The Bay Area is often painted as a food-lover’s paradise — the cradle of the slow-food movement and a modern-day mecca for local and sustainably-sourced cuisine. Nowadays, turn a corner and you’re bound to stumble upon artisanal, gourmet goods. As spoiled as we are, however, there’s one area in which SF’s food scene can be found wanting: cheap, good eats.
There are a few places where one can stretch a dollar — but, for the most part, dining out in San Francisco is generally pretty pricey. Not so in NYC. Inexpensive eats abound. I like to imagine an alternate East Coast life wherein I live in a shoebox and subsist off of bagels, coffee, and dollar slices all the livelong day. Anyway… back to the food. In particular, Jay and I made sure to try the Mediterranean street food impossible to find in our fair city. It came as no surprise that these unpretentious meals were among our very favorites in all of New York City.
When it came to planning our food-centric itinerary, Jay was pretty laissez-faire with one very important exception.
Once upon a time, Jay went on an East Coast trip with his friends and discovered that which many already know: the Halal Guys’ combos. Beer-colored memories of their quintessential street food compelled him to drag me to 53rd and 6th the next time he was in New York. That rainy weekday evening in January, we huddled under an umbrella and peered out at the numerous carts parked in the area. After careful consultation, we identified the correct vendor, waited half an hour for it to re-open for dinner service, and got in the first orders of the night. There, hunched over our steaming foil platters of food, we tasted nirvana.
This time around, however, we didn’t need to resort to camping out in Midtown for Mediterranean. Rather, we strolled into their gleaming new brick-and-mortar, fittingly decorated with neon and steel cart-esque decor, and promptly ordered the lamb and chicken combos. Our server, adorably dressed in chef’s attire, grabbed a tin container and heaped, in order:
- Brilliantly orange long-grain rice, pleasantly chewy;
- Hunks of spiced ground lamb, intensely flavorful;
- Shredded chicken, a nice, mild counterpoint to the other meat;
- “White sauce,” creamy and tangy, albeit a bit too heavy (we may ask for it on the side next time)
- “Red sauce,” so dangerously spicy that a dollop will do (obligatory mention of trademarking by Daisy);
- A scattering of plain, chopped iceberg lettuce; and
A few wedges of warm flatbread, unexceptional but essential.
The parts are plenty, but the whole thing was still so, so much greater than its sum. The plate was an absolutely intoxicating mess of meat and starch, spices and spiciness. Bacchus himself couldn’t have created a more perfect drunk food — but it was still just as delicious in the sober light of day.
The Halal Guys (multiple locations)
14th St and 2nd Ave
New York, NY10003
Though Jay and I got our act together and visited the Halal Guys as respectable customers, we weren’t about to leave NYC without drunkenly gettin’ down on some grub. Fortunately, we stayed only blocks away from another late-night institution: Mamoun’s. At the totally crazy hour of 1 am (we don’t get out much anymore), we walked into the basement space and ordered a combination platter to share. Minutes later, we had chicken shawarma, falafel, hummus, and pita bread spread before us.
Even though I’d heard much about Mamoun’s from my friends, I was still unprepared for its exact level of deliciousness. Everything was excellent, though my then-slightly-inebriated mind most clearly recalls the legendary shawarma: perfectly cooked, with unbelievably juicy meat and crisp outer edges. It was just so, so good – and so, so affordable. Were you to take value out of the equation, though, I’d still take Mamoun’s shawarma over fancy restaurant roast chicken any day. Though we’re hard-pressed to return to any restaurants when we’re in New York, I have no doubt we’ll find ourselves back at both Halal Guys and Mamoun’s next time – day or night, drunk or dry.
119 MacDougal St
New York, NY 10012