I’m in pretty woeful shape right now, and since a) Port St. Lucie offers mostly greasy chain food and b) the Brooklyn pickup baseball season approaches, I’ve been trying to eat healthy until I head south for Spring Training. Turns out it kind of sucks. I relapsed a little this afternoon.
The candidate: Chicken and lamb combo on pita from the Halal Guys cart on the corner of 53rd and 6th in Manhattan. There are often several Halal Guys carts on various nearby corners — the ones where the guys have the bright yellow shirts and the Halal Guys logo are all affiliated. Sometimes one will have a really long line while one of the others is practically empty. It’s the same food. Get on a short line.
The construction: A soft, warm pita topped with chunks of chicken and lamb, lettuce, white sauce and hot sauce. They put it together while you stand there so it’s fully customizable. Onions, tomatoes and barbecue sauce are also available, but the pictured configuration is the one I almost always go with.
Arguments for sandwich-hood: It’s meat wrapped in bread. Though it’s messy, it’s at least vaguely portable. The focal point is inarguably the stuff inside the bread, not the bread itself. The cart itself calls it a sandwich, and it is ordered that way to distinguish it from the platter.
Arguments against: There’s only one piece of bread stuff. Lamb meat on a pita is usually called a gyro. Also, it’s very messy, and inevitably a bunch of the inside stuff falls out onto your hands and desk and shirt and keyboard. You’d probably be better off eating it with a fork if you were some type of sucker.
How it tastes: Spicy. That hot sauce is no joke. I specified “a little” hot sauce while ordering — something I only know to do from experience — and still wound up with a lunch to clear the sinuses and scald the esophagus.
I’m on board with that, though, and this is a pretty awesome meal. The meats are both tender and peppery. The lamb in particular is amazingly seasoned, kind of like a peppery lamb meatball. And it all works well in conjunction with the slightly tangy, slightly sweet, creamy white sauce. The lettuce provides the crunch and a pathetic little nod to your recent health kid. The pita, which they heat on the grill before constructing the thing, is warm and strong, chewy and a little toasty.
My one quibble would be that there’s a ton of meat, which is awesome, but they only add the white sauce at the end, after the lettuce. So the effect is that you get a bunch of pure-meat bites with no white sauce on there, and a bunch of delicious white sauce wasted on the lettuce that falls into the foil. You can try to reconstruct it as you go, but it takes some effort.
Considering the price it might be asking too much, but I think to put this thing into the realm of the sublime they could lay down the chicken, then hit it with white sauce, then the lamb, then more white sauce, then the lettuce. No meat left unsauced. And then if you lose some lettuce, BFD.
It’s worth noting, I guess, that this particular cart has a reputation as the city’s best street-meat. It’s really good, but I think part of why it gets talked up so much is that many “foodie”-types aren’t willing to try just any street-meat cart, and if they were they’d find that many of them are also really good. This one’s definitely a touch better, but I think a lot of that has to do with the perpetual freshness of the meat that comes from the constant lines. It’s a positive feedback loop of sorts.
Also, while I enjoy food from Halal Guys all the time, it’s decidedly not the best street meat I’ve had in the city. That honor belongs to the “From Atlantis With Love” cart that used to be outside CBGBs. If anyone knows where that guy sets up these days or if he’s still out there, please let me know. He deserves a review here, if not the Nobel Prize for Awesomeness.
The verdict: With apologies to the B family of Rochester and Maryland, this is a sandwich. It’s borderline I’ll admit, but it is definitely still meat wrapped in bread that you pick up and eat with your hands, and its focal point is certainly the part inside the bread. Lots of sandwiches that are decidedly sandwiches are messy, so that issue alone is not enough for me to reject its sandwich-hood. That it’s a gyro shouldn’t change anything; I’d say that a gyro, like a hamburger, is a type of sandwich.
What it’s worth: The best lunch deal in these parts in a landslide. This thing costs $4.