NYC: Street Food a la Cart

By Graham Kates

One of the time-honored delights of New York is the so-called street food offered by all manner of vendors. Tourists welcome the novelty of these rolling mini-kitchens on so many corners, and often go back to Peoria or Dubuque talking about the crusty hot pretzel or Hebrew National hot dog or roasted nuts they bought and consumed on the street. What many visitors don’t realize is how much everyday New Yorkers depend on street vendors near their homes or offices.

Sometimes it’s worth a subway trip — even to the outer boroughs — to try a local food cart that offers a menu far beyond the routine fare in touristy areas of Manhattan. In the Bronx, for example, Fauzia Abdur-Rahman’s regulars know the only guarantee is that there won’t be hot dogs or pretzels. Of the 10 or so items on her menu every day, she promises to include rice, some sort of chicken dish and at least one vegetarian option.

Everything else is up in the air.

“Today I have a spicy stewed chicken,” said Abdur-Rahman recently. “I just bought a case of mushrooms, so tomorrow I might make stew with that.”

“I live in Manhattan, and her vegetarian food is some of the best I’ve ever had, anywhere,” said Diane Donato, a high school teacher who frequents the cart. “She has a very fine hand with spicing and flavoring.”

Although she typically only serves lunch, Abdur-Rahman arrives at her corner every morning around 8:45 a.m to begin cooking. A basic outline of the day’s menu is planned the night before, based on whatever ingredients the 51-year-old mother of three has available.

All but two dishes are made from scratch in the next two and a half hours or so; Abdur-Rahman serves cake from Lloyd’s Carrot Cake, a North Bronx institution, and every once in a while, she makes Jamaica’s national dish, ackee and saltfish, using canned ackee — the national fruit of Jamaica.

Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Abdur-Rahman first came to New York City 34 years ago. In the nearly two decades before getting her street vendor’s license, Abdur-Rahman worked for myriad employers — her jobs ranged from grocery store cashier to secretarial positions — but said her family ultimately convinced her to take the risk of entrepreneurship.
“One day my grandmother just pretty much told her that, you know, ‘this is pretty much the only way that you can do what you want to do,’” said Ibrahim, Abdur-Rahman’s 25-year-old son.

Abdur-Rahman’s unique cooking style developed through on-the-job experimentation, and a blending of the divergent culinary interests of her mother and sister.

“When I was younger, my mom was not that good of a cook,” Ibrahim said. “My grandmother had taught her to make some Jamaican foods, like codfish cakes, and we sold them at fairs for extra money.”

As Abdur-Rahman mastered her mother’s Jamaican classics, she and her sister, Gay-Marcin Smith, began experimenting with diverse tastes. Smith recalls learning about the ethnic foods while attending weekly potluck dinners with her college’s multi-cultural club.

“Every Friday night you’d have an abundance of food from Ghana, Morocco and all over,” said Smith. “I started sharing with (Abdur-Rahman) the types of things I learned… but you can’t just throw it all together, you have to really understand different seasonings.”

Soon Abdur-Rahman assimilated her favorite flavors from New York.

“New York is such a melting pot and people are very open to different flavors and tastes, said Abdur-Rahman. “You’ll find, you know, somebody from Ireland, and they want jerk chicken!”

“I play with different flavors and tastes,” said Abdur-Rahman. “You would never go to a Jamaican restaurant and get butternut squash, or green beans and corn. But as long as the flavors are balanced, it’s good.

Abdur-Rahman gives credit to the city’s heterogeneous culinary landscape, with contributing to the success of her food.

“I love Indian food, the flavors and the spices, so I incorporate that. And I love Iranian food; you know, I love how they use lemon. So I incorporate a little of that, too.”

By 11 a.m., Abdur-Rahman is usually finished preparing her food, but people often start checking to see if she’s ready well before.  While the menu varies from day to day, customers say the quality is reliable.

Bronx prosecutor Jamie Moran regularly makes time for Heavenly Delights’ long lines. “Even though it takes a long time, everybody stands here and waits. Even if it’s cold,” said Moran.

At the height of the midday rush, as many as a dozen people at a time wait in front of Heavenly Delights – a trend that local competitors have noticed

“There’s a new place in the mall selling fried fish and they have a guy who hangs around,” Abdur-Rahman said. “Then there’s another Jamaican restaurant, and his guy sometimes actually comes on my line to hand out his stuff.”

Managers at both restaurants, Shrimp Box and Sa Lena West Indian Restaurant, confirmed that they hand out flyers nearby.

As he left the Bronx County courthouse recently, Michael Thomas, a sales trainer for Research in Motion, said he was drawn to Heavenly Delights by scents that reminded him of his own Jamaican heritage.

“Originally, I was just looking for coffee, but then obviously I smelled the spices and the food,” said Thomas. “Those are the things. It’s the smell that tantalizes you. That’s what draws you.”

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