New York was probably into street food before you were, so go learn from the masters. From burritos to dosas, here are five Manhattan munchie wagons worth a detour
While it can seem as though there’s a food cart on every corner in New York, not all sidewalk meals are created equal, and knowing which ones are legit is important insider knowledge. Going for the wrong $5 gyro can leave you full of remorse, and being able to rattle off the best food carts is a point of pride for New Yorkers – knowing where to find the best street eats is a sign of your authenticity.
The outer boroughs are home to worthwhile street food that is even cheaper and more traditional than most of the options on Manhattan, but that’s not to say the main island doesn’t have its fair share of gems tucked away. Among the many carts there are a few that have stood the test of time and become New York City icons. From chicken and lamb gyro over rice to what many still consider the best tacos in the city, these five food carts are the essential street food stops (sticking to Manhattan for now).
Having started with one stand and a clientele of mostly Muslim cab drivers in 1990, the founding Guys – Muhammed Abouelenein, Abdelbaset Elsayed and Ahmed Elsaka – now command the loyalty of New Yorkers of all backgrounds, who are drawn to their “American halal” style of street food, which they describe as “a complex melting pot of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavours.” If there’s a Halal Guys cart nearby, the enticing smell of seasoned meat with onions and peppers wafts down the avenues and draws in people of every nationality, especially during the late night post-drinking hours. While there are countless outposts for a quick gyro or meat and rice plate around the city, the Halal Guys, with their recognizable yellow signs and shirts, set themselves apart with their sauces – it’s not uncommon for a drunk patron to take off running down 6th Avenue with a bottle of their proprietary white sauce. (Reminder: Stealing is wrong.) On any given night, you can expect a long line of people, mostly intoxicated, happily waiting 15 or more minutes for a plate of food rather than get immediate service from a nearby halal cart. It’s worth the wait.
Multiple locations, including West 53rd Street and 6th Avenue, 347-527-1505
This local favourite has been gracing the streets of New York for as long as anyone can remember, and its place in New York’s heart earned it a name-check on Aziz Ansari’s Netflix comedy Master Of None. The typical menu of tacos, burritos, tostadas, tortas and cemitas doesn’t seem like anything special at first glance. And truth be told, there’s no gourmet twist: Tacos Morelos is just good, honest food that is as close to authentic as anything else in New York. The fact that it is the go-to spot for local Mexicans reaffirms its legitimacy. The tacos rank among the best year after year even as upscale restaurants that grind their own masa have come onto the scene. The inexpensive food is made to order and served up quickly with a smile. While Morelos eventually added a nearby brick-and-mortar restaurant, the quick service food from the truck easily outshines it.
Multiple locations, including 2nd Street at Avenue A, 347-772-5216
Long before vegan food became a citywide trend, Thiru Kumar was serving up his dosas in Washington Square Park to hungry NYU students and faculty. This beloved outpost for authentic south Indian street food rivals the best sit-down versions (some of which are in places like Queens). NY Dosas draws long lines every day for lunch. It helps that Kumar is impossibly friendly and the prices impossibly low. The crepe-like dosa is made from fermented lentil batter. It gets stuffed with your choice of curried vegetables and is served with a cup of lentil soup, and the entire meal – almost too much to finish in one sitting – costs less than $10. This pioneering cart is one of New York’s best-kept dining secrets.
West 4th Street at Sullivan Street, 917-710-2092
Trini Paki Boys
This cart, recently upgraded after 20 years, is one of the best options for lunch in Midtown and for Trinidadian-inspired food anywhere in Manhattan. For anyone addicted to Trini pepper sauce, for starters, this is a must-visit. The Boys’ menu combines standard halal cart-style meat over rice – but with unique Caribbean spices and sauces – with Trinidadian staples like bake and shark, and doubles. Owner Fatima and her son run the cart and have become just as beloved as the food they serve, offering island hospitality to their loyal customers. Their office worker lunchtime crowd is so steady that this cart is only opened until 3pm during weekdays.
43rd Street at 6th Avenue
This taco cart eventually spawned multiple brick-and-mortar locations, but it still proudly peddles tacos and burritos on the streets of New York. The owners sought to share the cooking they grew up with in their hometown of Calexico, Calif. – namely, family recipes born from a mix of Californian and Mexican cultures. The result is a special style of food that pretty much everybody loves. The Soho street cart still draws a daily crowd of hungry office workers and hipsters looking for their Tex-Mex – or more accurately, Cal-Mex – fix. The tacos, huge burritos, burrito bowls and quesadillas are worth trying, while but the absolute must-have is the “sweet chipotle crack sauce,” aptly named for its addictive quality.
Multiple locations including Prince Street at Wooster Street