One day, four carts, three guys, one 1973 Volkswagen Baja Bug: it was a quest to find the best halal cart chicken and rice in New York City.
Let me start with outlining the basic details of the trip, inspired by me saying that Halal Guys is the best halal cart in NYC and Jalopnik readers telling me I am a brain dead slob who couldn't tell chicken and rice (unarguably the best street food/drunk food in New York) from trash McDonalds peeled off the Bowery subway station floor. Well, they didn't say all that, but they did tell me three places that were supposedly better than Halal Guys. Naturally, I had to test their claims.
Here are the four spots:
- Sammy's Halal in Jackson Heights, Queens
- King of Falafel and Shawarma in Astoria, Queens
- Tony Dragonas in Midtown, Manhattan
- Halal Guys in Midtown, Manhattan
On Saturday, the 8th of February 2014, my brother Jacob, my friend Adam, and I crammed into my 1973 Baja Bug and set off for Queens for a four-hour escapade of meat sweats and chili tears.
What we found out was that there isn't a clear best/worst ranking of these four spots. Each of the interpretations were different enough that they can't really be set in a ranked order. That's not to say I didn't have a favorite and a least favorite, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Here are the four, in order of when we ate them.
Location: 73rd and Broadway, Jackson Heights, Queens
Food: Chicken and Rice
Quality: Worth travelling for.
Holy shit this is excellent. Parking in Jackson Heights on a Saturday afternoon is a bitch and a half, with me spending a good fifteen minutes spinning my wheels in the one parking spot left within a few blocks. Seriously, I beach the Baja Bug on a huge chunk of ice, then spend the next fifteen minutes kicking snow, reversing, and grunting with no power steering. My brother tries to help by putting a piece of carboard under a back wheel, but the Baja shreds it like a wood chipper. I give up parked 45 degrees from the curb.
At least parking a ways away means we have to walk through a bit of Jackson Heights to get to the stand and, well, the second-story travel agencies and half-dozen ethnic groceries we pass are a solid indicator for how good Sammy's is going to be.
There are two small carts, neither one has a line, and the food comes fast. There's a little pedestrian area right next to the carts, so we have a quiet place to eat across from the world-renowned, famously romantic Jackson Heights subway entrance.
The chicken is red. That's a good way of explaining that this doesn't taste exactly like the chicken and rice you get at three in the morning on 14th street. It's like a cross between tandoori chicken and shwarma.
And it is fantastic, completely deserving the stand's Vendy award. The chicken is so soft it shreds as you mix all the sauces together. The rice is the best I've ever had out of a cart. It's simple, cheap, and fast, but it's not greasy, all the ingredients seem fresh, and it's delicious. Sammy's approaches perfection.
King of Falafel and Shawarma
Food: Chicken and Rice
Quality: The gourmet option.
The King of Falafel and Shawarma is very nearly in the shadow of the N/Q line and definitely feels like an Astoria place. You get a big portion, you get some weird tasting ingredients, and you get a strong statement of intent from the food.
The chicken and rice is more expensive than at Sammy's, but you get a ton more to eat. There's chicken and sauce piled so high you can't see the rice underneath. The salad on the side has lettuce, but also onion and pickles and pink pickled radish. A sizable piece of falafel is in there, too. The chicken looks absolutely fantastic sizzling on the grill, and it tastes distinctly like chicken, rather than just some kind of indeterminate meat.
What's interesting is the yellow sauce. It's a bit sour, lemony, and real thick. Combined with the pickles you could call it, if you were feeling pretentious, piquant.
It's delicious, and it deserves the Vendies awards it's gotten over the years. It's just not for everyone, and if you're just looking for that perfect execution of grimy street food, look elsewhere. If you want to try a gourmet, slightly loose take on the formula, it's excellent.
Oh, and it's the best place to eat in terms of the spot itself. The guys are super nice, chatting with customers in Arabic and handing out free falafel while we're waiting in line (it might be even better than the chicken). There are four fold-up chairs for you to eat at, and their menu posted on the fence of the C-Town parking lot is Engrish in the very best way.
The Engrish keeps spirits high as we go through our second meal in an hour. Yeahhhhh babey!
Tony "The Dragon" Dragonas
Food: Chicken and Rice
Quality: Good, but not chicken and rice.
From Astoria it's just a quick run over the 59th Street Bridge into Manhattan. The last time I took this drive, I had a hole in my distributor and had to limp along the road at 14 miles an hour. This time I try and race a middle-aged dad in an Acura crossover. Despite the fact that he does not realize I am trying to race him, I still lose. At least the Baja looks mean parked on Madison Avenue. But not as mean as the face this dude gives me while I take a picture in front of the Armani store.
Technically, what Tony Dragonas serves is chicken and rice. There is grilled chicken, and there is rice under it and salad next to it, but it ain't the deeply-fulfilling street food you're thinking of.
Their salad comes with dressing and cabbage and arugula! Arugula.
And the chicken comes as a whole sliced breast, grilled with charcoal. Now, it's actually really good — soft, tender, and juicy — but it's not what you're looking for when you go get chicken and rice.
We ate on a bench on Central Park. It was good food, but it just wasn't chicken and rice.
The Halal Guys
Food: Chicken and Rice
Quality: Exactly what you're expecting, only tastier.
The Baja is now in The City proper, and I relish the chance to roar through an intersection with angry Midtown walkers trying to cross against their light. Step in front of this thing, motherfucker, I dare you. A couple stops to take pictures by the car as we park and Jacob once again realizes that it is physically impossible to get out of the back seat on an old VW. He's still there, and is subsisting on leftovers from Sammy's.
I've always called The Halal Guys the best halal cart in the city for the past, what is it now, seven years I've been in New York. My friend Adam's been coming for longer, his friends driving in from Jersey just to eat there. He tells stories of the '90s club scene in Midtown famously spilling out to the Halal Guys and giving the cart its reputation.
The rice isn't fantastic. The salad doesn't have tomatoes like it used to. The line is pretty long. It's not as cool as it used to be, now that everybody knows about it and they're opening up a storefront on 14th and 1st.
But sweet jesus their chicken is good. Maybe they brine the it, I don't know. The thing is, it looks like every other kind of halal cart chicken, and it tastes like every other kind of halal cart chicken, only better. More flavor, better texture. You might be sweating because it's so hot, but you don't want to stop eating that chicken.
At the end of the day, despite having wolfed down most of three other orders of chicken and rice, I still want to finish my order of Halal Guys. Or maybe I want to take a nap. Hard to tell.
Each of these places is better than just about any rando cart you come across in NYC. Like I said, these four places are so different, you can't really rank them on a best to worst/top four scale. That being said, if they were all next to each other on the same intersection, I think I would have Sammy's just about every time. I'll still eat at Halal Guys, but I'll know out in Queens there's one better.
If you want something that tastes more like real food than street food, go to Tony Dragonas and if you have a bunch of people with fancy tastes, go to King of Falafel and Shawarma. The menu is big, and the atmosphere is the best.
And if you want the ultimate in urban transportation that sometimes breaks down randomly and still gets stuck in the snow even though it's meant for offroading and can't beat a two-ton family car off the line, hey, a Baja Bug could be exactly what you're looking for.
And if you think to yourself that it's a good idea to eat four rounds of chicken and rice in a row, do it, just budget time for more than a little nap afterwards.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove/Adam Saiewitz/Jacob Orlove