FOLLOW THE LOCALS
A Tour of New York's Best Street Food
From Ground Zero to Carnegie Hall, we sampled countless kebabs and kati rolls to come up with a visitor's guide to New York City food carts. Forget hot dogs: These cheap ethnic eats are way more transporting.
Korean: Bapcha (formerly Bulgogi & Kimchi)
John Lee's 6-year-old cart got a makeover this summer: a new name, a modern look, and, many say, a more inspired take on his dad's Korean recipes. The food is complex and exciting without overwhelming the uninitiated. Deeply seasoned meats like a slightly sweet beef galbi (grilled short rib), a tender barbecued beef bulgogi (sliced and sautéed) and dak galbi (spicy grilled chicken) are ladled over sticky rice, with a salad of scallions, onions, peppers, carrots, and cold cellophane noodles ($8)—or, at the adjacent sister cart manned by Lee's cousin, over your choice of brothy noodles ($5–$9). Ask for extras like soy sauce, hot sauce, and kimchi ($1), which is fresh and crisp with a bite that doesn't kill your taste buds. 49th St. between 6th and 7th Aves.
EMPIRE STATE BUILDING
Middle Eastern: Rafiqi's
Fans rely on the multicart chain for "clean meat, clean counter," according to the three guys working this particularly popular Rafiqi's cart—which feeds hundreds daily. The chicken and lamb, combo or separate, over rice ($5) or stuffed in a pita ($4), keep the crowds pleased. Both meats are tender, highly spiced, steaming-hot off the griddle, and served with hot sauce and a sophisticated white sauce (a little mayo, a little tzatziki, and vinegar). The warmed, doughy pita soaks up all the juices, and an untraditional bar of raw peppers, onions, black olives, corn, and shredded cheese jazzes up that typically sad side salad. Broadway between 31st and 32nd Sts.
The laid-back and likable Shirley has been dishing out her home cooking for many years—first at a storefront called Trinidad and Roti, and, since 1995, in her very busy Financial District cart. The best recipes from her native Trinidad include a rich chicken curry: three pieces of juicy, bone-in dark meat slow-cooked in a mild orange curry, with steamed cabbage (or carrots or yams) on a bed of rice and peas. The beef roti wraps tender boneless beef, potatoes, split peas, and chickpeas in a not-too-greasy flatbread that absorbs the stew without falling apart. You'll most likely need hot sauce, since Shirley is light on the spice, and don't be shy about requesting extra gravy on your rice (small $6, large $8). Whitehall St. between Bridge and Pearl Sts., 646/436-9974 (no name out front).
Indian: Biryani Cart
Although cart competition is fierce in Times Square, Meru Sikder, a former banquet chef for a New Jersey Hilton, recently added a second, adjacent cart to feed the hundreds who line up for his 2009 Vendy Award winning food. The kati (like an Indian taco with a chapati wrap) are superb—try the King Koti Roll (a spicy chicken tikka marinated in yogurt and spices) or the sweet/spicy Chennai roll (tandoori chicken in a Thai-style chili sauce). The Chicken Biryani has many layers of flavor: chunks of soft meat over basmati rice are dusted with spices, doused with real raita and hot sauce, and paired with mango pickle, egg korma, and shredded salad (two kati for $6, biryani $6). 6th Ave. and 46th St.