NEW YORK - IN THE 1977 MOVIE SATURDAY Night Fever, a camera trails the young and impossibly coiffed Tony Manero (John Travolta) as he swivels his slim hips down a city sidewalk while cramming a slice of pizza into his mouth.
Tony's dining on the dash tells us everything we need to know about him - he's vain enough to imagine that even the way he wolfs down food is admirable - but this scene also sets the film in a very particular place: Manhattan.
New Yorkers are terribly proud of their 24-7, "we're too busy to sit still" energy. Move it, baby! Go-go-go! When life rushes 'round the clock, inevitably meals take to their heels.
Catering to Gotham's restless and roving appetite, a variety of outdoor vendors sell standard fare like hot dogs, doughy pretzels encrusted with salt, and candy-coated peanuts, as well as exotic flavors from across the globe: South Indian dosas, Argentine empanadas and Asian noodle soups.
"New York has the most vibrant street-food culture of any city in the United States," said Richard Darmstadter, a retired importer of gourmet foods who is now a volunteer with Big Apple Greeters, a nonprofit organization that arranges guided tours highlighting little-known sides of New York.
"From shish kebab to gelato," he said, "there is such profusion that anything imaginable has been served from a cart at one time or another."
To honor this bounty, the Vendy Awards were launched in 2005, a competition held to raise awareness for the Urban Justice Center's Street Vendors Project, which supports the city's estimated 10,000 food and merchandise vendors.
Grand-prize winner was Rolf Babiel, a grinning, mustachioed German who sells bratwurst and other sausages (pork, beef, veal and chicken) from a cart called Hallo Berlin at the corner of 54th Street and Fifth Avenue.
Sean Basinski, the Street Vendors Project director, said, "Vendors make our lives richer."
Not to mention tastier. So it recently occurred to me that it might be intriguing to attempt surviving in New York for a whole day by eating only food purchased from street carts. Truthfully, this proved no challenge whatsoever. What I failed to foresee, however, is that the Big Apple is bigger than my stomach.
Rise and dine
Planning to graze my way from downtown to uptown - or experience New York in the same northward migration that's marked its expansion over the past four centuries - I began at the city's financial center.
Bull or bear? These symbols famously connote one's optimism or pessimism about the stock market. Yet, the street vendors along Wall Street's few blocks pose an even more vexing choice. Half serve carbohydrate-laden, calorie-packed breakfast pastries; their virtuous twins offer fruit salad and smoothies. Envisioning a long day of unfamiliar flavors, I'm torn. Helping me decide is the first rule of street-cart dining: Follow the crowd.
A long line snaked away from where Wall crosses St. James Street. I head toward a cart emblazoned with the words, "Fresh Cut Daily."
A pair of pretty Asian girls are busily slicing and dicing, but neither speaks English, making communication a matter of point and smile. Hmmm. A sign printed with indifferent spelling suggests the "Skin Glo" or the "Body Wizer" blended various combinations of parsley, cucumber, beet and apple nectars.
When I order a "Super Juice" made from pineapple, carrot, orange and mango, I am handed a huge tankard, as well as a "chaser" cup into which the blender's extra was poured. The concoction ($3) was neon orange, and drinking it made me feel like a superhero.
Nearly leaping tall buildings at a single bound, I charge up Broadway, past City Hall, and into Chinatown. This neighborhood is vibrant, crowded and wonderfully porous on its perimeter, blurring into both Little Italy and what was once the Jewish ghetto.
Dim sum is sold directly beside prosciutto and gefilte fish. Noodle carts at the corner of Bowery and Hester streets do a brisk business with pho (a fragrant Vietnamese soup) and curried squid.
A block away, I discovered something I'd never seen. Ladies were ladling a batter made with rice flour into a small rectangular pan and then sprinkling it with scallions and dried shrimp. High heat and the batter's thin consistency quickly produced what resembled an oversized lasagna noodle.
This was scooped into a dish, along with a jigger of soy sauce and a splat of red-pepper puree ($1, an unbelievable bargain). Alas, it was impossible to eat gracefully. I resorted to forking up the whole mess and biting off a manageable chunk. As it flopped back into its dish, the remainder would spray the front of my shirt with droplets of soy sauce. Savoring each salty, spicy bite, I wished for a bib.
The intersection of Mulberry and Grand streets is the heart of Little Italy. Visitors may infer this because the streetlight poles are painted tricolore - red, white and green - and because in most restaurant windows, posters of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) jockey for pre-eminence over those of Pope Benedict XVI.
Spying a gelato cart, I nearly drooled at the sight of a pistachio flavor. Would that I owned a cashmere sweater in that shade! May this be the color of light I drift toward upon my death! About to order a paper accordion cup full ($2.50), I glanced at my wristwatch. Not quite 9 a.m. A little early for dessert. The second rule of street-cart dining: Pace yourself.
After meandering through SoHo and snagging an alfresco espresso, I eventually walked through Greenwich Village and up Sullivan Street until it dead-ended at Washington Square.
Here, I met my favorite vendor of the day. Thirukumar Kandasamy (known by his many fans simply as "Thiru," or "the Dosa Man") is a native of Sri Lanka who specializes in a snack food his country shares with south India.
Dosas are nearly transparent crepes made of fermented rice flour and lentils, but few Indian chefs manage to produce crepes as papery crisp as Thiru's. Crunching into his masala dosa ($4), stuffed with potatoes, onions and curry leaves, was a rare treat.
Crossing through the garment center in the west 30s and 40s, I could smell Cuban sandwiches cooking at street-corner stands called loncherias.
Grilled in a press called a plancha, this layering of ham, roast pork, cheese and pickles on a crunchy roll oozes together into such perfection it's routinely served without condiment or embellishment ($6). I wanted one - actually, I wanted three - but I was holding out for empanadas.
These Argentine turnovers (empanar is Spanish for "to bake in pastry") are a relatively new addition to New York's street-cart menu. One of their best purveyors is at the southeast edge of Central Park, across from Grand Army Plaza. Filled with beef, spinach or, like the one I devoured, chicken ($3), they are flaky folds of pure pleasure.
In your face
Pausing at the nexus of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, I pivoted about, noting its corners boast four of the world's most luxurious stores: Van Cleef & Arpels, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany and Bulgari. And, smack in front of this last was Johnny Beekam, who sells hot dogs from a cart underneath a garish yellow-and-blue umbrella.
Third rule of street-cart dining: It is a thumb in the eye to Manhattan sophistication. Even if you can't afford breakfast at Tiffany's, you can window-shop, wiener in hand.
I gobbled mine down in barely three bites - Johnny Beekam looked concerned - and staggered away, not quite sure what hit me, other than a splat of mustard over my left pectoral.
By now, it was nearly dusk and I faced a bewildering variety of street-food choices for dinner. Perhaps a veal sausage from the Vendy Award-winning Babiel, Oaxacan tamales out in Brooklyn or a dip into the wide world of halal cookery, as represented by a renowned cart at Sixth Avenue and 53th Street that cooks lamb and chicken (never pork) in strict accordance with Islamic dietary laws.
I admitted defeat and put off my streetside dinner to another day.
This time, I rode all the way uptown, to the Washington Heights neighborhood on Manhattan's northernmost tip. Emerging aboveground at 181st Street and Juan Pablo Duarte Street (Duarte was a founding father of the Dominican Republic), I saw that nearly every corner sells Dominican specialties like pastilitos - deep-fried savory pastries - or cold soups tasting similar to the creamy, cinnamon-spiked flavor of rice pudding, but with large kernels of sweet corn instead of rice.
Vendors here are no-frills, operating from grocery carts loaded with picnic hampers full of food they've made in their own kitchens. No one spoke English, so I fumbled along in Spanish, and soon found myself gnawing on a large hunk of pork ribs.
The woman whacked them partially apart with a daunting machete and gave the ribs a good soaking with fresh lime juice. Though they were delicious, I couldn't bring myself to eat more than a nibble of the salty, crackling skin (called chicharron). Somehow it seemed a little ... um ... piggish.
A few blocks away, at 178th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, a line gathered in front of a truck parked curbside that makes chimichurri sandwiches, a crusty white roll stuffed with sliced cabbage, red onion, oregano-flavored beef and a flood of pink sauce that tastes suspiciously like Russian salad dressing. I ordered a "chimi" - affecting the local abbreviation - as well as a cup of tamarind juice.
As I perched on a plastic lawn chair, merengue music blasted from another diner's car and traffic roared by on the Cross Bronx Expressway, only a few feet away.
Admittedly, this was not a bucolic setting. Still, I was delighted not only by this hilariously messy sandwich but by recalling the different flavors I'd experienced.
I thought again of Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever. As I recalled, he didn't spill a drop of his pizza, yet street-food dining had smeared my chest with carrot juice, soy sauce, Indian chutney, empanada crumbs, an aureole of yellow mustard and now Russian dressing by way of the Dominican Republic.
Far from embarrassed, I wore these colors with pride. I'd chomped my way through the Big Apple and was satisfied to the core.
If you go ...
Want to take a bite of the Big Apple? Contact one of these groups:
Big Apple Greeter (bigapplegreeter.org) pairs visitors with a volunteer who shows you a favorite neighborhood or aspect of New York City.
Foods of New York Tours (foodsofny.com) offers food tasting and cultural history walking tours through some of Manhattan's most historic (and delicious) neighborhoods.
[Stephen G. Henderson]