In Praise of Street Food

Oakville Grocery Co in Napa. (Courtesy
The transcendent Kwikmeal pita

I just got back from job-hunting in New York and, in case you haven’t read a paper in the last two years, the labor market blows. On the other hand, I ate well and cheap, because Manhattan without street food would be like the movies without popcorn, the Internet without porn. Plus or minus the thrill of wondering if you’ll wake up with intestinal parasites.

The oak terrace at Mumm Napa. (Photo Courtesy Mumm Napa)
From Germany, with love

In point of fact, for all the years I’ve been eating street-meat, I’ve suffered no ill consequence more serious than the occasional if ill-timed fart, and I’ve come to see the City’s most accomplished cart warriors as ballast to all those celeb chefs and their menus requiring mortgages, proof that the People’s Food can be cheap and good, and as offering a profound perspective on what it takes, and what it doesn’t, to produce good food. I mean, these guys are cooking on the sidewalk. I don’t know about you, but I rank the act of consistently whipping up massive quantities of super tasty vittles for 12 hours straight on a sidewalk in midtown Manhattan, without giving your customers food poisoning, as one of the great culinary feats of our times.

Gyro plate as crack pipe

In an attempt to recognize this heroism, and never to be confused with stale pretzels and three-day-old boiled hot dogs, we have the finalists for the Vendy, the biggest award in the street food hierarchy, the moral equivalent of a third Michelin star or a food-tops rating in Zagat’s. While deserving of the hype, the Vendy event can be a bit of a circus, so I highly recommend working off of NY Mag’s list of the Concrete Elite instead. I find it fascinating, hopeful, and to the undying credit of the City and its sidewalk sous that these lists, even when dated, remain virtually unchanged in either name, location, or quality.

An essential part of the street-meat experience is, of course, its sheer proximity, a few dollars and a couple of city blocks the only things between you and a great meal. Don’t get me wrong, I’m hardly above the “food pilgrimage”, but when it comes to street food, you sort of want to just walk to it, at least in my book; so, when I’m in Midtown, I set my table at the corner of 6th and 52nd, or 5th and 53rd… Herewith, and I mean no disrespect to the many great alternatives further afield, my Midtown Manhattan Trifecta:

Security or Freedom?
  • Facing temporal or gastrointestinal constraints, triage would inexorably lead me to Rolf’s Hallo Berlin sausage cart at 54th and 5th. He’ll even let you choose between the Democracy (was Churchill, now Obama) and the Dictator (Stalin or Mao) Special?
  • The Halal Guys on the SW corner of 53rd St and 6th Ave are legend. There are dozens of impostors, many within a one-block radius, so if you go, be sure to check the corner; you’ll know when you’re there, because the line is longer than the competition by a thoroughly justifiable order of magnitude. What other gyro-style stand has its own Wikipedia page? Who else make lamb-on-rice so good that you can get knifed for cutting in line (yes, it really happened). Where else do the customers refer to the white sauce as “crack sauce”?
  • And for “dessert”, why not Mohammed Rahman’s Kwik Meal at 45th and 6th,
    A day in Napa filled with tasting rooms, great wine, and good food.
    So good, so very hot.

    run by the only street chef I know who trained at the Russian Tea Room and marinates cubes of lamb – not pressed into gyros, fresh cubes – in his own concoction of papaya juice to tenderize it. Be sure to try it with a side of his freakishly hot, not-quite-Middle-Eastern, neon-green jalapeno chili sauce. Craaaaazeeeeee hot, but Oh. So. Good.