern edge of Washington Square Park, where Thiru Kumar’s parked his popular cart for the past five years. The lanky and aggressively mustachioed Sri Lankan native once worked at Flushing’s Dosa Hutt, where he perfected the art of the lentil-and-rice crêpes that he griddles and stuffs with spiced potatoes and vegetables and serves with the traditional accompaniments of lentil soup and coconut chutney. The Special Pondicherry Masala might be Kumar’s best seller, but it’s the diaphanous Special Rava Masala Dosa, a lacy wisp of red-raw-rice-and-cream-of-wheat batter dabbed with chile paste and griddled to the quintessence of crispness, that could make you consider giving up meat.

17. HALAL CHICKEN AND GYRO
53rd St. nr. Sixth Ave.
These days, there may be more halal carts than hot-dog stands, but you will recognize this one by its never-ending line. You will also know it by its signature bright-yellow plastic bags and employees’ T-shirts, which proclaim, in no uncertain terms, we are DIFFERENT. TASTY. DELICIOUS. This opinion is echoed on a fan-based Website (53rdand6th.com), in a Young Muslims of North America chat room, and especially by the polyglot mixture of cabbies and bridge-and-tunnel pleasure seekers who crowd the corner every night, turning it into an impromptu alfresco cookout. The stand has even made it onto Wikipedia, under the name “Chicken and Rice,” and gained a more tragic form of notoriety last fall, when one customer stabbed another to death after a line-cutting scuffle. While no $6 lamb-and-chicken-combo platter is worth dying for, this one benefits from the constant turnover and the harmonic convergence of a hot red-chile sauce and a mysterious white one, the contents of which the Halal Chicken and Gyro crew cannot be sweet talked into revealing. An even bigger secret than the white-sauce recipe is the fact that HC and G operates a second cart across Sixth Avenue, on the southeast corner of 53rd Street, and even though it’s parked there until 2 a.m., it’s never cultivated the same devout following—proof, perhaps, of the herd mentality: The longer the line, the better it must be.

18. KIM’S AUNT
46th St. nr. Sixth Ave.
Not everything at this pushcart, tattooed with the slogan FOOD IS LOVE and parked next door to Moshe’s Falafel in midtown, is great. But what’s good is very good, especially the fried-fish sandwich (choice of whiting, $3.50, or flounder, $4.50) served on Wonder bread (white or, for health nuts, whole wheat). The fish is nicely deep-fried to a crisp golden brown and finished with tartar and hot sauces. The next best thing to the fish sandwich is the Korean dish, bulgogi ($6), highly seasoned, thinly sliced beef, served over rice with a sad sack of a side salad. As for who or where Kim or his or her aunt is, no one around here seems to know, least of all Moshe.

19. ALAN’S FALAFEL
Cedar St. nr. Broadway
Every weekday, in broad daylight, a tahini-splattered falafel war is waged in Liberty Plaza Park, Wall Street’s great outdoors lunchroom. To the west, weighing in at eleven falafel balls, alongside hummus, baba ghannouj, fried eggplant strips, a stodgy grape leaf, and a cold pita, is the $5 platter at Sam’s, one of the beloved Liberty Plaza carts that was displaced after 9/11 and greeted joyfully by regulars upon its eventual return. Five yards to the east, weighing in at a belly-busting thirteen balls, is the similarly stocked platter of its arch-rival Alan’s, a cart with virtually identical signage and product. But as the constantly shifting lines at each pushcart demonstrate, there are enough famished tourists and office workers to go around. A falafel face-off determined that besides being more generous with its balls, Alan’s excelled in texture (perceptibly crisper and a tad lighter) and flavor. It could have been just that particular batch, and we might have been swayed by sheer volume, but all’s fair in love and lunch-cart war.

20. ALL NATURAL HOT MINI CAKES
Grand St. nr. Bowery
How to end a tour of the city’s best street carts? With dessert, of course. You need no more incentive than the stop-you-in-your-tracks aroma emanating from the mini-cake carts of Chinatown, where the going rate for twenty sweet puffy confections is one smackeroo. Half the fun of eating them is watching their production, especially at this tidy little stand where septuagenarian Shao Chen blasts classical music on the world’s smallest boom box. Forearms protected with elasticized pull-on shirt sleeves that make him look a little like a riverboat gambler, Chen has honed his technique into a carefully orchestrated rhythm: Brush the lingering bits out of a multi-holed waffle-iron contraption, pour the flour-sugar-and-egg batter from a metal teapot, bake for just over a minute, scoop out the sweet, spongy balls, and separate them with a spoon. For the street-cart connoisseur, they’re the closest thing to Proust’s madeleines.


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