As much as I enjoy a gorgeously prepared sit down tasting menu of countless courses, I think street food is my favorite. A piping hot, crisp and creamy gaufre at the bottom of the ski hill in the French Alps, a slice of cold square pizza outside of the Vatican in Rome, a fish taco from the taco truck in LA, a pretzel from a vendor in Philly. Sadly, I have yet to explore eating my way through the streets in southeast Asia… that is still to come. However, having 3 days to feast on the street food in NYC, arguably the pinnacle of US street food, certainly satisfied my street food urge for at least a few days.
I won’t bore you with all the food I tried, and quickly discarded. There was plenty that was fine, but nothing to get excited about. My three big scores were on the first and third days. And those, you should definitely seek out if you find yourself looking for some great, cheap eats in NYC.
The first was Empanada Mama, located in Hell’s Kitchen (763 9th Ave). There are a ton of great restaurants in Hell’s Kitchen in Midtown… Mee Noodles, Rice and Beans to name a few. There’s also a great little gourmet grocery store called the Amish Market, that was, as far as I could tell, in no way Amish. They served sushi! They have a website! As beautiful of a market as it was, there is just something wrong with that. But, I digress in a big way. I was supposed to be talking about street food.
Back to Empanada Mama. This little hallway of a restaurant is decorated in bright reds and greens, and has more empanada choices than you can possibly imagine. You pick the dough type (corn or wheat) and the filling, and in just about 5 minutes, you get piping hot, crisp and tender empanadas. Other choices are salads and soups, and even a veal and rice ball tapa… but I stuck with the empanadas, picking one chicken with corn flour and one wheat flour with spinach and cheese. Little bag of goodness in hand, I walked down the block to a little park, and sat in the sun for my first bite. The corn was nutty and crisp and packed with juicy shredded chicken and perfect dipped into the little cup of salsa verde. The spinach and cheese was less amazing… the spinach tasted like it had been frozen… I wouldn’t order it again. That said, with some of the salsa fresca, it was still pretty yummy.
Next on the list is the little falafel stand at the corner of 5th Ave and 45th St, Kwik Meal. Now, this isn’t just any ordinary falafel stand. It’s probably one of the most reviewed stands in NYC. It’s been written up in Gourmet magazine, and is owned by one of the former chefs of the Russian Tea room. The big deal at this cart (and the original one on 6th and 45th) is the lamb. However, I didn’t have the lamb. I had the falafel… and all I can say is that I enjoyed the falafel so much, I can’t believe how good the lamb must be. Can falafel be epic? I really didn’t think so before, but this was so spicy (fresh jalapeno hot sauce) and creamy (yogurt sauce) and moist that I’m finding myself drooling again just thinking about it. Take the extra time to walk down to 45th if you find yourself in Times Square, and wait in line… it’s worth it.
My final great street food find was a little Mexican kitchen and burrito shop in Chelsea called Kitchen Market (218 Eight Ave at 21 St). While not really street food (ie, it’s a nice little shop, not a cart), it’s a take and go kind of place, and I ate my burrito on a bench in Washington Square, so I’m calling it close enough. I actually popped into the store because of the cool window displays, not realizing they served food. Little dioramas of skeletons in wedding clothes and other funky art work were precariously perched in the window.
I thought I’d just walk in and browse, but the moment I walked in and smelled all of the herbs and cooking meats, I knew I was eating again. The menu consists of a few different burrito styles: San Francisco (pinto beans, rice, onion, cilantro, and hot sauce) and Los Angeles (salsa fresca) with a crazy number of fillings including things like cactus and vegetable stew, green chile pasole, roasted eggplant with queso, black forest ham and provolone, BLT, Barley and corn salad… plus all the usuals. I was completely overwhelmed by how good everything looked, and ended up going simple and getting a breakfast burrito with turkey chorizo and hot sauce. It was heavenly. It’s been ages since I’d had a good breakfast burrito, and this one was fantastic. Crammed full of eggs and sasuage, green chile and fresh cilantro, moist and spicy and not greasy. Yum! Without a doubt, this little spot will be on my must visit list on my next trip to New York.