My wife Jan and I are just back from another quick trip to Manhattan to visit our son Chris, daughter-in-law Mary and our adorable 14-month-old grandson Jonathan. Chris met our midnight flight at JFK and we headed into the city, through heavy traffic, road construction, two accidents and an ambulance determined to make its way to the head of the line. Being in the midst of this frenzy of congestion, I again recognized there is nothing like the New York driver, whether on city streets or expressways, hand on horn, convinced that's the way to move traffic along. It doesn't take me long to remember I'm not in Pleasanton anymore.
Despite the late hour, none of us had eaten and Chris headed to 53rd Street and 6th Avenue to the Halal Brothers food cart, one of the regular stops on the tour for their many visitors. He dropped us off in front of a food cart calling themselves the "Halal Guys," not a customer in sight, and pointed to another identical cart about 200 feet away with probably 50 people in line, where we were to go. Although there was a curbside spot, he told us he would circle the block and be back when we got the food.
We took our place in line or "on line" as they say in NYC, not exactly sure if this was going to be worth the wait at 2 a.m. The cart's menu is simple: chicken or lamb or a combination of both served over a bed of rice and lettuce with pita bread and white and red sauces.
It's amazing how a long food line can unite a group of strangers. The folks in front of us were from Texas and were back for their fourth meal here in five days. The gentleman behind us was just out for a walk and decided to try the food based solely on the number of people in line. Another customer, a fashionably dressed woman who was talking on her cell, convinced someone to let her cut in line. Her idling BMW was parked at the curb with children in the backseat. As the line progressed, she ran down the street to back up her car closer to her position in the ever-growing line. She got her food, passed it out to everyone in the car and drove away, phone still attached to her ear.
Our new group of 30-minute friends was abuzz when the young couple at the head of the line grabbed their order and headed to a waiting pedicab with a posted rate of $140 for a tour of the city or maybe a ride home, or who knows what. Not that this was any of our business or our money, but we all agreed we would forgo the unbelievably costly bicycle ride and opt for, say, a classier dinner. The entertainment value alone, standing in this halal food line, is priceless. You almost don't want the gang to break up.
We got to the head of the line and ordered some of everything and met up with Chris who explained the reason he chose to circle rather than wait curbside, as is the custom in New York. A few weeks earlier he was waiting for friends in the Halal Brothers line when a corral of NYPD officers descended on foot and in squad cars, lights ablaze. Rather than the usual tap on the window signaling the order to move along, they blockaded the vehicles and issued tickets to each driver. The police, themselves grumbling at the chore of writing parking tickets usually discharged by mere "meter maids," said the two-wheeled food cart's popularity has caused so many traffic problems that they employ tactics unnecessary at nearby Carnegie Hall or Grand Central Station. Not only was it a hefty fine, the food was cold by the time the ordeal was over.
Our food, however, was delicious. Now I could understand the Halal Brothers' fame. For $6, I don't think you could ask for anything more from food that comes in a tin container. Customers get at least two meals-worth of delicious spiced rice and savory meats. The lamb, in particular, is deserving of its reputation of winning over those who never liked lamb before. And despite the crowds, the line moves briskly -- these brothers know how to run a cart business. They don't set up until about 7 p.m. so don't be fooled by the substandard impostor cart that is at that exact location during the day. I'd recommend this to anyone who happens to be in New York feeling hungry for what New Yorkers call "street meat" in the middle of the night, preferably without a car idling in the red zone.
It is worth the wait.