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!
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;
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!
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?
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.
We were also blessed with a treat from the now famous 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!