When stepping off of the train at 74th St-Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, one is confronted with all kinds of street food options. Immediately outside the station on Roosevelt Avenue, there are usually three or four taco carts, and the street is filled with the hissing, sizzling sounds, the smell of grilling meat, and the rumbling of the 7 train above.
Exit the train at Broadway, and walk toward 73rd Street, and there are even more carts. The intersection of 73rd and Broadway is halal cart central, with five colorful carts, selling sandwiches, kebabs, and the delicious dish of chicken and rice.
A favorite of hungry workers and fans of street meat everywhere, chicken and rice is a cheap, filling, and fast lunch. All of these halal carts offer similar meals in a white styrofoam container: marinated, chopped chicken, spiced rice, a handful of lettuce, and white sauce and hot sauce. But each cart has its own twist—whether it be a special spice combination for the rice, secret marinades for the chicken, or their own hot sauce recipes. With five carts to choose from, it can get confusing. Where to go for a fast food fix: the place with the longest line, or the place that won the Vendy Award a few years ago, or perhaps the newest addition, with Tibetan influence?
The only way to know for sure is to try them all, so that's what I did this week, in order to find a reigning champion in the chicken and rice challenge.
Daily Fresh Halal Food
The chicken, chopped dark meat, was red-tinged, tandoori-style, with barely-cooked chunks of onion. It rested on a bed of soft, fluffy, highly spiced basmati rice, with a bit of lettuce on the side, all topped with the white sauce-hot sauce combo. I liked the sharp flavor of the onion with the spiced chicken. Extremely flavorful, pleasantly chewy, and a good first bite in the chicken/rice round-up. But it is hard to talk about without comparing it to the next one, Sammy's.
Cost of Plate: $4.75 37-52 73rd Street, Jackson Heights (map)
Sammy's Halal Cart
It looked nearly identical to the previous one, but there were definite differences in flavor and texture. The chopped chicken was soft and tender in comparison, with its own marinade. The onions mixed in with the chicken were completely cooked and almost sweet. The rice was not as aggressively spiced. Both of the rices were soft and filled with fennel seed and other secret spices that I couldn't quite identify, but the one from Sammy's was milder, more subtly flavored. Sammy's hot sauce, on the other hand—couldn't be further from "mild." There was much more heat in the hot sauce, so that the creamy white sauce was much more noticeable, and necessary as a cooling component. The lettuce added a nice crunch and texture to the plate as a whole. They did not offer nor did I ask for the any other sauce, although Sammy's does have a third, secret, green sauce.
Cost of Plate: $5.00 73rd Street at Broadway, Jackson Heights (map)
Potala Fresh Food
When I first ordered chicken and rice from these nice men standing in front of the Tibetan flag in their cart, they too said that the chicken wasn't yet ready, but I should get the "very good" momos, or Tibetan dumplings. The momos did look great, but I wanted that chicken and rice, so I came back a few hours later and got some. I should have stuck with what everyone else was eating and obviously enjoying, but this was a chicken and rice round-up. (I'll do a momo one soon enough.)
The chicken here was large chunks of white meat, with some onions and green peppers, cooked with chili paste, and placed on top of a pale yellow rice. The rice did not taste much of anything, and while I enjoyed the spice of the chicken, and the crunch of the veggies, the momos are obviously the things to get on this cart.
Cost of Plate: $5.00 Broadway between Roosevelt and 37th Road, Jackson Heights (map)
Salam & Nobi Halal
This cart, which once said Salam & Nobi Halal, is now taped over, and just the Halal remains. The dish of chicken and rice here was quite tasty, sort of a mix between Daily Fresh and Sammy's. The chicken was red-hued and tender, with a nice grilled flavor. The rice—soft, fragrant basmati, spiced more subtly than any of the others. The hot sauce was not as spicy as Sammy's, but not as mild as Daily Fresh. The chicken was tossed with cilantro, adding a nice brightness and freshness. A little heavy-handed with the white sauce, but overall a good balance of flavors.
Cost of Plate: $4.75 Next to Daily Fresh Halal Food (map)
If I had eaten any rice plate on its own, I would have been content; they're all perfectly satisfying lunches. Tasting them back to back, however, I do feel that there is one which stood out, for complexity of flavor and level of sophistication: Sammy's Halal. I guess there is a reason why they won the Vendy Awards in 2006, and have since expanded into Manhattan.
Where do you get your favorite chicken and rice?