Many of you might think that something that is so Middle Eastern to have the word “Halal” in the name couldn’t be a part of the foodie scene in any major US city, but then again, New York City is the modern Rome, where people, customs, languages, and food come from all corners of the world to fuse. Is it any wonder that we now have halal carts dotting the City?
“Halal” is the Muslim version of the Jewish Kosher, regarding food. If it’s not Halal, a Muslim can’t eat it, just as with a religious Jew, if it ain’t Kosher, it’s not allowed.
In Halal, other than total restrictions on non allowed foods, most notably pork products, the animals that make up the meat have to be ritually killed in a certain way for it to be halal. Some people are opposed to halal for ethical and animal cruelty reasons, or even political ones. I have to mention that because, hey, it’s a hot button issue.
I don’t want to get into that, but I want to talk a bit about these halal carts.
Read on, fellow foodies!
I discovered halal carts through a work mate who happened to be a non religious Sikh who consumes meat. (Sikhs are usually vegetarian)
When I’m not eating the $8-$10 (with drink) salad, I might be hunting down a nearby halal cart.
It turns out that there are these mobile lunch carts all over NYC. There are all kinds of lunch carts for all kinds of food, but the halal ones are very large in number for any one specific type of food.
The type of food is usually served in a takeaway Styrofoam closing tray and it has a little bit of salad, a layer of rice, and covered with your choice of meat, which is usually chicken or a type of garlicky seasoned lamb taken off a cylindrical tube of formed meat called a doner kebab. These doner kebabs are a staple of middle eastern and Mediterranean foods, and they are also commonplace in Greek restaurants. The meat from these are also used on the gyro, which is a pita based sandwich containing this meat, along with lettuce, tomato, chopped peppers, and a yogurt cucumber sauce or other yogurty white sauce that is a famous staple topping for the halal cart lunches. the white sauce is so famous, that some people out there have sought to duplicate it, with mixed results. These guys aren’t giving away their recipes. (if you can even understand them enough to get a recipe out of them)
Vegetarians who aren’t strict vegan and who would order from one of these carts (due to the meat soaked cooking surfaces), can opt for Falafels instead of meat. A falafel is a fried ball of, essentially, a chickpea flour ball of goodness. They’re great, so try one sometime.
The halal cart food is basically the innards of a gyro, paired with a bed of rice, and covered (or not upon request) with one’s choice of the white sauce (usually the Tzatziki like sauce mentioned above) and red hot sauce. The cart I hit the other day also included chopped cilantro in it, which added immensely to the overall flavor profile.
The doner kebab meat (lamb), or chicken , or both is a choice with some carts, is cooked on a hot plate surface in the cart, and then thrown all together in the takeaway container.
It’s a nice hefty amount of food and it usually costs about $6-$8, only cash, please.
You simply cannot get a lunch of this caliber for any cheaper. Think about it. The average store front rent in many parts of Manhattan can be $20,000. per month. The brick and mortar eateries need to charge accordingly or they can’t make their rent and a profit. The cart guys have no such worries. They can charge cheap prices.
This food is adventurous for many who are used to more traditional American fare. It’s straight from the Middle East. It is laces with garlic, spices, and hot pepper. Sure, there are safer bets for the taste bud challenged at the usual 7 Eleven or Subway, but it’s so boring when you can sink into some fresh cooked hot street fare.
If you can get over the strange accents and sometimes rude demeanor (as with anyone, this varies form person to person) then this is a culinary adventure that I wholeheartedly recommend.
It might be harder for the street tourist to find a place to eat this food, since it’s cooked on the street and there are no dining facilities, but if you are in a nice section of the City and there is a place to take a seat, then chow down!
Here is a closeup of the Foodie’s lunch the other day…
The carts that sell this food are usually small and hook up to a vehicle.
Some can be pushed by hand.
Others are built into the side of a larger truck.
The food is pretty much all the same.
If you look on Yelp, some of these carts have gotten famous and there are people who would take great issue with me about me saying they were all pretty much the same. People have their favorites.
I’d say the biggest difference is that some carts have more choices, like you can choose your rice from a choice of white, yellow, or brown, or basmati, while with others it’s the basic yellow. Some of these guys offer large portions, and some of them will throw in extras like a few french fries or eggplant pieces to bulk it up (upon request).
If you’re going Paleo, you can usually get them to forgo the rice in lieu of more salad. They will put the hot stuff over the salad, which will make some of the salad wilt, but it’s not really that bad if that happens. Maybe you can get more meat of you tell the guy you’ll give him another dollar or two to make up the difference. On a $6 meal, that only brings it to $8…. in Manhattan. That’s pretty cheap.
To wrap things up, many of these carts sell other more recognizable food stuffs, like hamburgers and hot dogs, but when I hit up a NYC Halal Cart, I opt for the lamb doner kebab version, which is the gift that keeps giving, since you repeat it from the garlic the remainder of the day. Nothing burps like that seasoned lamb.
That’s what I call a $6 foodie lunch that you can’t go wrong with.
Halal cart, baby.
These guys are just trying to eek out a living, and it’s a hard life.
Check one out next time you’re in New York City.
The Foodie wouldn’t steer ya wrong…