NYC Food Pushcarts
The Streets of New York City
Review by Susu, ThePlazaQueen, MaceVindaloo, Rosie, SteakGrrl, Runt
However, in modern New York, the pushcarts may not go wherever they want. They are more like temporary stores which occupy a permit-specified location for a given amount of time. The city government controls these permits, and the food vendors are subject to inspection by the Health Department. So theoretically, buying food from these carts is as safe as buying one from a deli or any restaurant. Police will check for permits regularly, and those who can't produce one are arrested and their carts confiscated. When you consider a standard hotdog cart can cost about $40,000 (similar in price to a city taxi medallion permit), you can be sure the vendors make sure their permits are in order!
Some delis didn't like the carts because they claimed it drew business away from them, but that hasn't really turned out to be the case. It's true the cart food is cheaper, but it's not really the same as the stuff in the deli. Instead, it tends to be food conducive to mobile carrying and eating, and often the food is ethnic, different from what's offered at the established stores, and served by recent immigrants who are making their way in a new world. Carts also tend to show up in places where there aren't any food stores to buy from anyway, like while in line to the Ellis Island ferry, or in the approach to the Midtown Tunnel. Donut and coffee carts show up at 6am along well-walked commuter routes, and disappear before lunch when they are all out of stock.
The variety was very impressive. We didn't snack on street food as much as we thought we might, but that would be a fun thing to do deliberately next time. This time, we often got breakfast on the go in the aforementioned lines, on the way into tourist features. Things like bagels with cream cheese, hotdogs on soft buns, pretzels and canned drinks and bottled water were expected things on offer. But we also got an excellent barbecue beef sandwich (came with little tubs of barbecue and other sauces), and chicken kebabs served with rice or toasted pita and salad (big serving was $4). Many of the lunchtime carts are equipped with charcoal grills and the smells they emit will drive you wild with hunger!
In Chinatown, the carts were predominantly Chinese, and serve stuff that Americans would think of as "weird looking." But they also serve lomein, soups, beef tips, dumplings, fried rice, and it's all so inexpensive. At such low prices, it's worth taking a risk with new and unusual (to you!) foods. At the very worst, you don't like it and you can throw it away without breaking your personal budget.
All over town, some carts sell fresh fruit by the piece or by the pound, depending on what it is. So you can buy one banana for your breakfast (50 cents to a dollar), or a pound of cherries for a recipe later (one or two dollars).
Pushcarts will not generally sell potato products anymore. Years ago, they sold knishes, the German-origin Jewish potato dumplings so beloved by denizens of this city. However, since potatoes are not easy to keep warm without breeding bacteria, the NYC Health Department deemed potato dumplings to be items not to be sold unless refrigeration and reheating facilities were available. Being that these carts tend to refrigerate OR heat (most are not huge and tend to be towed from place to place on the back of a car, or are piled into small trucks to be restocked), most simply gave up on potatoes. But other than that, you can get just about anything. Enjoy!
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