‘Halal cart guy’ a New York original
Halal cart guy serves up the greasiest, sloppiest … tastiest pile of street eats in Manhattan
Published On Fri Mar 19 2010 CBC News Toronto
* Islam Elsayed’s shift is from 7:30 p.m. to 4 a.m. During daylight hours, the cart operates with different staff on the other side of the street.
Islam Elsayed’s shift is from 7:30 p.m. to 4 a.m. During daylight hours, the cart operates with different staff on the other side of the street.
NEW YORK CITY—It all started around 15 years ago. With New York’s endless, swirling sea of yellow cabs crisscrossing the city, cabbies needed fuel for more than their cars. Food, they needed food. Not just any food. Late-night food, the kind that’s cheap, fresh, hot, and (pardon the pun) wouldn’t eat into their driving schedules.
Enter Islam Elsayed and his tiny halal cart. At the corner of 53rd St. and 6th Ave., it was the perfect spot. Walking distance from Times Square, Central Park and Columbus Circle, he was smack dab in the middle of Manhattan’s shopping and nightlife. The cart itself was modest, the size of a regular hot dog cart, but with a larger, flat grill and room underneath to store pita bread and pre-cooked rice.
For $4.50, Elsayed fed his customers a feast: A bed of basmati rice, lamb gyro, shredded chicken, salad and pita — all smothered in his secret white sauce and crammed into a round aluminum tray.
Word of the “halal cart guy” grew. The cabbies came in droves. Then came the limousine drivers, then their passengers. Soon, tourists started showing up. After all, what could scream New York more than wolfing down a plate of deliciously greasy, messy street food? Before long, without spending a single cent on advertising, a New York City legend was born.
Today, the lineup is routinely an hour long, with hundreds of people standing and braving the elements — all for a taste of the famous platter.
Elsayed now counts New York’s rich and famous, including actresses and celebrity chefs, among his clientele. Queen Latifah is said to be a regular. It’s so popular that Tripadvisor users have ranked it as the fifth-best “restaurant” in New York City, putting him ahead of longtime Zagat-rated powerhouses like Per Se and Sushi Yasuda.
Not bad for a guy selling food on a street corner.
It’s the kind of thing that could only happen in New York. Only here, could the lineup for a street food vendor be longer than the lineups for the Empire State Building and the Rockefeller Center. On most nights, you’ll have to wait longer to get “the platter” than you would to get into the Ed Sullivan Theatre. In other words, the halal cart guy is more popular than David Letterman.
“I’m surprised when there’s not a line, actually,” says Frank Abyar in his slight New York accent. The 25-year-old works nearby. When I ask why such a tiny street cart could have such a strong following, he shrugs it off.
“Because it’s good,” he says. “The food is really, really good.”
New Yorkers say it like it’s no big deal. But it is. So big, in fact, that it’s becoming an international phenomenon.
On Yelp.com, the cart has nearly 900 reviews — most of them glowing about the food, the price, and most of all, the secret white sauce.
“The lamb and white sauce is epic,” writes a reviewer from Stamford, Conn.
“It was totally worth the 15 blocks or so that we walked to get there,” writes another, this one from San Diego.
“In the past, I have driven to NYC just for this,” writes a Boston reviewer. “It’s the place worth driving for.”
And it’s not just late-night partiers and people from nearby states that are hooked.
“He’s getting an international reputation,” explains Mark Ricci, a communications director for the Hilton brand. One of their flagship properties, the Hilton New York, occupies the street corner opposite the cart. In most cases, it’s the street vendor who’s lucky to be stationed outside a big hotel. In this case, it’s the other way around.
“We’re lucky to be so close to him,” Ricci adds. “We’re seeing people from Europe get to our hotel and ask, ‘Where’s the street food guy?’ ”
Street food guy is just one of Elsayed’s nicknames. He has others: The Chicken and Rice guy, the spot, the platter dude and simply “the cart.” The one thing that hasn’t changed is the menu. Sandwiches are $4, the platter is now $6. You can choose any combination of lamb, chicken, white sauce, hot sauce and barbecue sauce. A drink will set you back another dollar.
“I’m here four or five days a week,” says Sergio Salinas, polishing off the last few bites of his lamb gyro. “There’s a lot of people around here selling the same type of food, but he’s the only one making the money.”
Salinas would know. His is one of the six yellow cabs parked in front of the cart. When I ask him if he gets passengers who hit up the cart before a night on the town, he nods. Before I can ask him why, he jumps back into his cab and drives off.
Talk about fast food.
You can probably see where this is heading. It’s past midnight on a cold winter night. I’ve just had a three-course Italian dinner and am ready to call it a night. From the corner of my room on the 31st floor, I look down and see the lineup outside the cart.
“There’s only a dozen people,” I think to myself. “Now’s my chance.”
I pack my umbrella and head down. It’s pouring rain and barely a couple of degrees out, yet people are still lining up outside the cart. As I get closer, the smell of grease and chicken fat begins to fill the air.
Not a good first impression.
The people in line know the routine. Most will place their entire order with just one word: Mixed, lamb or chicken. Some will dare ask for the hot sauce, reportedly so spicy that just a couple of drops will suffice.
As I near the front of the line, I catch Elsayed in action. He’s wearing a blue parka with an American flag embroidered on the left shoulder. He prepares each platter with calculated precision. First, he lays out the rice across three quarters of the plate. Then the lettuce, then three tongs each of lamb and chicken.
“White sauce?” he asks.
“Yes,” I answer, then brave the words “with a bit of hot sauce, too.”
The platter is sealed and handed to me in a yellow bag. At last, my treasure. But this is too good to eat on the street. With the bag steaming, I make it back to my room and lock the door.
I open the tray. A thick layer of white sauce blankets the rest of the dish. It is the juiciest, messiest, greasiest, creamiest, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth, garlicky smelling pile of food I’ve ever seen. The white sauce has soaked through the pita and rice, making it hard to tell where the bread ends and the meat begins. It takes the word “smorgasbord” to a whole different level.
I start with one bite, then two — 10 minutes later, I’ve wolfed down the entire thing, the white sauce tasting like a mix of ranch dressing, garlic, mayonnaise and tzatziki sauce.
That night, as I lay in bed — having stuffed myself with the best $6 I’ve ever spent — I dreamt about the sauce.
And I knew I’d be back the next day.
Muhammad Lila is a correspondent with CBC News in Toronto.
you can't argue with 15 years of success! lol
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