Editor's note: On October 18th, street vendors from all around the city will converge on the Tobacco Warehouse in Dumbo, Brooklyn for this years Vendy Awards. Tickets are only $80 and every penny goes to benefit the Street Vendor Project, a non-profit organization that fights for the rights of sidewalk vendors in New York City. Every day this week we will profile one of the five finalists, and the food they will be serving up at the competition.
Even if you think you haven't heard of Muhammed Rahman and the Kwik Meal cart he runs in Midtown, chances are you have. He's probably been written about more than any other street vendor in the city, and the proof hangs in small and large newspaper articles hung all over his cart. Rahman is the fabled vendor who used to be a chef at the Russian Tea Room, and when he left to open up a chicken and lamb over rice cart everybody wanted to tell his story. It also helps that his food is pretty damn good, and next weekend he'll get a chance to officially prove it by winning the Vendy Awards.
Even on the surface, it is pretty easy to see why Kwik Meal has become one of the most popular street meat vendors in the city. When you order "lamb" at most carts you end up with gyro meat, cut off a standard spit. Some carts will spice the gyro meat, and fry it up on the flat top. But for the most part, it is what it is. It comes pre-spiced, and you can't really tell the difference from cart to cart.
Kwik Meal, on the other hand, uses actual lamb meat. It gets cut into small chunks, and marinated in a mixture of garlic, cumin, coriander, onions, and other spices; plus the big secret ingredient... papaya puree. What you end up with is mostly tender chunks of deliciously flavored lamb, topped with his famous creamy white sauce (made from sour cream, cottage cheese, yogurt, and a mixture of spices), plus a good bit of super spicy green hot sauce. Of course you pay for this privelege. Unlike gyro vendors who mostly sell a platter for $5, a lamb over rice plate at Kwik Meal will set you back $7.50. The same meat can also be ordered in a pita for $6.50.
If you are not in the mood for the lamb, there are a few other exceptional dishes at Kwik Meal. The falafel is considered by some to be the best in Midtown. Unlike many Israeli versions in the area, this one has practically no vegetables. The falafel themselves are very small, so they don't get dried out in the frying process, and the sandwich is topped with a thick tzatziki sauce—a nice change of pace from the hummus or tahini you'll find topping most falafels in Midtown.
But the biggest surprise of all is the fish. Each day Rahman offers at least one fish dish (and usually two). The day we went it was tilapia or salmon, and we were all really surprised with how good the salmon turned out. After a 25 minute walk back to the office, with the salmon steaming in its plastic container, we expected a brick. Instead we found a perfectly cooked piece of fish, incredibly well seasoned, and topped with the same green hot sauce that gets put on the lamb. If we had eaten it right at the cart, I have to wonder if it would have been undercooked.
But Rahman probably won't be serving his fish at the Vendy Awards. He'll stick to what got him here: the lamb. Some say the cart has gone downhill since Rahman himself has been more focused on his new pizza place in Morningside Heights. But on our latest trip, everything was pretty damn tasty.
It's the second year in a row that Kwik Meal has been nominated for the Vendys, and even though last year it won the People's Choice Award (and Ed Levine's vote for best cart in the competition), you better believe they want to take home the big prize. If it happens, I'm sure the Vendy Cup will be proudly displayed in front of all their many newspaper and magazine articles.
SW Corner of 45th Street and Sixth Avenue, New York City NY 10036 (map)