The Concrete Elite: NYC’s Top Street Food

Inspires by Avis discovers the best food carts of New York City. Explore the busy Manhattan junction where you get a great meal for just a few dollars.

Eating well in New York doesn’t mean spending big. At the busy Manhattan junction where 53rd Street meets 6th Avenue, you’ll find a food cart with the kind of queue more commonly associated with launch-day Apple Stores. Three words are emblazoned on the yellow shirts worn by the men dishing out platters of sauce-slathered chicken, lamb and rice to those in line. We Are Different. And if you hand over seven dollars, you’ll get a meal to be eaten as the great Midtown gods intended: sat on the sidewalk with a foil dish on your lap, a soda at your side and seasoning down your chin.

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The-Halal-Guys

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The rise and rise of this particular outlet, The Halal Guys, is one of the single biggest success stories of New York’s love affair with street food. I happen to be staying in a hotel directly opposite the stall, and over the course of four days develop a minor obsession with it. I’m by no means the first. From the cart’s beginnings here at 53rd and 6th in 1990 – where it still serves customers until 4am daily – the business has grown to the point where a national restaurant franchise is now well under development (to the disdain of some of its street-level devotees, it should be said).

Not every New York pavement pushcart goes on to this level of exposure, of course, but the extraordinary popularity of The Halal Guys highlights the city’s unflagging obsession with meals on the go. And at a time when the buzz-term “street food” seems sometimes to have been co-opted by anyone sticking cured meat in a brioche bun and charging you eight quid for the pleasure, it’s worth remembering that some world cities, well, just do it better.

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Southeast Asia can lay serious claim to offering the best street food on the planet – take a bow Penang, Bangkok, Singapore and others – but across in the Big Apple, it’s the sheer choice that makes the offering so impressive. Quality counts for a lot, too. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, make it here and you’ll make it anywhere. The Sabrett hot dog carts found on almost every intersection are iconic rather than innovative, but look beyond the ubiquitous and you’ll find a pan-global spread of excellent budget eats, from lobster roll, South Indian dhosas and Hungarian flatbreads to chorizo tacos, Burmese noodle salads and Korean burritos.

And the city takes its street food seriously. In a few weeks’ time on September 12th, New York will be holding its 11th Annual Vendy Awards – the so-called “Oscars of Street Food” – at which local sidewalk vendors compete to take home prizes in five categories (including one dedicated purely to “desserts”: think everything from cinnamon sugar doughnuts to tiramisu marshmallows).

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Many of the city’s outlets are long established. Under an umbrella at the corner of 54th Street and 5th Avenue I find the Hallo Berlin bratwurst stall, which has been in situ since the days of Grandmaster Flash and Ghostbusters. “Yes, we’ve been setting up here for more than 30 years,” the elderly German proprietor tells me, handing over a cardboard tray of chopped bratwurst, onions, meatballs, mustard and homemade potato salad while a portly police officer pauses to peer at the menu. Unsurprisingly, given the stall’s three-decade residency, it tastes very good.

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And it’s not just on the streets themselves that New York does high-quality convenience food, as I discover the next day. Since childhood I’ve been familiar with the basic pies and burgers on offer at British sports grounds, so it’s genuinely quite startling when I’m wandering underneath the stands at Yankee Stadium and, among the replica shirt stores, pass a man cleaving an enormous side of raw beef behind a show window.

Closer inspection reveals the in-stadium butcher to be preparing cuts for the adjacent food stall, Lobel’s, where large USDA Prime Steak Sandwiches are being made for a ready line of baseball-watchers, complete with little tubs of horseradish sauce. It’s $16 a pop, expensive by street food standards, but to say it’s a cut above a mouth-scalding chicken and mushroom pie is an understatement. I head up to the seats and tuck in as the first innings starts. Who needs a restaurant when you’ve got Bronx sunshine and a table for 40,000?

New York dining can be as refined as you want it to be. There’s a thick constellation of Michelin stars over the five boroughs and, likewise, there are great rewards to be had by making your choice of eatery based on its Zagat rating. This is a city, however, where a cheap meal that can be grabbed in the hands is often far more than just sightseeing fuel.

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Six other stalls to try:

Milk Truck

Specialising in grilled cheese sandwiches – the “classic” starts at $5.95 – but you’ll also find salads, soups and mac-and-cheese (made with gruyere, cheddar and asiago).

Location varies: can be tracked online

Milk-Truck

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Solber Pupusas

Previous Vendy Award recipients, this husband-and-wife team have been selling traditional pupusas (similar to tortillas) from El Salvador since 1999. Fillings include cheese, pork and beans.

Various Brooklyn markets

 Solber-Pupusas

Image Credit: iStock.com/DerekNeumeier

The Arepa Lady

Another cart with a seemingly legendary reputation. The lady in question, Maria Piedad Cano, has been serving South American cornmeal cakes to late-night eaters for more than two decades.

79th Street & Roosevelt Avenue, Queens, Fridays & Saturdays

 The-Arepa-Lady

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The Cinnamon Snail

Acclaimed mobile kitchen producing vegan and organic food such as fresh fig pancakes, Thai BBQ tempeh and smoked Portobello mushroom carpaccio. Named America’s favourite vegetarian food truck three times.

Location varies: can be tracked online

The-Cinnamon-Snail

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Lil Zeus Lunch Box

A relative newcomer to the scene. Cooks up Greek souvlaki lunch platters, as well as sandwiches, salads and burgers.

50th Street & 6th Avenue

Lil-Zeus-Lunch-Box

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Nuchas

Twice a Vendy Award winner, Nuchas serves handmade fresh-baked empanadas. Varieties include Argentine (with ground beef and onions) and Jambalaya (with shrimp and Arborio rice).

Location varies: can be tracked online

Nuchas

Image Credit: iStock.com/claudiodoenitzperez

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