New York City is filthy with cheap places to eat. There are pizza places, delis, diners, taquerias, and bagel shops where one can get a good meal for under $5. But if the hungry pedestrian can't be bothered to go inside to find something to eat, he often need look no further than the nearest street corner. Though not unique to New York City, the food stand in its many forms is one of many international symbols for that bloated metropolis. It is instantly recognisable by its colourful umbrella, its shiny metal body, and, as the pedestrian nears it, by the steam pouring from its hot belly.
The Traditional Hot Dog Stand
The traditional hot dog stand is a metal cart approximately two metres by one metre. It is made up of several sections. The bulk of it is taken up by closed containers either filled with or heated up by boiling water. These containers keep the food warm. Other sections keep drinks cold, and others are open to the air. The whims of the stand operator dictate what goes on this open-air section. Some vendors use it to store buns, ketchup, mustard, or other temperature-neutral items; some use it to display empty cans of the beverages they have for sale; some convert this area into a small griddle; others use it for God knows what end. As mentioned before, the cart is topped by a large, colourful umbrella. The umbrella shades the vendor and keeps him dry, but is also convenient advertising, either for the hot dog brand supplying the cart (Sabrett's and Shofar's are perhaps the most visible) or for local businesses, such as gyms and theatres.
The hot dog stand provides a surprising variety of foods considering its size. On the ubiquitous hot dog stand, the vendor can often place ketchup, mustard, onions, sauerkraut, and sometimes chilli. One can also buy pretzels, knishes (dumplings), chips and other snacks, and assorted juices and soda at a hot dog stand. If the hot dog stand has a menu posted, it will usually advertise all of these items. Be aware that this menu is an outright lie, and to avoid an awkward conversation, always ask the vendor if he has what you want before you go ahead and order it.
The traditional hot dog stand can be found on most corners in high-traffic areas. For the tourist visiting popular attractions in Manhattan, this means that he will see a hot dog stand just about everywhere he looks. Aside from these areas, the hot dog stand can also be found on the busier intersections of any neighbourhood, where they compete for the culinary attentions of New Yorkers looking for a quick meal.
Be advised that the price of the food at a hot dog stand is by no means regulated, and the vendor charges as much as he thinks he can get away with. In tourist areas, or in areas rife with businessmen, a hot dog will go for $1.50 or $1.75; in residential areas, the price can drop to $1 or even $0.75. The prices of the other items follow the same pattern.
Other Food Stands
The Bagel Cart - In the mornings, the street corners of many neighbourhoods are occupied by large, silver boxes about the size of phone booths. These carts primarily sell bagels, but also typically have donuts, danishes, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and juice. None of these things are of the highest quality, but they are of the lowest price, and as such, have a healthy business from people going to work, even when they have to stand in line in inclement weather.
The Falafel Cart - Not so much a cart as a small, portable kitchen, this cart has a griddle roughly the size of a small diner's, as well as deep fryers, a small refrigerator and bins for salad, rice, and sauces. These carts are identifiable by their spicy Adobo (a Filipino say sauce and vinegar mix) smell, and sell a plethora of Middle Eastern foods, coarse, tasty, and filling to the point of nausea: chicken kebab, kofta (spicy beef), shawarma (spicy 'lamb'1), as well as the chick pea or fava bean-based falafel. One can get any of these things on a hero (a long roll), or on a platter with rice and a small salad, usually topped with a white dressing and hot sauce. The falafel carts can also make hamburgers, sausages, hot dogs, and fries, but almost nobody actually buys these things from them.
The Burrito Cart - A burrito cart sells pretty much what one expects it to: beef, chicken, or bean burritos, with the usual fillings of vegetables, salsa, sour cream, and guacamole. The burrito cart is worth mentioning mostly because of the large plaster sombrero that sometimes adorns one.
The Nut Cart - Similar in size to the traditional hot dog stand, the nut cart sells honey roasted nuts of various kinds. Note, however, that the nuts usually do not taste the same way they smell.
The Baked Potato Cart - Perhaps the most obscure of the food stands, the baked potato cart (usually from a company calling itself Potato King) is roughly the size of the burrito cart, and sells baked potatoes topped variously with processed cheese, vegetables, chilli, chives, and sour cream.
Street Food - Pros and Cons
Buying food on the street has many advantages, the first being convenience. Food stands are easy to find and get to, and the time between ordering and eating is seldom longer than a minute. Street food also tends to be surprisingly filling. Aside from the falafel cart's heavy wares, one can easily satiate oneself with a dense pretzel or bagel, or two hot dogs, or a gigantic burrito. Street food is also quite cheap; the consumer must work hard to get a meal that will cost him more than $5. One should also keep in mind that street food is, relatively speaking, fairly sanitary, despite its location. It is probably about as clean as any diner, and undoubtedly far more clean than the average deli, where hundreds upon hundreds of customers are likely to have handled and contaminated your food before you lay a hand on it.
Before we all rush out and gorge ourselves on street food, however, be warned; though not unhealthy, street food is liable to disagree with your stomach to some small degree, especially if eaten in an overzealous manner or in large quantities. The tourist's stomach will probably be fairly tolerant of it at first, but the time will soon come when the idea of eating another hot dog or kofta platter is too much for a fragile mind to bear. Excepting the totally harmless bagel carts, which enjoy brisk and consistent business, the native New Yorker's taste for street food declines with each month of residency. Despite this, no New Yorker, with the possible exception of Rudolph Giuliani2, would want to see them gone, as they are an integral part of the cuisine and character of New York City.