New York City is crammed tight, her people and their habits too. Meals are squeezed into the temporal crawlspaces between meetings and shifts. Restaurants lurk in any corner they can find, so food crops up in the oddest places.
But culinary life isn’t confined to restaurants. Harried commuters rushing to board a train scarf down a bite from all manner of meals-on-wheels: aluminum street food carts, mail trucks converted into kitchens, humble stainless-steel trailers. This isn’t only a New York thing, of course. But this is: within the space of a few blocks, there’s a breadth and density of street food from nearly every continent and a passion for its refinement. For less than $10, an atlas of food can be yours.
Though many chefs begin their careers cooking in the sidewalk streetcart, the successful ones rarely stay there. We’ve already discovered the best street food on the street, but now let’s delve indoors to where the hasty cuisine of carts has been stabilised and blossomed in the comforts of a kitchen.
Tucked into a basement on East 1st Street, this vegetarian food counter is easy to find — just look for the line of idling and parked yellow cabs outside. Long opening hours and cheap food make it a favourite among cab drivers getting off their shifts as well as impecunious East Villagers. The tiny store sells everything from samoosas to lentils and rice for just more than $3 to remixes of Eminem tinged with bhangra.
A few blocks north and a subcontinent away, Otafuku serves takoyaki — the ultimate Japanese street food. Takoyaki look like profiteroles but are baked balls of wheat batter and octopus cooked on a griddle. The two-man team behind the sliver-thin counter also make griddled cabbage pancakes called okonomiyaki. The takoyaki themselves come six to a $5 order, topped with fish shavings (benito flakes) and a barbecue-like sauce. The okonomiyaki come with corn, pork or chicken. They’re best eaten in the summer time on the bench outside, or across Stuyvesant Street on the steps of the Hebrew Technical Institute’s Lucas Steinam School for Metal Working.
Shachi’s Venezuelan Restaurant
Moving east into Brooklyn, the various ethnic enclaves offer up their own takes on the street foods of their calles and ulicas (streets). At the very base of the Williamsburg bridge, as Brooklyn fans into Orthodox Jews to the south and Latinos to the north, Shachi’s Venezuelan Restaurant colonises a storefront in between a bank and a cheque-cashing joint. The restaurant specialises in arepas, traditional cornflour pockets stuffed with everything from plantains and stewed steak to chicken salad. The pabellon is a compact package of juicy stewed meat, beans, queso blanco and sweet plantains tucked together under the protection of the crisp arepa crust. Lunch specials include an arepa and a fresh mango juice for $7.
Walking north on Bedford past McCarren Park, the neighbourhood morphs from Latino to hipster to, finally, Polish. Once you’ve hit Lomzynianka on Manhattan Avenue, you’ll swear you’ve entered Warsaw. The restaurant is proud home to the $3 order of pierogi and the $1 cup of borscht. The slosh of Polish consonants of Greenpoint’s large Polish community serves as sonic accompaniment in the kitschy dining room to the hearty fare and the cheap beer.
If, however, you’re a real connoisseur of Eastern European cuisine, and it’s varenyky dumplings you prefer instead of pierogi dumplings, head back into Manhattan to a tiny East village basement a block away from the Ukranian Museum of New York City. Streecha is Ukrainian for meeting hall and it’s only open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The thousands of potato dumplings and gallons of borscht are made by a close-knit community of Ukrainian septuagenarian parishioners from the Catholic Church next door. A steaming plate of varenyky, a cup of silky vinegary borscht and a slice of traditional apple cake will cost you less than five dollars.