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THE AREPA LADY

Roosevelt Ave. nr. 78th St., Jackson Heights

Maria Piedad Cano might be New York’s most revered street vendor. She’s a Chowhound cult favorite, a former lawyer and judge, she says, and, most telling, the subject of a MySpace page that forecasts the likelihood that she’ll be appearing at her regular spot each weekend. Her presence is iffy and weather-dependent; she winters in her native Colombia and reassumes her curbside position in spring, but only on Friday and Saturday nights and generally after ten o’clock. And for a former officer of the court, the once-permit-challenged corn-cake specialist hasn’t always been a stickler for the letter of the law: When asked by Chow.com why she works the graveyard shift, she replied, “Because there are fewer police walking around.” Still, faithful fans make the pilgrimage for her specialty: two types of ethereal Colombian arepas, brushed with margarine and griddled until brown and crispy. The arepa de queso is thicker and smaller, its soft insides infiltrated with melted cheese. The flatter, wider one, arepa de choclo, is made with a different corn batter and folded over salty grated cheese. There are skewered sausages and denser, smaller arepitas, too, but they’re not what’s earned the mild-mannered sidewalk chef her infatuated following, or the nickname “Sainted Arepa Lady.”

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ANTOJITOS MEXICANOS

Roosevelt Ave. nr. 61st St., Woodside

You don’t expect to find culinary bliss amid the cacophony of this Woodside hub, where the LIRR and the elevated 7 train crisscross and every three minutes or so a jet thunders overhead on its descent into La Guardia. Yet there it is, ensconced below the tracks—an unassuming bastion of Mexican tamales worthy of an interborough expedition or a pit stop en route to anywhere else. Like a gift, the Oaxaqueño tamale comes wrapped with string: Peel open the banana leaves to reveal a hot, steamy mass of fluffy corn masa riddled with hefty chunks of ineluctably fatty pork and dripping with enough greasy red-chile oil to make a magnificent mess. More portable are the smaller corn-husk-wrapped varieties, in which morsels of chicken are dispersed sparingly, like condiments. Another version combines stringy melted cheese enlivened with red and green peppers. But it’s the masa that haunts you, with its moist, springy texture, toasty corn aroma, and earthy, mouth-filling flavor.

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ALAN’S FALAFEL

Cedar St. nr. Broadway

Every weekday, in broad daylight, a tahini-splattered falafel war is waged in Liberty Plaza Park, Wall Street’s great outdoors lunchroom. To the west, weighing in at eleven falafel balls, alongside hummus, baba ghannouj, fried eggplant strips, a stodgy grape leaf, and a cold pita, is the $5 platter at Sam’s, one of the beloved Liberty Plaza carts that was displaced after 9/11 and greeted joyfully by regulars upon its eventual return. Five yards to the east, weighing in at a belly-busting thirteen balls, is the similarly stocked platter of its arch-rival Alan’s, a cart with virtually identical signage and product. But as the constantly shifting lines at each pushcart demonstrate, there are enough famished tourists and office workers to go around. A falafel face-off determined that besides being more generous with its balls, Alan’s excelled in texture (perceptibly crisper and a tad lighter) and flavor. It could have been just that particular batch, and we might have been swayed by sheer volume, but all’s fair in love and lunch-cart war.

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ALL NATURAL HOT MINI CAKES

Grand St. nr. Bowery

How to end a tour of the city’s best street carts? With dessert, of course. You need no more incentive than the stop-you-in-your-tracks aroma emanating from the mini-cake carts of Chinatown, where the going rate for twenty sweet puffy confections is one smackeroo. Half the fun of eating them is watching their production, especially at this tidy little stand where septuagenarian Shao Chen blasts classical music on the world’s smallest boom box. Forearms protected with elasticized pull-on shirt sleeves that make him look a little like a riverboat gambler, Chen has honed his technique into a carefully orchestrated rhythm: Brush the lingering bits out of a multi-holed waffle-iron contraption, pour the flour-sugar-and-egg batter from a metal teapot, bake for just over a minute, scoop out the sweet, spongy balls, and separate them with a spoon. For the street-cart connoisseur, they’re the closest thing to Proust’s madeleines.

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HALLO BERLIN

54th St. nr. Fifth Ave.

For 24 years, Berlin-born Rolf Babiel has been slinging sausages from his just–off–Fifth-Avenue pushcart. That’s like 192 in street-cart years; factor in the Giuliani crackdown period, and call it 200. Five days a week, Babiel—or his brother Wolfgang—serves his super-snappy wursts on crusty rolls or sliced into bite-size pieces in a formidable contraption that looks like a cross between a paper cutter and a guillotine. Our favorite of about a dozen or so is called the Mercedes (bratwurst). Wolfgang’s favorite is the Skoda (alpenwurst). You can gulp down both in a Democracy Special combo—a choice of two wursts topped with a heap of fried potatoes, braised red cabbage, sauerkraut, and excellent homemade mustard and curry sauces, plus two meatballs for $9. In good weather, dine on one of the cart’s red-and-white-checked foldout trays and watch the Fifth Avenue world go by, while a Babiel brother lowers the sausage guillotine.

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TONY “THE DRAGON” DRAGONAS

62nd St. nr. Madison Ave.

Even people who don’t eat street food eat Tony Dragonas’s street food. In a typical lunch-hour line, you’ll find an oddball assemblage of Bloomberg number-crunchers, fashionable Madison Avenue retail clerks, stout delivery guys, and traitorous cooks from nearby kitchens including Aureole, Amaranth, and Nello. Speaking of Nello, says Tony, “he wanted me to go into business with him.” He’s not the only one: “You’re the best! You’re the best!” barks a man wearing a black T-shirt, cargo shorts, and a mullet one recent afternoon. “I tell ya, Tony, I’m working on capital; we’re going to take this enterprise national.” What’s the reason for all the hoopla? Chicken breasts, shish kebab, burgers, sausage, steak, and an excellent prosciutto-mozzarella-and-basil sandwich. But the juicy char-grilled chicken is the thing, marinated overnight and available wrapped in a thick grilled pita or as a platter with yellow rice. A tinfoil container with a crisp romaine salad, all of it drizzled with homemade tsatsiki, it must weigh about five pounds and goes for $6, up from $5.50 the last time we checked. “Inflation,” Tony says resignedly.

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CALEXICO

Wooster St. nr. Prince St.

There’s no such thing as a cheap lunch in Soho, you say? Then you haven’t been to this yearling cart, the joint venture of three brothers from Southern California. Most weekdays, hungry hipsters lean against the side of a nearby building, waiting patiently for tacos, burritos, and Mexican-style grilled corn. Come early or risk missing out on some of the more popular items—the chipotle pulled pork, say, or the medium-hot salsa verde. But Calexico’s raison d’etre is the marinated skirt steak called carne asada, a carefully cooked, well-spiced piece of meat cut into manageable chunks and piled into overstuffed $7 burritos or $3 soft-corn-tortilla tacos, properly garnished with cabbage, cilantro, and onion. The marinade recipe is a closely guarded secret, of course, but we thought we detected a subtle undercurrent of A1.

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NY DOSAS

Washington Sq. S. at Sullivan St.

In a carnivorous cartosphere, NY Dosas is a beacon in the street-meat wilderness, attracting cash-strapped NYU students, spice-craving South Asian natives, and vegetarians of all socioeconomic stripes to the southern edge of Washington Square Park, where Thiru Kumar’s parked his popular cart for the past five years. The lanky and aggressively mustachioed Sri Lankan native once worked at Flushing’s Dosa Hutt, where he perfected the art of the lentil-and-rice crêpes that he griddles and stuffs with spiced potatoes and vegetables and serves with the traditional accompaniments of lentil soup and coconut chutney. The Special Pondicherry Masala might be Kumar’s best seller, but it’s the diaphanous Special Rava Masala Dosa, a lacy wisp of red-raw-rice-and-cream-of-wheat batter dabbed with chile paste and griddled to the quintessence of crispness, that could make you consider giving up meat.

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CARNEGIE JOHN’S

56th St. nr. Seventh Ave.

To put it in SAT terms, Carnegie John’s is to Tony the Dragon’s as Mary’s Fish Camp is to Pearl Oyster Bar—the difference being that unlike those feuding fish ladies, should Tony and John meet up on the street, neither would attempt to scratch out the other’s eyeballs. Tony Dragonas, you see, taught his Greek compatriot John Antoniou the chicken-and-rice ropes, letting John run the show when he was away. When there was nothing more that Tony could teach John about grilled chicken breasts, Italian-sausage sandwiches, and combo platters, John, as straight-A students often do, struck out on his own—with Tony’s blessing, of course. What’s the most important lesson John learned from Tony? To start things off on the griddle, move them over to the charcoal grill, and then back to the griddle. “It seals in the juice and gives everything a nice flavor,” says John. Although the lines at John’s aren’t nearly as long as the lines at Tony’s, in a blind taste test, you’d be hard-pressed to tell John’s $5 chicken platter apart from his mentor’s. John also grills a mean $1.25 hot dog (Sabrett), which you’ll want to top with his terrific homemade onions. His pièce de résistance, though, is his $4 cheeseburger—a big fat-streaked patty of unknown provenance (“Maybe sirloin?”). Dare we say it’s better than the one you can get at the perpetually mobbed Parker Meridien Burger Joint right down the block? We do. And you won’t have to wait in line for a half hour either.

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HUAN JI RICE NOODLES

Grand St. at Bowery

The cheung fun cart might be the hot-dog-and-pretzel stand of Chinatown, only cheaper and less tourist-friendly. The steamed rolled rice noodles, snipped with scissors, topped with your choice of spongy curried fish balls, soft, ultra-fatty pork skin, or tripe, and doused with a quartet of sweet and spicy sauces, is a popular sidewalk snack everywhere from Elizabeth Street to Pike Street. You won’t pay more than a buck or two, depending on serving size (a smaller Styrofoam container or larger plastic pint cup). The proprietress of this one has been manning her bustling cart just off Bowery for twenty years, and she’s done well enough to open a four-items-for-$3 joint on Eldridge Street, where the cheung fun is offered for breakfast. Besides the ever-popular rice noodles, the cart also dispenses mei fun and the string-tied, leaf-wrapped sticky rice packets called joong, all of which can be enjoyed alfresco at the Hester Street Playground down the block, where the handball games are fast and furious.

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If your not full enough from reading about all of the great food carts listed above then check back in with us soon for a second helping. We will be posting more information on New York City food carts soon including:

  • THE ESQUITES MAN
  • DOGMATIC DOGS
  • XINJIANG KEBABS
  • THE JAMAICAN DUTCHY
  • KIM’S AUNT
  • KWIK MEAL
  • HALAL CHICKEN AND GYRO
  • KHAN’S
  • SAMMY’S HALAL
  • TACOS GUICHO