AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

     Readers of this column will know that I generally write on topics pertaining to either the American West or literature, as do my frequent guests.  But the title of the blog includes the words, “My World” and, as it happens, that in turn includes New York.  There are numerous things about which I could write concerning New  York  but the one thing I like best is…the food!

Tour guide Brian Hoffman in action

Tour guide Brian Hoffman in action

 A couple of months back I was persuaded to take a food cart tour of the city.  Now, I’m a gal who never, but never, eats on the street, and certainly never bought food from a food cart.  I’d be too darn embarrassed to go about licking an ice cream cone, never mind stuffing my face with a hot dog or lunch from a cart.  It wasn’t so much the thought of whether the food was garnering carcinogenics or was otherwise unhygienic, it was simply something I couldn’t bring myself to do.  But when my daughter’s boyfriend’s birthday came up and I was faced with presenting him with something he’d actually like, this was the product of my ruminations.  He LOVES food from a cart and here was a tour of the best in NYC.

     Food carts evolved in New York from as early as the 1600s.  If you could not afford a market stall, a pushcart to sell your wares was a popular way to make money, and food could be sold as easily as anything else this way.  Oysters were most likely amongst the first items; they were plentiful at the time in the rivers around the city and therefore cheap, the food of the poor.  As more immigrants poured into the city, more variety appeared on the carts:  knishes, bagels, pastrami, sausages—which evolved into the hot dog—pickles, pretzels and nuts all began to make an appearance.  Selling from a cart has always been an ideal way for immigrants to get a foot in the door;

Trink Paki Boys preparing our lunch

Trink Paki Boys preparing our lunch

with the high price of the city’s commercial rents, making and selling food from a cart has proven an excellent alternative to each new wave of immigrant bringing different types of food.  It has the added bonus for office workers of also being a cheap and quick alternative to restaurant lunches.

For those who, like myself, have concerns over the cleanliness of the carts and the workers, let me tell you that the restrictions are more constraining than those for  restaurants.  Carts are inspected by the Department of Health with random examinations.  Obviously, food must be fresh and can not be re-used. Each worker on the cart—not just the individual vendor or owner—must go through a two-day course on food handling and safety with an exam at the end of it.  These individual licenses must be renewed every two years, as does the one for the vehicle.  That costs $200 from the Department of Health—and no further licenses are currently being issued.  This has, as one might expect, resulted in a market of ‘sub-letting’ the licenses, and rumor has it that the going rate is no less than $20,000 for two years!

Brian Hoffman with a mobile food vendor's license

Brian Hoffman with a mobile food vendor’s license

After all this, how do the carts find their spot?  The City does not assign spots outside of the Parks or private property; all the locations are by gentleman’s agreement and no filching of spaces occurs.  Vendors are up very early to collect their vehicles from special commissaries or garages, where they have been cleaned and stored overnight, and to prepare the food in a commercial kitchen.  Often these areas are outside of Manhattan so the trek into the city awaits along with the set-up, not to mention the removal of the attached car that brought it there.  This may mean going all the way back to one of the boroughs and the vendor coming back into Manhattan to his site by public transport.  The hours each vendor works depends on the area; for instance, down around Wall St. where the financial district ‘closes’ at night, most vendors are there for lunch and gone by about four, as they are in the commercial heartland of midtown.  In areas where there may be more bars, it won’t be unusual to find carts working into the wee hours of the morning, providing sustenance to late-night drinkers.  But here’s the catch:  all carts must go back to the commissary for a clean-up once within every twenty-four hours.

So, what was the tour like and, most importantly, what is the food like?

Kati Rolls from the Biryani Cart, photo courtesy of Jennifer Strader

Kati Rolls from the Biryani Cart, photo courtesy of Jennifer Strader

We went with Turnstile Tours and our guide was Brian Hoffman.  Hoffman is young, energetic and highly enthusiastic about New York food, and it rubs off on his clientele.  My cohorts and I had chosen the midtown tour (there is another food cart tour down in the financial district) and Brian started the tour with a brief history before leading us on to Trini Paki Boys at 43rd St. and 6th Ave.   It was lunch time for tour members and we started with a chicken over rice dish from this vendor who’s been selling halal food on the streets for twenty-five years.  Next stop was award-winning kati rolls from the Biryani cart also at 46th St.   When I say award-winning, yes, there are Vendy Awards organized by the Street Vendors Project for the best foods from street carts.   Nominees are chosen by the public throughout the year and the final decision is made by a panel of judges; the ceremony takes place in September.  Back on the tour, we had falafel from a Bengali chef who used to work at the Russian Tea Room.  Now, I have to say falafel is not one of my favorite foods; I usually find it dry and tasteless.  This falafel, however, was moist and delicious and left me wanting more.  Other stops included quesadillas from El Rey del Sabor, Korean food from Bapcha and a grand finale of Belgian waffles from Wafels and Dinges.

Waffles from Wafels and Dinges, photo courtesy of Andrew Gustafson

Waffles from Wafels and Dinges, photo courtesy of Andrew Gustafson

We were also blessed with a treat from the now famous Treat Truck,

The Treat Truck

The Treat Truck

which has been featured on several television programs.

     I can’t say whether I am any less reluctant to be seen eating on the street, but I do know one thing:   if I ever get hungry while walking the mean streets of New York and can find a lovely park bench nearby, there’ll be a really delicious meal waiting for me from a cart in the area.

***********************************************************************

My sincere thanks to Brian Hoffman for his help in the preparation of this article…not to mention an exciting day out.  You can find Brian and his take on New York food at http://www.eatthisny.com/ and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Eat-This-NY/209449281899 and you can follow his tweets at @EatThisNY

Turnstile Tours is at http://turnstiletours.com

AND EVERYONE WHO LEAVES A COMMENT WILL RECEIVE A SMALL GIFT!

24 responses to “AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

  1. Great blog posting, mama! Hope you’re ready to go to some of these again in December!! xxx

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  2. Wonderful post, Andi! Certainly a different subject from your norm, though the recent experience of your food cart tour made me jealous :) I consider myself a food lover and I would’ve loved to have gone on the tour with you so I could taste all the varieties you mention here. Thanks for mentioning all about this neat part of Manhattan — think I’ll have to visit…

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  3. interesting, I do enjoy your posts Andi. Are you still Veggie?? Next time I visit NY I will head for the falafel man, I didn’t find much veggie food last time. I’m now expecting a flurry of outraged info about all the veggie food available….

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    • I think you’d find the vegetarian situation pretty much changed, Dee. Every restaurant I’ve ever eaten in has had at least one veggie option. And there is a wonderful vegan restaurant down the street from me so you’ll have to visit!

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  4. I am usually on a high learning curve when I read your posts about the great American west and my Dad’s (Paul Colt) guest posts here, but as a a food columnist in the Chicago area, I am well versed in the world of food carts. In fact, the Chicago style hot dog was one of the biggest trend setters in the evolution of food carts; during the depression era factory workers wanted to feel like they were getting a hand held meal (not just a snack) so hot dog vendors started piling on the tomatoes, cucumbers, and pickles (never ketchup, of course) to give folks more bang for their cheap eats buck. To this day Chicago style dogs are still ever present in the city and ideal for on the go eating. On the flip-side, my husband and I attended Galapalooza a couple of years ago-the very high-end private opening party for Lalapalooza-and while we lounged and listened to music on couches in Grant Park d all of the city’s most popular food trucks pulled into the back of the amphitheater and provided fare for everyone. I have always found it fascinating that food trucks can sway gracefully between servicing a high-end clientele because of their kitschy appeal and satisfy grab-and-go budget conscious folks as well. Next time I am in NYC I will have to look into taking a similar tour. Happy eating!

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  5. There’s a Friday nite Taco Truck in my westside Santa Barbara neighborhood. Their tacos al pastor are yummy. Al pastor is marinated & minced (not ground) pork. Also, almost every night up and down the streets I hear a little bell ringing as a man pushes his small cart full of helados, which are the creamiest ice cream in wonderful flavors including fresa (strawberry), guava, pina and vanilla bean.

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    • Wow, you’re making my mouth water. But you also raise a question for me: what is the difference between minced and ground? In England, what is called ground beef in the USA is called minced beef, so I never knew there was any difference.

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  6. Mobile food is becoming so popular. Here where I live there have been carts in front of the courthouse for years. When the decided to take a downtown city park back, one of the mainstays for the summer were the ‘food trucks’ that were popular with tourist and the students and a local high school that sits near the park. The history included was fascinating and I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Thank you. Doris

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    • Glad you enjoyed this, Doris; I’m certainly enjoying hearing about everyone’s experiences with food trucks in their local areas. I’m thinking that outside the courthouse is probably a good spot for folks trying to hurriedly down something during a recess and, of course, near a high school must be a sure-fired winner.

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  7. I live pretty far out in the country in north Florida. The closest we have to anything like this… You may pass a sign by the road where a couple people have a huge stock pot over a propane burner boiling peanuts. They may also have oranges or pecans, fresh off the tree.

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    • Sandra, I think that all goes under the category of farm stands. When I’m out on Long Island, which is farming and vineyard country, we get a lot of fresh fruit and veg for sale off the tree/bush/vine, particularly corn in season. This time of year there are great fields of pumpkins. North Fla. sounds like a nice place to live!

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  8. Nice to hear you’re ‘still on the streets’….reminding me of our walk up/down Fremont in Las Vegas :-). You’ve provided some great info about food carts. Makes my mouth water! Your commenters have added some interesting info, as well. Fun reading…thanks! Rolynn

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  9. I live in a town in Kansas with one stop light . Street vendors only appear during festival days and in mid to late summer farmer s and their families appear with melons , tomatoes, and the other fruits and veggies. Amazing a food cart tour. I’ll be darned. :-)

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    • As I said to Sandra below, I think your summer farmer sales goes under the heading of ‘farm stands’ which is completely different–but excellent! I remember buying peaches from the farm stands down in GA; best dang peaches I ever had, can still taste them. You’ll have to come to NYC to visit me, Eunice, and have a little taste of ‘street food.’

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  10. I live in Tucson, AZ. We have tons of mexican food venders here to. Thanks for the info. but I wonder if the rules here are as good as yours. I have always been a little scared to eat from any of these places. But I might try one now after I look into the rules according to those here in Tucson. If they are as good as yours. I know I will try one. There is one who does fish tacos that i have wanted to try but have not. but thanks for the info I will give it a try. Also I don’t eat out much because of the things that i have seen while I worked at some fast food joints. The things that some people will do just make it scary from me to eat out.

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    • It may certainly be worth looking into the Tucson City Ordinances to see what the regulations are. Might only take a phone call. Regards to Tucson. I used to go there frequently to the Tanque Verde Ranch ;-) Thanks for your comment.

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