What a sight! Never would I have imagined that when I came outside this particular morning I would find a hot dog cart parked right on our corner! In New York City, this is an honor. It means your neighborhood has arrived, and that you now live in a part of town that other people want to visit. Naturally, these visitors require convenient and delicious ways to satisfy their hunger on the go. It was all happening so fast. How did this come about on our block? And what does a person need to know when navigating the eclectic eatery that is the New York City street corner?
Actually, I should have seen this coming. The neighborhood has been changing in recent years to make it a prime tourist destination. One evidence of that would be the New York travel guidebooks that call it a prime tourist destination. There's a massive new park under the Brooklyn Bridge with a picture-perfect Manhattan backdrop that's been attracting more and more visitors. A steady stream of newlyweds pass through daily in gown and tux to have their wedding photos taken. Families from around the world can be seen walking with their travel books while trying to find all the must-see spots.
All of these visitors get hungry, and the books tell them to find the trendy pizza shop in the center of the excitement. It's a true New York hot spot in the sense that it takes charge and sets the rules for your enjoyment through a myriad of posted signs and a two-hour line. "No Slices!", "Cash Only!", "Eat in, Take Out, Same Line!". It is uniquely New York when a pizza restaurant can assume complete authority over the customer and, as such, become a must-do for all travelers. Just about every day I give directions to people who, with books opened to the restaurant pages, ask me where they can find the famous pizza shop. I'll point to the long line down the sidewalk and say "Right over there...". Then I head down the block to the pizza place the locals go to, and get a slice using my credit card from a friendly guy named Vinny. But the big-time pizza restaurant serves an important role as anchor to all the other culinary tourist stops, including some trendy pizza imitators, ice cream shops, food trucks, and of course, the hot dog carts.
On a summer day, the area by the park is packed out with people and mobile food vendors. So it didn't take long for some of the chuck wagons to begin migrating up the hill looking for fresh territory. And that's when it happened... our own hot dog cart appearing right outside our door. It seemed like a good spot for an enterprising street chef seeking an untamed location. Plenty of folks were walking up the hill to enjoy the Manhattan view and beautiful promenade, none of them yet with hot dogs.
This was the sort of thing that would have brought perfection to a childhood. Sure, we had the occasional ice cream truck roll down our street. The sound of its bells would throw us into a confused frenzy as we battled with the conflict of whether to run for the truck to make it stop, or bolt towards the house to beg for money. As a kid you don't reason on the fact that it was in the driver's best interest to stop and wait for you to get your parents' money and come back to buy an orange-cicle. You just fear the worst, imagining that when you get back with your dollar, the ice cream man will have sailed off to another neighborhood having more financially prepared children. We eventually got smart and teamed up - one person would flag down the truck, while the other went off to raise the needed funds. So to have something like a hot dog cart permanently perched on your corner would have been too much to even dream of. But decades later, here it was!
Sadly though, as an adult I couldn't appreciate our new hot dog cart like I would have in my youth. I like hot dogs, but at my age I can't make them a daily staple of my diet like I'd want to (I confirmed this with my doctor). But in New York, that doesn't have to be a problem. The neighborhood's new-found celebrity has brought in all kinds of choices. We have organic yogurt vans, falafel-on-wheels, and even a mobile Korean kitchen with barbecue and kimchi tacos - that's right, I said "kimchi tacos" - Spanish-Asian fusion on a truck!
If you don't like the options on your current block, head somewhere else and see what they've got over there. An old favorite, of course, would be Chinatown. They have some street cart food that's served no where else in the world except, maybe, China. I walked up to one particular cart that was cooking up something that smelled great all the way down the street. I asked the man what it was. He said, "One Dollar!". "Yes, but what is it?", I repeated. "One Dollar!". "Ok, but...", "One Dollar!". I soon concluded that the only way I was going to figure out what he was cooking was to pay up my one dollar. So I did, and it was delicious, whatever it was - I still don't know.
So pick your neighborhood, scope out your choices, and bring plenty of cash. The street cart is one of the last remaining strictly cash-based economies in the western world. Be prepared to do a little math, though, because there are no registers or calculators, and many of the experienced vendors are well trained in creative accounting. During a friend's visit, we walked up to a cart selling $2 hot dogs and $1.50 sodas. My friend ordered three hot dogs and four sodas (apparently, one of us was just thirsty). Quick... now how much is that? "Nineteen dollars!", yelled the vendor in his mathematically confident tone. I'm no math genius, but as my friend started to hand over his twenty, I asked the guy to add that up again. "Um... isn't that twelve dollars?", I said. "C'mon! C'mon! I got customers waiting! You're making the line slow!", he barked. Turning to the family next in line I asked if they would mind waiting for us to make sure the "cash register" was working properly before they placed their order. Having heard the whole thing go down, they said, "No, please... take all the time you need. Oh, by the way, do you know where the famous pizza place is?".