Five Dollar Food Challenge: Indian Halal at Desi Food Truck

By: Michael Engle

In previous installments of the Five Dollar Food Challenge, I visited El Aguila and La Isla, two Spanish Harlem outlets that serve authentic Latin comida.  This time, I opted for a completely different experience.  Having recently given Tweat It a whirl, I learned that Desi Food Truck, featuring authentic halal Indian cuisine, was relatively close by in Harlem.  With a "paper Abe" in hand, I made the westward trek to Broadway and 113th in order to meet up with Desi Food Truck.

All of Desi's offerings are reasonably priced.  While there are several $5 possibilities from this truck, the most expensive menu item--the non-vegetarian combo meal--will only set you back $9, including a soft drink!  To remain within my budget, I briefly considered the "dal and rice" plate.  Even though it appeared to be an excellent value, I was not tremendously hungry at that time, and I am not particularly fond of lentils.  Instead, in the spirit of street-eating (I may or may not have been influenced by the Columbia students shuttling between classes), I surveyed the list of "rolls."

As the attendant explained to me, the difference between the chicken kati and anda rolls is simple: the anda roll adds cooked egg, as well as $1, to its price.  After a lighthearted bargaining attempt proved to be fruitless, I ordered the chicken kati roll.  Within seconds, I was presented an aromatic mixture of chicken and onions wrapped in a fried piece of naan bread.  After I placed my order, I was asked whether I wanted my order spicy (to which I replied, "Yes," with a thumb up).  Surprisingly and/or thankfully, my taste buds were not assaulted with heat; instead, each bite was filled with flavor that pleasantly lingered on my palette.

At the conclusion of this $5 adventure, I not only learned of an excellent food truck, but I also confirmed that food truck-finding apps are well worth investing in.  I will certainly seek out Desi's future locations, and flock to it if I were to be in the neighborhood.  More importantly, I eagerly await my next opportunity to see what my next challenge may entice me to sample next!

Photo: Michael Engle

For more five dollar food challenges, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)

Top 3 Online Tools for Food Truck Hunters

It is certainly true that technology (not just the iPhone) has changed how we find restaurants, order delivery, and even shop for groceries. But what about street food? Have you ever wondered whether it's possible to keep tabs on your favorite mobile food vendors?

The answer, especially in New York City, is a resounding "YES!" Because mobile eating and mobile phones go perfectly hand-in-hand, it is quite easy to locate your favorite food trucks. After all, wouldn't the food truck want to Tweet its temporary location in case of construction? Whether you are a NYC resident, a commuter from Connecticut, Long Island, or New Jersey, or simply a tourist who wants the best meal and New York experience $5 can buy, here are our recommendations to keep NYC's food trucks under your thumb!

Tweat It (@Tweat_It, and free mobile app here): If you think New York street food is nothing but hot dogs and gyros, and that "unique" vendors are the ones that sell soft pretzels and potato knishes, then think again. This website is dedicated to showcasing New York's most unique street food options. Tweat It works with its clients directly: each food truck tweets its location, and Tweat It posts it on the Tweat It site! Even if you don't own a smartphone, the desktop website is one worth bookmarking. With food trucks' recent tweets on the far left and a place-marked Google Map next to the Twitter sidebar, Tweat It does a great job of making food trucks visible and accessible to everybody in the NYC area.

Food Truck NYC (@foodtruckdaily): This Tumblr blog features news articles on the NYC food truck scene, while the Twitter also re-tweets location notices and other news from the trucks. This is a good resource not only to follow and patronize your favorite food trucks, but also to keep up with current events that concern them.

New York Street Food (@NYSTfood): This is not just another blog with a Twitter and a mobile app. NYSF also leads walking tours that showcase the New York mobile food scene. Tickets for these tours are $40 (advance purchase only) and are limited to ten people per tour. However, the schedule is like clockwork, as they are given once a day, rain or shine, on Fridays in between Memorial Day and Labor Day, starting at 2:15p. NYSF also maintains a Twitter list ("Mobile Munchies") which republishes tweets from NYSF's favorite food trucks. Even though the blog is based in NYC, other North American cities are represented as well. So if you're on vacation at another city, you can check out their street food scenes too!

What's your favorite street food truck?

Photo: Carl MiKoy

For more on street food, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)

San Francisco Schools May Impose Restrictions for Food Trucks

By: Michael Engle

A prospective state law was recently proposed in the California legislature, where food trucks would be forced to stay at least 1,500 feet from all schools--public and private; elementary, middle, and high--on all school days, from 6a to 6p.  (The San Francisco Financial District was specifically exempted from this law.)  However, instead of approval, this initiative was met with criticism.  San Francisco Chronicle correspondent Rachel Gordon covered this up-and-coming food fight (within the legislature, not the cafeteria) between Assemblyman William Monning (D-Santa Cruz), who wrote the original bill, and San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener.  Wiener worried that Monning's restrictions would yield unintended consequences, while suggesting that jurisdictions should be able to opt out of this law.

Naturally, a wide geographic restriction would force a constant number of food trucks to compete within decreased space.  San Francisco's Financial District would likely become more saturated with food trucks, as certain owners would hope to reestablish their businesses without having to be "too close" to a school.  While some food trucks may adapt to this new measure, it is hard to imagine that these businesses would thrive, compared to the current regulations.  Realistically, it is likely that many trucks would withdraw from the "street food" business, given less opportunity to make a profit with constant operating costs.

Those who support Monning's proposal may ask "since schools already have cafeterias, what difference would it make?" Location is crucial to food trucks' success.  By "protecting the kids" from the influence of non-cafeteria foods, this bill would be destined to impact professionals' lunchtime routines and morale, as newly annoyed workers would be deprived of their hot dogs, tacos, and soda because of their offices' proximity to schools.

Between Team Monning and Team Wiener, everybody agrees that excess salt and sugar should not be sold cheaply and conveniently enough to bankrupt school lunch programs, while sabotaging students' nutrition in the process.  Yet, as long as health and physical education may lose funding, you might as well be encouraged to burn a couple of calories on the way to and from lunch.

Photo: peterburnham

For more updates on food news, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)

Food Carts Fighting for Prime Brooklyn Real Estate

By: Michael Engle

It is often stated that the three most important factors of real estate are as follows: location, location, and location.  In the case of three competing Brooklyn food carts, their recent forced relocations have not only impacted their bottom lines, but their customers' daily routines as well. Longtime vendors Ikram Hussan and Matthew Ninos blame a third cart owner for recent struggles, which have been largely attributed to the geographic reshuffling.  Simone Weichselbaum recently covered this saga for the New York Daily News.  While Hussan and Ninos would claim that their mandated moves were heavy-handed, they highlight continued prejudices against food trucks.

Food trucks are a staple of New York City culture, and while most debates regarding food carts have been between them and brick-and-mortar restaurants, it's curious to see food carts fighting among themselves.  Problems arose for Hussan and Ninos when the arrival of a third competitor, Al Madina Falafel Truck,  caused the expulsion of all three carts from their location.

In order to prevent a state of cart-induced chaos, as well as to promote basic pedestrian safety and to maintain good traffic flow, food trucks face certain restrictions.  For instance, food trucks are not allowed within ten feet of subway entrances, subway elevators, or crosswalks. Hussan and Ninos have had a long track record of business success, owing to their strategic location near Woodhull Hospital and were thus highly dependent on their exact locations within their particular street corner. Al Madina was cited for its illegal location, as it was too close to a subway elevator.  Though they both implored Al Madina to obey city ordinances by moving away from the elevator, Al Madina ignored their advice.  The resulting congestion yielded a large crowd, which caught the attention of local executives, and then of the fire department-which finally ordered all three owners to move their carts.

Hussan and Ninos are currently building a petition in order to hopefully reclaim their former territory near the hospital.  With more than 200 signatures, it is clear that they have a loyal customer base that feels equally inconvenienced by the moves.  Whether they may eventually be permitted to move back, and whether they can convince their perceived "third wheel" to find a new and legal space, remains to be seen.

Photo: LOLren 

For more food news, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)

Navigating Through New York's Street Food Landscape: The Urban Oyster Food Cart Tour

By: Cyndi Amaya

While New York City is known as the capital of fine dining in the United States, it's equally known for its impressive street food culture. With more Halal food trucks per square mile than any other single city, New York street food does in fact go beyond chicken over rice and "dirty water" hot dogs. On any given day, you can walk around Midtown and find everything from cupcakes to tacos, and dumplings to slushies.

But with so many street food vendors and different kinds of cuisines to try, how do you possibly do them all? And which ones are even worth the walk? Undoubtedly, the capital of sight-seeing tours must also have some solution to this problem. If you can cover most NYC sights from uptown to downtown in one day, why not have a tour based on just food, and not just any food- street food at that. Enter: Urban Oyster, NYC Walking Tours. The company dedicated to unique NY walking tours featuring the Navy Yard, the Craft Beer Crawl, and Immigrant Foodways tours, also has one of the hottest street food tours to date: their Street Food Cart Tour.

For about two hours and with less than a mile of walking, the Urban Oyster Food Cart Tour takes you around Midtown (or the Financial District) for the ultimate insight to the city's tastiest and to-die-for street food that New York can offer. Why take my word for it? Simple- because I got to experience one of their tours myself, and came back with a belly choc full street food delicacies and more street food knowledge than any New Yorker would care to have.

Launched just a year and a half ago, the Food Cart Tour is already one of Urban Oyster's most popular walking tours around the city. This information-packed foodie tour is led by food writer and expert, Brian Hoffman from the Eat This NY food blog. Hoffman's enthusiasm towards the history of the food, vendors, and neighborhood through his speech as he walks you to some of his (and Mark Faggan's) favorite street food eats around the town.

Because my undying love for street food, I was giddy at all the possibilities the tour would provide. It proved quite fulfilling since that particular day Brian featured everything from lobster rolls to Korean BBQ, Halal, and even Belgian waffles! With all the street food selections, how does Urban Oyster pick which vendors to feature? Hoffman explained that they highlight different food carts on different days, but all are mostly gourmet trucks that bring food to customers in parts of the city they wouldn't normally have access to. The vendors are usually diverse, are located within walking distance from one another, have interesting stories of how they came about, and most importantly- must serve delicious food.

Our first stop was the Luke's Lobster Rolls Truck. While most may be thinking, a lobster roll food truck is out of the ordinary, Luke's Lobster Truck had a comfortable Maine-feel about it and an authenticity that made buying a lobster roll off a truck not so shady. Plus their $16 genuine lobster rolls are practically unheard of, hence the long line of cash-only customers waiting to grab a bite. Did I mention that the truck is Zagat rated? Well, with its upscale street eats, why wouldn't it be?

Next stop was quite a pleasant surprise for me. It was the Bapcha Korean BBQ food cart. Finally the food truck gods answered my prayers and came up with a quick stop for that all-the-time craving for Korean BBQ, without having to trek to K-town or Flushing Queens for. We tried a super tasty Bulgogi and Kimchee that was to-die-for! Needless to say, I've been back to that food cart since taking the tour.

A street food tour could not be complete without some Halal- obviously! So for the best Halal, Brian took us to Kwik Meal, famous for the city's "best falafel." The owner of Kwik Meal and once-Russian Tea Room chef, Muhammed Rahman is famous for helping Bobby Flay win in a Falafel Throwdown. Flay used Rahan's falafel recipe and prevailed in that competition, as it did in the hearts of all those attending the tour that day.

Another famed truck that we hit that day was the popular Biryani Cart, a Bangladeshi food cart that featured the most appetizing Koti rolls that I've ever tried. It's no wonder why Biryani has won the Vendy Award two years in a row as the People's Choice.

Finally, for dessert Brian gave us a delightful insight to a Belgian original- the Belgian Waffle. Wafels and Dinges was started by Thomas DeGeest who felt the city lacked proper Belgian cuisine. So his solution, Wafels and Dinges, Dinges being the various toppings offered for his famed waffles. Their signature waffle with spekuloos spread and their amazing Hoegaarden ice cream was the perfect treat to a perfect street food tour.

So whether you're a tourist who wants a taste of the best New York street food or a New Yorker who wants to find new lunchtime spots to hit up when in a hurry, the Urban Oyster Food Cart Tour is definitely not-to-be-missed! All of Urban Oyster's food cart tours usually offer 6 tastings and feature vendors from those mentioned above as well as other street food favorites like Mexican, Caribbean, and Trini/Paki. The tours go on whether rain or shine and are offered on Wednesdays in the Financial District and on Fridays in Midtown.

Check out their website here for more information. 

Photos: Cyndi Amaya

For more street food news, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)