by William Gozdziewski, New York Guest Concierge
As a New Yorker, you pass food carts every day. Dozens of them. You don’t even take a second glance at them, and mostly you view them as another obstacle to zigzag around on the ever shrinking sidewalk already overloaded with pedestrians. Little do you know, you are strolling past a diamond in the rough, a gem, a PEARL, if you will. That is the concept behind Urban Oyster; a company bent on finding the little pearls of New York City that gives the city its true character which is often masked by huge corporations and modern capitalism. Urban Oyster is all about educating people about the city’s rich history, especially its culinary history, in a thinking-outside-the-box fashion.
Our tour began in a centrally located meeting area. Our tour guide, Brian Hoffman, was already waiting for us there even though we were 10 minutes early. He quickly struck up conversation about what we would be seeing that day whilst we waited for the rest of the group to arrive. The tour started punctually with a concise history of food carts. In the early days of New York City, immigrants found food carts to be an excellent way to earn a living. They prepared foods from their homeland, and sold them on the street. In days gone by, street food was mainly composed of sausages, knishes, and oysters. With the new wave of immigrants being mostly Muslim, a whole new world of flavor has found its way into the streets of New York.
Expecting cheap fried food and a pending need for Tums, I was astonished to find the quality of the food on this tour to be superb. I thought some of it would be good, in that greasy, butter-tastes-great kind of way. I couldn’t have been more wrong. After asking if we had any dietary restrictions and if we like spicy or not (the answer was YES!) Brian took us to 6 food carts; 5 savory and 1 sweet. At each cart, there was a painfully obvious lack of grease, fat, oil, butter – and a deliciously obvious phantasmagoria of flavor!
The first stop was Bapcha, home of delicious Korean cuisine since 2004. As owner John Lee prepared our food, Brian told us about how his cart came to be, and also went into detail about the commissaries where the carts are kept at the end of the day. By law, all the carts must be brought to a commissary where they are thoroughly cleaned and properly stored each and every day. It is also where much of the prep work is done and where the carts are fully stocked up for the upcoming day. As John Lee finished dishing up the yum-yums, Brian passed them out to us and we dived right into the scrumptiousness. The sample included galbi, dak galbi, and japchae. For the non-Korean speakers, that’s marinated short ribs, chicken, and sweet potato noodles respectively. All this was covered with a touch of chili pepper sauce which gave a nice kick to the explosion of flavor. Bapcha has become so popular, that John’s food cart is no longer big enough to keep up with the demand, so he had to get a second food cart, and a sous chef to run it.
Next was Trini-Paki Boys, owned and operated by Fatima Khan. She’s from Pakistan and her husband is from Trinidad and Tobago. Once they had a few sons, they also had the name for their cart. Fatima has been preparing food and selling it from her cart for 23 years. She was the first street vendor to sell Halal food. When she applied for her permit, the city didn’t even know what Halal was; she had to explain it as the Muslim version of Kosher, which the city was already more than familiar with. Her food was an overabundant fountain of flavor, and her sauce sealed the deal. Of course, as a culinary magician she couldn’t reveal her secrets, but the key was the tamarind sauce lightly drizzled over her chicken and rice – out of this world! It completely set her apart from all the other vendors out there, and was truly amazing to see her revolutionize a primitive dish into an innovative experience.
Right across the street was our next stop, El Rey del Sabor, which translate into The King of Flavor, owned and operated by Rosa from Puebla, Mexico. As they served up some spicy pork quesadillas with guacamole and chipotle mayonnaise, Brian talked about the near impossibility of obtaining a food cart permit. There used to be a 20-25 year waiting list, but due to a high volume of requests, that has changed. Now, one must put their name into a lottery drawing, then, if you win, your name will be added to the 20-25 year waiting list. Permits may also be passed on after the owner’s death as long as they designate who the permit goes to in their will. Why would someone go through all of this just to operate a food cart? I found the answer to this at our next stop.
Mohammad Rahman came to New York City after attending a highly acclaimed culinary school in Toronto, Canada. He was a sous chef at The Russian Tea Room for many years with the dream of one day opening his own establishment where he would serve up his own creations that were sprouting in his head, begging to come into existence. However, even one of New York City’s top sous chefs can’t afford Midtown rents. He finally decided his need to share his passion could wait no longer, and so, he created his own food cart and dubbed it Kwik Gourmet; and gourmet it is indeed! I was bestowed with a plate of falafel made with both chick peas and fava beans, served up with traditional yogurt sauce and a side of lamb. As I bit into the falafel, I was blown away by the flavor. The yogurt sauce was a perfectly subtle accompaniment, and the lamb was decadently tenderized with papaya purée. Over the sound of my tastes buds humming with pleasure, it was difficult to hear Brian talk about how Celebrity Chef Bobby Flay pilfered Mohammad’s falafel recipe and used it to defeat his opponent on his falafel episode of Throw down with Bobby Flay. Obviously, Bobby was smart enough to know he could not trounce Mohammad on the show, so he stole his recipe instead.
Strolling on over to the next cart, Biryani, Brian told us about the extreme popularity of this cart. It won the Vendy award; a people’s choice award given to street food vendors who excel in preparing their foods; 2 years in a row. On average, this cart goes through 200 pounds of chicken per day at lunchtime alone! Biryani is the concept of Chef Meru Sikder who hails from Bangladesh. After many years as a banquet chef, he too wanted to bring his passion to New York City, but had not yet won the Mega Million Lottery, and so Biryani came to be. We were served a Spicy Buradi Roll, which is a form of kati roll. As our helpful tour guide Brian informed us, kati rolls originate from India, where a popular street food was kebabs. When the British Empire took control, they thought of eating meat off a stick as repulsive and outlawed it. So, the natives put the kebab on flatbread and rolled it up. Food teaches history! And it tastes so good! Chowing down on the kati roll, I had an epiphany about just how bland American food is.
Lastly, but most definitely not the least, we trekked on over to the cart we had all been fantasizing about since Brian mentioned it at the start of the tour; Waffles and Dinges. Dinges is a Flemish word used to describe something which there is no word for; think the Flemish equivalent of thing-a-ma-jig, doo-dad, or whatcha-me-call-it; and refers to the various toppings that are available to garnish your waffle. This cart has gained huge popularity over the past few years, mainly through their use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, which they use to inform their fans of where the cart will be stationed on that particular day. Waffles and Dinges is serious about waffles, specifically Belgium Waffles, and not what we Americans call Belgium Waffles, but seriously, the real deal. No, seriously. The Prince of Belgium flies into New York on a regular basis to check in on Waffles and Dinges and ensure they are producing genuine Belgium Waffles. No joke. They were also featured on Throw down with Bobby Flay where they defeated him with what they have now dubbed “The Throw down Waffle.” We just had to sample the waffle that put Bobby Flay to shame. Covered in their signature spekuloos spread and whipped cream, it was phenomenal!! The spekuloos spread had the consistency of peanut butter and tasted like cookies. Yum!
Even though we were full to the brim with delicious food at this point, we were still saddened to see the tour come to a conclusion. We had so much fun, had such great food, and learned so much you would never think there was to know about food carts. Personally, I was surprised at the quality of the food. As Brian said, Urban Oyster wants people to know about these pearls; these little food carts that offer scrumptiously satisfying alternatives to the common corporate cafés that overrun the Midtown area. Throughout the tour, the most expensive item was $10 with the average being between $6 and $8. The flavor palate produced by these gourmet chefs, turned revolutionaries, far surpassed the blandness of the more conventional lunch spots. Food carts have often been viewed as a cheap blue collar staple, but I pronounce them a foodie’s delight. This tour is a must for anyone who enjoys food or is looking for a unique local experience.
Food Cart Tours run on Wednesdays in the Financial District and Fridays in Midtown – carts visited vary according to availability. Want to experience this tour for yourself? Check out our online booking or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
This tour may also be booked as a private tour – ask your New York Guest travel planner!
Plus check out more tours from Urban Oyster: Brewed in Brooklyn & Craft Beer Crawls