Taking Manhattan, one street-food delicacy at a time

July 05, 2006

NEW YORK - IN THE 1977 MOVIE SATURDAY Night Fever, a camera trails the young and impossibly coiffed Tony Manero (John Travolta) as he swivels his slim hips down a city sidewalk while cramming a slice of pizza into his mouth.

Tony's dining on the dash tells us everything we need to know about him - he's vain enough to imagine that even the way he wolfs down food is admirable - but this scene also sets the film in a very particular place: Manhattan.

New Yorkers are terribly proud of their 24-7, "we're too busy to sit still" energy. Move it, baby! Go-go-go! When life rushes 'round the clock, inevitably meals take to their heels.

FOR THE RECORD - An article about New York street food in Wednesday's Taste section incorrectly described the setting of the movie Saturday Night Fever. The story takes place in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The Sun regrets the error.

Catering to Gotham's restless and roving appetite, a variety of outdoor vendors sell standard fare like hot dogs, doughy pretzels encrusted with salt, and candy-coated peanuts, as well as exotic flavors from across the globe: South Indian dosas, Argentine empanadas and Asian noodle soups.

"New York has the most vibrant street-food culture of any city in the United States," said Richard Darmstadter, a retired importer of gourmet foods who is now a volunteer with Big Apple Greeters, a nonprofit organization that arranges guided tours highlighting little-known sides of New York.

"From shish kebab to gelato," he said, "there is such profusion that anything imaginable has been served from a cart at one time or another."

To honor this bounty, the Vendy Awards were launched in 2005, a competition held to raise awareness for the Urban Justice Center's Street Vendors Project, which supports the city's estimated 10,000 food and merchandise vendors.

Grand-prize winner was Rolf Babiel, a grinning, mustachioed German who sells bratwurst and other sausages (pork, beef, veal and chicken) from a cart called Hallo Berlin at the corner of 54th Street and Fifth Avenue.

Sean Basinski, the Street Vendors Project director, said, "Vendors make our lives richer."

Not to mention tastier. So it recently occurred to me that it might be intriguing to attempt surviving in New York for a whole day by eating only food purchased from street carts. Truthfully, this proved no challenge whatsoever. What I failed to foresee, however, is that the Big Apple is bigger than my stomach.

Rise and dine

Planning to graze my way from downtown to uptown - or experience New York in the same northward migration that's marked its expansion over the past four centuries - I began at the city's financial center.

Bull or bear? These symbols famously connote one's optimism or pessimism about the stock market. Yet, the street vendors along Wall Street's few blocks pose an even more vexing choice. Half serve carbohydrate-laden, calorie-packed breakfast pastries; their virtuous twins offer fruit salad and smoothies. Envisioning a long day of unfamiliar flavors, I'm torn. Helping me decide is the first rule of street-cart dining: Follow the crowd.

A long line snaked away from where Wall crosses St. James Street. I head toward a cart emblazoned with the words, "Fresh Cut Daily."

A pair of pretty Asian girls are busily slicing and dicing, but neither speaks English, making communication a matter of point and smile. Hmmm. A sign printed with indifferent spelling suggests the "Skin Glo" or the "Body Wizer" blended various combinations of parsley, cucumber, beet and apple nectars.

When I order a "Super Juice" made from pineapple, carrot, orange and mango, I am handed a huge tankard, as well as a "chaser" cup into which the blender's extra was poured. The concoction ($3) was neon orange, and drinking it made me feel like a superhero.

Nearly leaping tall buildings at a single bound, I charge up Broadway, past City Hall, and into Chinatown. This neighborhood is vibrant, crowded and wonderfully porous on its perimeter, blurring into both Little Italy and what was once the Jewish ghetto.

Dim sum is sold directly beside prosciutto and gefilte fish. Noodle carts at the corner of Bowery and Hester streets do a brisk business with pho (a fragrant Vietnamese soup) and curried squid.

A block away, I discovered something I'd never seen. Ladies were ladling a batter made with rice flour into a small rectangular pan and then sprinkling it with scallions and dried shrimp. High heat and the batter's thin consistency quickly produced what resembled an oversized lasagna noodle.

This was scooped into a dish, along with a jigger of soy sauce and a splat of red-pepper puree ($1, an unbelievable bargain). Alas, it was impossible to eat gracefully. I resorted to forking up the whole mess and biting off a manageable chunk. As it flopped back into its dish, the remainder would spray the front of my shirt with droplets of soy sauce. Savoring each salty, spicy bite, I wished for a bib.

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