For most tourists, New York City street food conjures up images of hot dogs and pretzels served on packed streets filled with pedestrians. However, for most New Yorkers, halal carts have become the most common and popular street food of choice. In every borough and neighborhood, halal carts can be found selling chicken and rice served with a squeeze of creamy white sauce or hot sauce. Affordable and tasty, diners at halal carts come from all walks of life.
Recently, New York style halal cart food has spread worldwide. The Halal Guys franchise is the most famous example, with franchise locations both domestically and internationally. But Halal Guys represents just a tiny fraction of the variety of halal cart food available in New York. Halal carts throughout the city serve unique flavor combinations as different as the operators themselves. From Palestinian style falafel to South Asian style chicken biryani with mint chutney, halal carts have become an indispensable part of the culinary scene in New York City.
Despite the countless halal carts scattered throughout the city, some carts stand out due to their unique offerings. Here are five of the best halal food carts in the city:
King of Falafel & Shawarma– Astoria, Queens & Midtown, Manhattan
King of Falafel and Shawarma is an institution in Astoria, Queens. Started by Palestinian immigrant Freddy Zeideia in 2002, this cart has become extremely popular in Astoria. This popularity further increased in 2010 when he won the Vendy award, a prestigious New York City contest for street food. Business exploded and now the restaurant has several locations: a food truck and cart in Astoria, a cart in Manhattan and a sit-down restaurant in Astoria. The cart is also well-known for their customer service. Cart workers frequently hand out free falafels to customers waiting in line.
What makes the food at King of Falafel unique is the combination of Palestinian and classic New York halal cart flavors. Most halal carts in New York follow a similar playbook–factory standard gyro meat, chicken and sauces. However, the menu at King of Falafel is original. The falafel is crispy and elongated in the Palestinian style. The marinated chicken and beef tastes very different compared to other carts and the hot sauce is accentuated with amba, a mango pickle sauce in the Middle East. Try the combination rice platter with chicken and kofta to sample the distinct flavors. Every rice platter also includes a piece falafel.
Sammy’s Halal – Jackson Heights, Queens & Chelsea, Manhattan
Sammy’s Halal carts can be found in both Jackson Heights, Queens and the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. The food at this cart features a distinctly South Asian flavor. This is no surprise considering the founder is an immigrant from Pakistan. Sammy Noor moved to America in 1990. After a few years in Texas, he moved to New York City in 1997, where he purchased his first food cart in Jackson Heights for $15,000.
Another Vendy Award winner, Sammy’s business expanded after the award. Sammy’s has a small menu and unlike similar halal carts, does not offer items like falafel, hot dogs or fish plates.
By keeping the menu simple, Sammy’s benefits from a focus on quality and despite having slightly higher prices to similar carts, the cart is always busy during lunch and dinner hours.
The South Asian flavor profile is very apparent in the chicken and green mint chutney. A unique aspect of Sammy’s rice platters is the addition of fresh cilantro, a topping rarely seen on other halal carts.
Mahmoud’s Corner Halal Truck – Astoria, Queens
Unlike some of the other halal carts on this list, Mahmoud’s Corner is a full-sized food truck. Previously a food cart, Mahmoud’s was so successful that they upgraded their operation. A striking blue color, Mahmoud’s can be spotted proudly displaying a sign that states “Keep Calm and Eat Halal.” Mahmoud’s has an extensive menu with plenty of meat choices for hungry carnivores, including: chicken and beef shawarma, chicken and beef kebabs, kofta, gyro meat and merguez sausages. It’s a great place to try all the halal cart classics in one location.
A unique addition to Mahmoud’s rice platters and sandwiches is French fries and pieces of soft fried eggplant. This makes the bowls and sandwiches at Mahmoud’s particularly hearty. Be prepared to experience a serious case of drowsiness after a meal at Mahmoud’s Corner.
Steinway Halal – Astoria, Queens
Steinway Halal cart is quite different than the other carts on this list and is a great example of the diversity of New York halal carts. Rather than the chopped chicken and gyro meat popularized by the Halal Guys, Steinway Halal instead specializes in Egyptian grilled meats. And instead of a propane powered griddle, Steinway Halal grills its meat over charcoal briquettes, sending plumes of charcoal flavored smoke onto the street, enticing customers as they walk past. The cart is open late, closing at 3am and is very popular with the late-night crowd and Uber drivers.
The specialty here is freshly grilled lamb or chicken kebabs, kofta and butterflied half chickens. The wait is longer than the average halal cart–at least 15-20 minutes–since everything is cooked to order. There are usually a few chairs located near the cart for customers to sit while waiting. Steinway Halal cooks its rice, vegetables and soup at an Egyptian restaurant right next to the cart. Periodically, a cart worker will rush out of the restaurant carrying bread or rice to restock the cart.
All entrées come with two types of biryani rice, salad, soup and a vegetable side dish. Sandwiches are served in a baguette with your choice of meat, salad and white or hot sauce.
Biryani Cart – Midtown, Manhattan
A 2008 Vendy Award winner, the Biryani Cart in Midtown Manhattan serves up flavorful South Asian style halal food to crowds of busy office workers on their lunch breaks. Originally from Bangladesh, Meru Sikder was a former hotel chef at the New Jersey Hilton before he decided to start his own halal cart in 2004. But this wouldn’t be an ordinary halal cart, Meru wanted to add some culinary twists to the standard halal cart menu.
One of the most popular items on the cart is the kati rolls. While other South Asian halal carts serve kati rolls, the rolls at Biryani Cart are unique because of Meru’s use of chapati bread instead of paratha bread. Kati rolls come with a choice of chicken or gyro meat and a variety of sauces (mint habanero, Thai chili, white sauce), onions, lettuce and tomatoes. The cart also serves an excellent biryani. Yogurt marinated chicken is served on a bed of spiced rice with an egg and mango pickle on the side.
Are you a fan of food carts? Which one of these would you want to eat at??