Thursday: There May Be No Stairway, but $2 Goes a Long Way Toward a Little Bit of Heaven (aka the “Central Park Discovery” Post)

On Thursday night, I did dessert first.

photo-13I’ve begun to build in long stretches of city blocks (or river fronts, or parks) into my ways to get between places, and walking through Central Park I began wishing I had an ice cream thing. Or a popsicle thing. Or, in other words, the exact sort of treats that the park concession carts with the green-and-white umbrellas specialize in.

I’d never bought a frozen treat in the park before, and to be completely honest, I was expecting something closer to stadium prices: $4 and up. So I was shocked, I mean shocked, to discover that (with the exception of the Haagen Daaz and Ben & Jerry’s bars), hardly anything was more than $2-$3!

photo-14photo-12The best idea ever got better: My $2 Blue Bunny FrozFruit bananas & cream bar was only 160 calories, actually lists bananas as the third ingredient (after water and milk) and is not a shabby source of a couple of vitamins and minerals. And it only could have been improved by not being deep frozen — too impatient to wait for it to thaw, I had bitten through most of it by the time it got soft enough to melt in that pleasant way cold things on a stick have a tendency to do.

I have no idea what took me so long.

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Lunch: Meeting the Local Street Meat, Ali Baba’s Halal Food

photo-3With $5 in my pocket and zero time to actually get away, it was either Papaya Dog’s $4.50 recession special — a pair of dogs and a drink — or a lunch plate from this cart parked on the southwest corner of W. 37th Street and 8th Avenue, which only sells small and large-sized platters of chicken or beef over rice, $3.50 and $4.50, respectively.

I think part of the reason why I hadn’t stopped here until now is the sheer confusion this cart causes me: photos of fries, various plate combinations, signage about falafel, eggplant and fish, but you can only buy rice platters? Huh?

photo-4As far as Midtown street meat goes, Ali Baba’s Halal Cart is no star player, but it’s not bad, either. Beat my expectations. The rice, although plain, was nice and fresh, not as dried out as the rice I had the other week on a plate from the Biryani Cart’s adjacent “Sandwich Cart”; the chicken was no chicken-lamb combination from Meal O’Bama one block east (on the same street), but it was better than average, nice-sized chunks without being too fatty.

And hey, for the price, it’s really excellent. Next tie, to help doctor up the rice, I might ask if he could sauce up the rice, too, even before laying on the meat. Because we all know that white sauce makes everything taste better. …

Breakfast: A Tamale for Breakfast? Brilliant.

Impulse tamale purchase. Yesterday afternoon I noticed the small, yellow sign in the lower corner of the coffee-pastry truck stationed on the northeast corner of W. 39th Street and 8th Avenue for tamales and arroz con leche. Yes!

photo(3)photo-5There was no way I was passing this by. I took home a cheese tamale for later (ordinarily she carries cheese and chicken, but the chicken had run out for the day), ended up forgetting about it, only to rediscover it this morning. Bingo, breakfast!

photo A tamale for breakfast is such a brilliant idea. Heartier than cereal, the faintly-sweet masa, cheese and — surprise inside — hot peppers trigger an entirely different set of tastebuds than the fruit, the eggs, the yogurts that make up the standard rotation.

At $1.50 each, the price point’s right, too.

Sunday: Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, I Wanted To Love You So Much

Ran into the Van Leeuwen ice cream truck parked next to the High Line in the Meatpacking District on Sunday, which was a.) brilliant strategy on their part and b.) my favorite way to encounter the growing number of artisanal food trucks that are roving the streets of New York City — that is, by chance.

If this whole food truck trend is inspired, at least tangentially, by the ice cream truck that cruised through neighborhoods and past municipal sports fields of our childhood, using its sing-song anthem to alert nearby children to its approach, the colorful, pictorial menu of frozen delights coming into focus — and I think it is — then part of the enjoyment of the roving food truck is the delight and surprise you feel when you happen upon a good one. (Stalking a truck’s location via Twitter and tracking down the Cravings Truck or Koji Tacos in the flesh has its own rewards — but that’s another post.)

photo(3)I am an ice cream fiend, and I’d never had Van Leeuwen’s. So I was understandably excited: Based on the ingredient-sourcing quotient, the artisanal-process quotient and the cuteness-of-design quotient, I was sure I was going to fall in love.

Except that, I didn’t. We ordered a single scoop of the vanilla ice cream“oak barrel aged for three months organic bourbon and Tahitian vanilla” ($3.95, sourced: Papa New Guinea) — and added hot fudge sauce“Homemade Michael Cluizel hot fudge” ($1.25) and a cone with a single scoop of Gianduia ice cream (“Michael Cluizel chocolate blended with Tonda La Giffoni hazelnuts” ($3.95, sourced: Italy and France).

photo(2)The consensus was that the actual flavors of the ice cream were incredibly subtle — there’s nothing wrong with flavors being soft and nuanced, but they should still be specific and discernible — and the texture of the ice cream was off to the point that it felt somewhat watery, borderline icy, and definitely lacked the all-over sensation of creaminess as ice cream melts in your mouth.

It was just kind of “there.” The fudge was good — but the fudge just dominated, killing all flavor of vanilla whenever it made it onto a bite. I think the worst comment was that Van Leeuwen ice cream tasted like light or low-fat ice cream — except that, it’s not. All the calories of full-fat ice cream, while light on taste. I have to imagine that’s a creamery’s nightmare.

I’m going to give Van Leeuwen a second chance — they have ginger ice cream?! — but they’re on probation. One more mediocre showing, and I’m moving on.

Lunch: A Little Line Gawking at Biryani Cart

Couldn’t help it. In need of a stroll, I decided to check out the photoscene at Biryani Cart and their adjacent “Sandwich Land” cart, which sells just slightly different options, to see what it was like post-publication of the full-page article in the New York Times’ Dining Section this week in which the cart was featured front and center.

It took me a moment to decipher what, exactly, was going on, but I sorted it out: Only the original Biryani Cart sells the kati rolls (per the photo in the NYT article), and for that cart there was a line of about 10 people at 2 p.m. There was no line for the adjacent “Sandwich Land” cart, which sells your standard chicken-and-rice plates, pita wraps, sandwiches, etc.

photo(3)Seriously hungry and in no mood to wait around, I ducked in to the counter of the Sandwich Land cart, and was on my way with my chicken-and-rice plate ($5.50) less than five minutes later.

How was it? It was fine. It’s now gone. I was hungry. Rice was a little dry; I’m not a fan of fennel seeds; there was no real dressing to the salad, so it was just a pile of iceberg lettuce; the sauces, standard. Like I said, it was fine; it’s gone; I was hungry.

Of my own street-cart food foragings documented on this blog so far, Meal O’Bama’s combination plate is remains the one to beat.

Lunch: Wednesday, May 6, 2009

photo23Meal O’bama: Mmm, mmm, mmm.

Didn’t think I’d be able to eat every single morsel of my lamb, chicken and rice combination ($7.50) and … I did. I’m not entirely ashamed to admit I was scraping at the rice grains stuck in the niches of the takeout container, to try to free them so I could smear them in the last of the white tzatziki-like sauce.

The scene at my desk was only about a half-step above sticking an actual finger in there and using it in a spatula-like function to finish the job at which my fork was proving woefully inadequate.

photo8Meal O’Bama is the newest cart from Kwik Meal crew; Midtown Lunch has all the details on the chef, the Irish-ish name and the cart’s sister locations.

I needed a bit of flair this afternoon; watching the two chefs work with such deftness in their ultra-utilitarian sidewalk kitchen (no corner unused), not to mention the food that followed, cheered me right up.

TIP: Say “yes” to hot sauce.