Food & Drink

15 Things I Learned Eating Exclusively From NYC Street Carts for a Week

Jess Novak/Thrillist

Maybe because I thought it would broaden my eating horizons, or maybe because I, um, wasn’t thinking, I -- for whatever reason -- decided to only eat from NYC street carts -- not fancy food trucks, just the street carts -- for a week straight. Here's what I learned.

1. Lamb gyros are the best food ever

I don’t care that the meat isn’t “real” lamb, and is instead a sweating beehive of meat composite. I don’t care that the sauces are as full of mysteries as Gretchen Weiners’ hair is of secrets. After eating far more lamb gyros in a week than could ever be imagined healthy, I did not get tired of them. Not even a little. If health were no object, I would probably consume one of these bad boys every day for the rest of my life.

2. You will totally probably not get food poisoning, or at least... not much food poisoning?

I legitimately came out of this starting to think that sanitation is kind of overrated. Despite the food cart-only week, I actually got sick just once, and that was probably more due to excessive nitrate consumption than actual food poisoning.

3. Street cart vendors in NY are almost all sweethearts

I watched one guy give a bottle of water to a homeless dude, and witnessed at least a dozen supercute conversations between vendors and their regulars. One guy cheerfully greets his regulars by announcing their preferences with a huge grin when he sees them: “Madam Extra Broccoli! How is your son?” “Mister No Onions! You are back from Boston!”

4. The dudes at “Lettuce Make You a Salad” are cute as fuck, make NY’s best falafel

OK, so I was kind of totally incapable of flirting with them -- mostly because of what only eating greasemeat for days did to my cognitive functions -- but they are these adorable Israeli guys who flash their big smiles while telling you all about why their falafel is special and locally produced. And, spoiler: THEIR FALAFEL IS SPECIAL. Like, best I’ve ever had in my life special. Perfectly even and crispy on the outside, fluffy as clouds on the inside, they’re served with a spicy green cilantro sauce speckled with herbs, which I now legitimately want to pour on everything, forever, including ice cream.

5. You’ll get the meat sweats

After six straight days of consuming thick strips of lamb fat, you will, without fail, feel your body start to cry tears of unfathomable meat-sweaty sadness. You will also not smell great. You can shower as frequently as you like, semi-obsessively even, but this situation will not change. Sleep on a towel.

6. You might vomit

I didn’t. But I came really, really (guys, really) close. After just four days of kebabs, gyros, bacon breakfasts, and tandoori salmon from a cart with no sink, my body was starting to rebel. I’d gone from a lifestyle of daily kale smoothies to eating buckets of greasemeat with my fingers, and my body was totally willing to fight. Outside a movie theater, in front of a bunch of kids and dogs and my boyfriend’s friends, and whatever god is in charge of bad decision making, I ended up doubled over, coughing this vile, lard-lubricated cough, and was genuinely surprised when it did not turn into a puke. Upside: passing up popcorn has never been easier.

7. Good street meat is the most universal meal in New York

At the famous-ish food carts (Trini Paki Boys, Kwik Meal), New York feels almost communal. People ask each other what the best items are. Everyone feels annoyed but patient -- it reminded me of New Yorkers resolutely, silently grimacing, but never actually complaining when there’s an old person in front of them on the stairs in the subway. Everyone just waits in this line on the sidewalk together, ready for a quick, tinfoil-wrapped ball of deliciousness. It’s as close to a communal experience as you’re going to get here.

8. Dude, try the tacos at Manhattan Tacos Juquilita

Manhattan Tacos Juquilita, you guys. Try the bistec taco. This cart can genuinely compete with Taco Mix in East Harlem, which makes the best tacos in New York. The tamales are are also excellent: creamy, rich, and indulgent.

9. And Kwik Meal cart, for serious

This place is owned by Muhammed Rahman, formerly a chef at the Russian Tea Room, and the food is out-and-out amazing. Reviews from places like Gourmet are plastered on the side of the cart, and when you taste the grilled lamb over rice with salad, it will be immediately apparent why. He marinates the lamb in a bunch of spices and green papaya, and it is just so lush and delicious. Plus, it’s usually open ‘til midnight.

10. Food cart breakfasts are never actually good

I mean, feel free to tweet me otherwise, but I had zero breakfasts that tasted like they were supposed to. The coffee was usually... fine, really, I’m not a huge coffee snob. But the pastries tasted like papier-mache imitation pastries, the bacon was somehow simultaneously gristly and limp, and the bagels had the flavor and consistency of socks.

11. You will begin rating the carts

Restaurants earn letter grades in New York, but street carts earn a "number of rats" rating. Squeaky-clean Hanover Square Banh Mi? One rat. The off-brand hot dog cart three blocks from Barclays? Four and a half rats.

12. Eating out every meal is still a strain budget-wise, even if it’s food carts

OK, maybe not for everyone. But if you’re used to eating the majority of your meals at home, and buy most of your produce from the vendor stands outside of Trader Joe’s, your food budget is going to double if you eat from stands for a week. That said, my entire week’s worth of meals cost less than taking someone out for two normal-style, cocktails-and-wine-with-dinner dates.

13. By day seven, the nightmares will come for you

The meat sweats aren’t just physical, you guys. They will enter your dreams. I was chased by a gigantic, Pac-Man-like kebab that wanted to skewer me. It was kind of like Pixels... only with more direction and plot.

Jess Novak/Thrillist

14. You'll gain 7lbs

And they will feel like the grossest, heaviest, nastiest 7lbs you've ever gained. I was bloated for days after doing this, like there was an enormous, rock-solid meatball lodged in my abdomen.

15. If you have the chance to eat raw fish from a cooler on the street, you should probably do it

There are a few places for street cart ceviche around town, including the sweet lady at the corner of Graham and Varet in Bushwick, and this guy with a cooler up in Inwood. Look, I’m not saying it’s the wisest choice, but it’s definitely going to be the most upside choice.

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Jess Novak once thought that earning a master’s degree in writing poems was a good idea. You can follow her questionable life choices on Twitter and Instagram.