The Concrete Elite

The marinated chicken at Sammy's Halal.Photo: Ben Stechschulte

Roosevelt Ave. nr. 78th St., Jackson Heights
Maria Piedad Cano might be New York’s most revered street vendor. She’s a Chowhound cult favorite, a former lawyer and judge, she says, and, most telling, the subject of a MySpace page that forecasts the likelihood that she’ll be appearing at her regular spot each weekend. Her presence is iffy and weather-dependent; she winters in her native Colombia and reassumes her curbside position in spring, but only on Friday and Saturday nights and generally after ten o’clock. And for a former officer of the court, the once-permit-challenged corn-cake specialist hasn’t always been a stickler for the letter of the law: When asked by why she works the graveyard shift, she replied, “Because there are fewer police walking around.” Still, faithful fans make the pilgrimage for her specialty: two types of ethereal Colombian arepas, brushed with margarine and griddled until brown and crispy. The arepa de queso is thicker and smaller, its soft insides infiltrated with melted cheese. The flatter, wider one, arepa de choclo, is made with a different corn batter and folded over salty grated cheese. There are skewered sausages and denser, smaller arepitas, too, but they’re not what’s earned the mild-mannered sidewalk chef her infatuated following, or the nickname “Sainted Arepa Lady.”

Roosevelt Ave. nr. 61st St., Woodside
You don’t expect to find culinary bliss amid the cacophony of this Woodside hub, where the LIRR and the elevated 7 train crisscross and every three minutes or so a jet thunders overhead on its descent into La Guardia. Yet there it is, ensconced below the tracks—an unassuming bastion of Mexican tamales worthy of an interborough expedition or a pit stop en route to anywhere else. Like a gift, the Oaxaqueño tamale comes wrapped with string: Peel open the banana leaves to reveal a hot, steamy mass of fluffy corn masa riddled with hefty chunks of ineluctably fatty pork and dripping with enough greasy red-chile oil to make a magnificent mess. More portable are the smaller corn-husk-wrapped varieties, in which morsels of chicken are dispersed sparingly, like condiments. Another version combines stringy melted cheese enlivened with red and green peppers. But it’s the masa that haunts you, with its moist, springy texture, toasty corn aroma, and earthy, mouth-filling flavor.

73rd St. at Broadway, Jackson Heights
“Money doesn’t really matter to me,” says former taxi driver Samiul Haque Noor of Sammy’s Halal. “I love to serve.” What he serves is mainly marinated dark-meat chicken, chopped up on the griddle and plopped down over a pile of fragrant Afghan-style long-grain rice with a side salad, for $3.99. Order it with the works, in this case a trio of sauces—one hot (red), one mild (white), and one somewhere deliciously in between (green). The red and white are toothsome, but some say that Sammy’s isn’t Sammy’s without the green sauce. If you persist, Sammy will tell you the green sauce is a mixture of garlic, cilantro, lemon, a little jalapeño, some yogurt, and, of course, various secret spices. That Sammy yields to no one in the spice-procurement department is a point of pride: “I go far, far away to get my spices; if it’s not right, I go farther; even if I have to go to Jersey, I go to Jersey,” he says. Sammy’s is so popular that the business has grown in six years from the Jackson Heights flagship to a five-cart mini-empire, with three downtown, one in Astoria, and plans to invade midtown any day now.

73rd St. at Broadway, Jackson Heights
If you ever thought that the chicken-and-rice platter at this unassuming cart parked next door to the wildly popular Sammy’s Halal tasted suspiciously similar to its neighbor’s, you would be correct. As it turns out, Sammy himself has taken Khan’s owner Parvez Zaman under his wing, and you might as well consider Khan’s the sixth branch of Sammy’s. Not only does Sammy share his suppliers and secret spice mix with Khan’s, but he occasionally drops by for a friendly chat. The proof, however, is in the platter, and a side-by-side chicken-and-rice taste test showed the two to be virtually indistinguishable: Sammy’s had more cilantro in the salad and perhaps a surplus of onion, but Khan’s was a tad more fiery overall. Nor did Khan’s splatter us with furiously chopped chicken parts while we waited in line. But as far as the chicken-and-rices go, call it a tie.

Roosevelt Ave. at Gleane St., Jackson Heights
It’s a party every night at this popular stand, where Alejandra Gonzalez and Pilar Juarez feed what seems to be half the neighborhood—some making quick taco pit stops, others pulling up a folding chair and settling in for a spell. Even though tacos of chorizo and carnitas get the most local love, we recommend the carefully constructed tortas, or the sporadically available sopes, those thick rafts of masa flour piled high with beans, lettuce, crema, salsa, cotija, and the meat of your choice. For a meatless repast, two dollars buys a luscious quadruple-decker chalupa, each crispily griddled corn tortilla slicked with red or green salsa and garnished with diced onion, cotija, and crema. The combination sounds simple, but the cheesy, salty, crunchy whole far exceeds the sum of its seemingly humble parts.

The Arepa Lady in Jackson Heights.Photo: Ben Stechschulte

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.

Carnegie John's steak-and-chicken platter.Photo: Ben Stechschulte

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.Photo: Ben Stechschulte

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.Photo: Ben Stechschulte

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.

The Esquites Man in Sunset Park.Photo: Ben Stechschulte

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.

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.

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 (, 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.

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.

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.

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.

The Concrete Elite