Check out Day 1 to figure out why Nick is spending so much time on lunch spots in Manhattan.
While the $5 limit I usually impose on lunch might seem low by some standards, there are times when even that is a little too high. Whether it's close to payday or after a long expensive weekend, sometimes you need to go lower. That's when you have to dive deep into the belly of the city to find something even passably appetizing.
One of the great myths of New York, one that many people have also talked about, is that New Yorkers regularly pop down to the corner hot dog stand for a quick bite. The carts are sure there, and they are cheap, but I don’t know anyone who buys them with a straight face. Sure, I’ve had a few when I've been desperate, but most New Yorkers buy their dogs at one of the Papaya places (Grey’s Papaya, Papaya King), because there they are crispy, tasty, and usually cheaper than the dirty water dogs you’d find on the street (Someday I'd like to do a feature on the differences between the Papaya's, but that's for some other time). Plus you can get a papaya drink, which depending on your location is either a blessing or a curse. Sorry to burst the bubble.
What New Yorkers do buy on the street is food from the halal carts. They can look dirty, mangy and completely unappetizing, but that smell from their insides wafts for blocks in either direction, and it’s addicting. They sell falafel, but it’s usually hard, stale, and greasy. The biggest seller is chicken over rice, which is exactly like it sounds. Chicken breasts are grilled with onions and other minuscule vegetables, with a sauce that hits the nose like crack. Then everything is chopped and placed over a yellow or white rice. This is topped with either hot sauce or what is referred to as “white sauce” a tahini-like concoction that I’ve never quite figured out. Most people go for a combination of both. If this sounds disgusting, you’re right. When people are done with these big piles of food they act like they just cheated on their wives, apologizing about how they didn't mean to do that, but they just couldn't help themselves. Nearly every one of these places leaves you feeling depressed and sick. Yet, most people have a favorite one that they return to like a bad habit, and I'm no different.
On the southeast corner of 28th and Madison, two blocks north of Madison Square park, sits my favorite cart. During the warm, sunny days of fall there was no better meal. While it'd take an hour and half to get food at the Shake Shack most days, I could get my food from this cart in 30 seconds. It wasn't a shack burger, but I'd be on on a bench admiring the warmth watching the same people in the Shack line creep along. I won't pretend it was the greatest food in the world, but compared to the other halal carts around the area, this one is high class. The chicken is moister, less greasy, and more flavorful. The rice tastes clean and fresh, and the hot sauce (I have no proof of this) tasted hotter. They also throw in some fat fries (I don't know why) and iceberg lettuce. And if you ask nicely, they'll toss in some eggplant. It's worth it.
The menu looks cheap, but the odd thing is that every item is actually a dollar cheaper than it appears here. I'm not sure why kind of psychology is at play here, if they take a dollar off at the register to make everyone feel that much better about him or herself, but I've never payed more than $4 for any item up here. That's strange. Now I'm going to show a picture of the contents, but it's not going to look pretty. This is my affair place. Please try not to judge me.
I'm not always proud of the food, or the way it makes me feel, but street food has its place in the city. The day I last visited this cart the weather was around 20 degrees. The two men working in the truck huddled around the grill, as the steam poured out the windows. They chopped up vegetables and scooped out rice with huge gloves on their hands and hats covering most of their face. This is a hard job. But most of the times their hard work goes unnoticed because the food is so bad. I've had some of the worst food of my life from a cart, and I'm not about to sacrifice my eating habits to eat such waste on a regular basis. But I think this place is worth it, and I'll miss having such food so close to Madison Square Park when the days are hot, and the Shake Shack line is long.