(UPDATE 7/22/13: Something is up with this place, and it's not good. I had tried to go three times in the last couple of weeks, at times when they normally should have been there... they weren't at their spot. I finally called this evening - the response was just short of rude, but I was told they were at their spot. When I got there, people were tense and weird. Ahmed was not around, and I dared not ask why. The formerly-wonderful thick, deep-red hot sauce had been replaced by a vinegary/watery abomination, the sort of thing one gets with Peruvian roast chickens. The meat was okay, but my request to leave it a bit less done went unheeded or unheard. The seasoned rice had substantially less flavor than before. And I never got an answer to my question as to why they've been AWOL lately. In the end, a most depressing experience. I suppose I should use at as a Buddhist exercise in non-attachment. Go at your own risk.)
During a stroll up Steinway St. a while back, the Farid Halal Cart caught my eye. But of course, how could it not, with large skewers of varied meats sizzling over real smoldering charcoal...one doesn't encounter that on the streets of New York every day.
Since then, I've managed a few visits, and I think I can safely these guys serve some of the city's finest street cart fare.
Apart from the ingredients, it's the guys that work the cart that really make it something special. Ahmed is the public liaison - he'll take your order, chat you up, and really make you feel attended to. He positively radiates good spirit. Quietly tending the skewers with careful attention is equally good-spirited Ishem (I hope I got his name right). Both of these guys prepare their food with real care and pride - watching them cook and assemble dishes is a thing of real beauty. They prepare all the excellent ingredients by hand, and the difference is palpable.
There's a bucket of skewers on the sidewalk waiting to be loaded up...
...and that's exactly what happens when a customer's order is placed - nothing is sitting around waiting to be slapped on the grill.
The offerings seem to vary slightly from day to day, but they almost always have half-chickens (spatchcocked, seasoned, and grilled to order, of course)...
...beef kebabs, chicken kebabs (cubes of white meat marinated in yogurt and spices), kofta (ground lamb kebabs), homemade beef sausages, and lamb chops. (Ed. to add: I just found out the grilled half chickens are fantastic - the best thing I've had here yet. Moist, but with just enough charred bits to keep things interesting... even the wings, which I normally skip altogether, are juicy and delicious.)
My first visit, I had a really lovely chicken kebab...
...wrapped with some greens in a pita: a large, thin - delicate, even - pita, not the thick, chewy abominations most Middle Eastern joints in NYC serve. (I learned later that the pitas are broken out only when they run out of the crusty baguettes they normally make their sandwiches with.)
More recently, I decided I wanted to try beef and kofta. So, chunks of good-quality beef were loaded onto one skewer, and ground lamb mixture was expertly formed on another.
(From left to right: three kofta kebabs, two beef, one chicken kebab and one half chicken.) I was even asked how well-done I liked my meat...and even better, it came out that way! They have two kinds of rice to choose from: a terrific, fragrant brown (the color of the dish, not the grain - Ahmed said it's cooked with a bit of tomato and green pepper, but there are definitely other spices working their magic in there) and a delicately-perfumed yellow rice.
I naturally couldn't decide, so opted for half and half, over which Ahmed beautifully arranged the freshly-grilled chunks of meat.
They have a bunch of sauces to choose from: tahini and their hot sauce seem to be the stars, but there is also white sauce, "French sauce" (essentially an excellent French dressing to put on greens), and a complex, slightly sweet brown sauce I forgot to inquire about.
The finished product:
Prices, like their offerings, apparently vary a bit, but sandwiches seem to run $5-7, rice platters $8-12, and half chickens are $10 (the only posted menu is in Arabic, which I can't read, and I haven't yet inquired about the price of their lamb chops). They get there sometime in the late afternoon (except Wednesdays, their day off) and stay open until 4 a.m. - MY kind of cart! And if you happen to live near enough, they will deliver telephone orders.
If you go, tell Ahmed that Eric the musician sent you.
Farid Halal Cart
Steinway St., east side, between 25th and 28th Aves., Astoria NY 11105
(M or R train to Steinway St., then 5 blocks north)