By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2004 Gourmet Magazine
Out in the sun on office-building steps or during a brisk destination hike, ad hoc alfresco meals are New York City’s most distinctive way to dine. Many U.S. cities sport a single stand-up specialty—fish tacos in San Diego, custard in Milwaukee, espresso shots in Tampa—but Manhattan’s vendors put the whole world in your hands, ready to devour on the stroll. Some Big Apple street eats are ubiquitous: roasted chestnuts, soft pretzels, boiled frankfurters under mustard and onions. Good as such classics can be, we decided to graze around in search of vendors who had something special. Highlights ranged from ridiculously exotic curried squid from a cart on the already crowded corner of Hester Street and the Bowery to a well-nigh perfect crisp-skinned grilled—not boiled—hot dog from Hot Dog King at 49th and Sixth.
Downtown early birds start the day at Tony’s, parked at Nassau and Wall starting about 4 A.M., Monday through Friday. “Bread or platter” asks Theodora Psaroudis, Tony’s wife, when we order a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs.
“Platter,” we say, assuming it is the more comely choice.
“Wrong!” declares the man in line behind us, whose smock identifies him as a floor trader at the New York Stock Exchange, down the street. “Bread’s the best,” he says. “Get a long roll.”
Tony’s fast food is not instantaneous. Eggs are cracked fresh for every order, and there isn’t room on the small griddle for more than a few. During the five-minute wait, we ask the people at the neighboring juice cart to whip us up a mango banana orange pineapple shake; the cup comes in a brown paper bag, its lid heaped with chunks of fresh fruit. We pay Theodora $2.25 for a magnificent lode of buttery eggs and sizzled bacon folded inside a muscular hero roll. The bread is especially delicious when imprinted with the eggs’ butter and the bacon’s drippings.
There are three Starbucks outlets within a block of the Mudtruck, at Astor Place across from Cooper Union, but all the counterculture connoisseurs gladly wait at the sunny orange vehicle decorated with an American flag whose stars form a peace sign. One dollar buys a tasteful (no logo) ten-ounce white paper cup of coffee that is smooth and cocoa rich. Espresso drinks are also available, at about two-thirds the price of the big guy’s brew.
The most improbable street corner vendor in Manhattan is Mohammed Rahman, proprietor of Kwik Meal, on 45th Street just west of Sixth Avenue. Outfitted in a dapper ascot and a flat-topped chef’s toque that barely fits under his cart’s low roof, Rahman is a soft-spoken host who treats customers like honored guests. His menu includes shrimp, chicken, and falafel, but it’s lamb that mustn’t be missed: crisp-edged nuggets that glow with a marinade of garlic, ginger, cumin, unripe papaya, and coriander. It comes with basmati rice or butter-grilled pita bread, hot jalapeño sauce, and creamy raita.
One block from Kwik Meal, on 46th and Sixth, is Moshe’s Falafel, a Hasid-run cart guaranteed to revivify anyone disenchanted with the desiccated chickpea balls sold elsewhere. These opulent falafel are juicy inside with a crust so crunchy that nearby eaters sound like they are munching fresh carrots. Moshe sells foursomes plain or packed inside pita bread with lettuce, tomato, pickle, and a spill of tahini sauce.
Midtown’s side streets are crowded with hot dog carts that are pretty much the same, but Hallo Berlin is something else. You will find no ordinary Sabretts here. With signs boasting that it is “The ‘wurst’ pushcart in New York” and home of “The Soup Communist,” this tiny piece of real estate at the northwest corner of 54th Street and Fifth Avenue is the jocular domain of Rolf Babiel, whose specialty is old world sausages: bratwurst, bockwurst, knackwurst, Bauernwurst, and kielbasa. They are served whole in an excellent hard roll—preferably topped with red cabbage, kraut, onions, and mustard—or sliced into disks and spread atop a bed of fried potatoes in a cardboard boat.
One lunch hour, we finally get to the head of the Hallo Berlin line to order a pan fried Beef Currywurst and the day’s special, a Freakin Deal platter of chopped Bavarian meatballs with Alpenwurst, German potato salad, and red and white cabbage. At the cart, Babiel assembles every order as a silent partner replenishes the spud trays and seasons the taut-skinned tube steaks as they sizzle on the cart. “Here or to go?” the wurstmeister asks.
When we say “Here,” he plants a couple of plastic forks in the meatball boat and directs us to an 18-inch square ledge at the side of his cart that is topped with a red and white checked cloth. As we stand and eat at the microtable, Babiel makes us his audience while preparing lunch for the never ending line of customers.
“The mayor of Chicago wrote because he wants me to open a sausage cart in the Loop,” he announces. “And the mayor of New Rochelle is a fan, too. They approached me from the Empire State Building to open up there. And there was an article that said the world would be a better place with a Hallo Berlin on every corner.” Then he shows us the dish he says we should have ordered, the German Double Soul Food Mix, a combo plate that includes bratwurst and a Berliner sausage, no substitutions allowed. “We call it the Dictator Special,” he says. “Because you have no choice.”
The immense rib-eye steak sandwiches and pork loin sandwiches enveloped in big soft pita breads at Jane’sare legendary, and at $8 apiece, some of the city’s most expensive street eats. The sprawling food stand at the foot of Central Park across from Grand Army Plaza has a menu bigger than many full-service restaurants—it includes hot dogs, hamburgers, and sausages; fresh-squeezed OJ and muffins in the morning; and blended-to-order fruit smoothies. Jane’s also serves halved roasted sweet potatoes in their skin, cooked until they are dark orange and falling apart. As we stood on the sidewalk and forked into ours, the earthy caramel flavor reminded us of the pivotal scene in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, when the taste of street-corner yams inspires the hero to acknowledge who he is, echo Popeye, and proclaim, “I yam what I am!” It is an epiphany, a moment of grace. Such is the transformative power of pushcart food in New York.