The halal cart on 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue is probably the worst-kept secret in the city. If you don’t hear about it from a friend first, it’s hard to miss, even on this busy intersection — a line of hungry patrons stretches down the block.
The Egyptian four-man team at New York’s Best Halal Food chops, scrapes, and scoops mounds of simmering chicken and lamb off the grill and into covered aluminum platters with mechanical efficiency.
“Every day it’s like this,” said customer Nixon Cruzado, looking down the block at the growing line. As he inched closer to the steaming piles of meat, he prepared to put in his order with the first man on the left. “I get the chicken and rice,” Cruzado said.
The cart has become a meaty mecca for tourists as well as New Yorkers. Takayo Kawakami and Sawako Matsuda heard about the spot from their tour guide. On their two-day visit to the city, the Japanese girls chose halal for their last dinner — they weren’t disappointed. Matsuda dubbed the food “delicious.”
“I think I want to eat two,” Kawakami said, carefully pronouncing each word.
Next to Cruzado in line, Black Huang stood waiting to order, having waited for a half hour. “It’s good,” Huang said. “But a bit too spicy.” Can you order it less spicy? He shrugged, “I think they do it one way.” Luckily, it’s possible to balance the hot red sauce with a garlic white sauce, or forgo the spice altogether. The default serving includes both sauces.
As many do, Huang brought his friend from Queens to try it for herself. “It’s my first time!” Chara Chou said excitedly.
The employees, wearing yellow t-shirts or sweatshirts, work a day shift from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and a night shift from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. to feed the after-hours crowds. “I was staying at that hotel and we would see people lined up out there at 1, 2, 3 a.m.,” said Laura Fincher, a visitor from Midlothian, Texas.
She introduced it to her friend Kim Allmon, who recently moved to the city with her husband, Dave. It’s “very spicy, but I’m a weeny,” she said. “It’s one of these things where it’s really spicy, but you can’t stop eating it,” she added. Dave, meanwhile, doesn’t mind the spiciness.
Mustafa Elnagar, the head cook, takes pride in the heat he serves up. “The hot sauce. You know where it comes from?” he asked, pausing dramatically. “Five countries.” They mix together a spicy sauce that uses a combination of ingredients from India, Pakistan, Egypt, Mexico, and U.S., Elnagar explained. “Some of them,” he said referring to his customers with a hint of glee, “they try it and they have the red eyes.”
Their sidewalk service has been on the same corner for 15 years, according to Elnagar. But the success has not gone unexploited. Copycat carts spread out like a halo around the favored food stand.
Don’t be fooled by other vendors wearing yellow shirts, warned Elnagar: “The people try to steal the business.”
To be precise, Elnagar’s cart is on the south curb of 53rd Street about 30 feet west of the avenue. But you’ll see the line first.