I was 24 and outrageously broke when I moved to New York almost nine years ago. I’d blown all my money on travel and carbs living in Italy my first two years out of college and even when I landed a job in the city within my first two weeks here, it paid me peanuts. Scratch that. Peanut shells.
Groceries were expensive and the cheap stuff was mostly a mix of terrible-for-you and terrible tasting, so I avoided it. My roommate dominated our tiny, shitty kitchen and I hated cooking anyway so it wasn’t much of an option to begin with.
Also, because I’d only been to New York once before moving, I knew nothing about the place, nothing about its tricks and secrets, or the hacks to surviving here. When I was introduced to street meat, sometimes also known as halal food, or the chicken (or beef or falafel) and rice dishes sold at food carts around the city, I felt like I finally had something to work with.
For $5 I could get a pretty big serving of what seemed like a perfectly balanced meal: yellow rice (carbs), tender, spiced chicken (protein), lettuce and tomatoes (veggies) and a couple delicious sauces for a mix of creamy and spicy flavors. I was hooked.
It even taught me a small lesson in the surprising kindness of strangers.
One night after leaving the office, I stopped at a nearby cart on the way home and ordered what would be dinner that night. When I looked in my wallet, I panicked: no cash. I offered to run to an ATM but the older gentleman holding my round aluminum foil container full of food shook his head and said not to worry about it.
“You come back tomorrow,” he said, extending the food toward me. “I trust you. You bring me money tomorrow.”
Obviously I went back immediately the next day and paid the guy and thanked him for a delicious dinner. He could have just as easily said no money, no food that night, or made me run to an ATM, even though I was tired and hungry and probably wondering if an ATM fee would make me overdraft. But he didn’t, and I never forgot that.
A couple of nights ago, walking home sweaty and exhausted from work and the gym, I passed The Halal Guys, one of the actual brick-and-mortar versions of one of the city’s most famous carts. For ol’ times sake I went in and got my old standby, the chicken and rice platter.
I’m happy to report that while it didn’t make for the most aesthetically pleasing photo, it was every bit as delicious, filling and comforting as it was back when I didn’t have many other options. As long as I live in this city, street meat will have it a spot in my heart.