Sabretts. Just that. Sabretts. There probably are better frankfurters (in New York they are franks, not hot dogs), certainly healthier ones. But none are better. But that’s because they are the frankfurters of my childhood. The ones with the heavy casing that popped with all their juicy flavor as you bit down on one, usually standing a few feet away from the street cart you had just purchased it at. The sauerkraut and that wonderful onion sauce dribbled down your chin as you desperately tried not to loose any bit of it to the city sidewalk.
Like folding your thin slice of pizza as you continued walking, eating the Sabrett demanded a style and expertise native New Yorkers seem to have been given at birth. I used to love to watch tourists navigate the pile of flavor they were handed, seeing how they would attack the meal in their hand, held together by a cheap bit of paper wrap. And inevitably I would watch as the onions and kraut spattered the sidewalk at their feet. You have to raise it up, I would tell them in my head; never go down on a frank, always bring it to your mouth, waiting beneath it. But I still see it happening to the people that are not of the body (sorry-Star Trek reference there).
And if you didn’t want a frank, there was always the Knish. A divine culinary invention;coated mash potato fried to a golden brown. The Gibila company made the classic square Knish, and still does and they are very distinct from the more historical accurate rounded Knishes you can find in Brighton Beach, which can be made from kasha, or have fruit filling. The street vendor would cut the Knish in half, and spread Guldens golden brown mustard in the middle, and then put the sides back together. He would hand it to you, take your fifty cents like he did a hundred times that day, and look to his next customer,maybe not quite realizing he had just handed you a piece of Heaven.
These are classic New York City street foods, made for eating as you walked, because you were always on your way somewhere in New York. People don’t sit in one place for very long. There were other, more seasonal foods to be had. At Christmas time, there was always someone selling roasted Chestnuts, and occasionally if you were in the right neighborhood, you could score some Lo Mein noodles or a Gyro. I could have then, and still could today, live off of the foods offered by the city food carts. I am not saying I would be healthy but I sure as hell would be happy. As a young man just out of College hitting the streets looking for work, this food sustained me, and I am grateful for it.
Now of course on the streets of the city, there are food carts that serve up every cuisine you could imagine, from Brisket to Banh Mi. Heck, you can even get an authentic (or so they say) Philly Cheesesteak, though I never gave it the test. Let us be honest, some cities own specific foods. It’s kind of like music; why in God’s Holy Name would you listen to someone doing a cover of a Sinatra ballad? Just listen to the real thing; it doesn’t get better than that. So for bagels, franks, Knishes, you go hit the streets of New York; for a Cheesesteak or a Pretzel, you come to Philly. Simple (I know – too simple). Frankly I don’t know what the hell other cities have to offer on their streets, though a Chicago Hot Dog or a Detroit Coney Island are in classes all by themselves. And I am intentionally leaving out Nathans of the real Coney Island as they have become an international business. Then there is the intense Hero – Sub – Hoagie – Grinder thing, but I will leave that for another post.
The food cart has become Hipster Cool, and they reflect the many cultures that make up any city they inhabit. There are national contests with food carts from different cities competing against each other. College cafeterias nationwide have to compete with the carts lining the streets just outside the campus. It’s a wonderful development for cities, allowing a pedestrian to actually taste authentic flavors from distant lands. Ok so the ambiance is dependent on the street corner the cart happens to be on, but it’s usually a heck of a lot cheaper than sit down dining and oftentimes just as good.
For the most part, I don’t know who the readers are of this Blog; therefore don’t know where you live. But I would love to hear about your city’s street cart specialties. I could always use some advice about cheap good food.
And if you are ever in Philly, the Cheesesteaks are on me.