NYC Street Food
One of New York Cities most iconic institutions.
Photography and writing by Will Engelmann.
Street Food is one of New York Cities most iconic institutions. Walking off into the night exploring the city. Slowly passing cart after cart until the smell of halal and roasting kebabs fill your nostrils and you can’t take it anymore. Your feet start following the path your stomach is pulling you towards a street vendor. From inside a chef shouts wha-da-ya-havn? You look over the menu and peak inside the cart at the kebab skewers, slowly rotating hot dogs, and the giant pretzels glowing with oil and covered in salt.
When you’re looking for a food cart you’re not necessarily looking for a culinary masterpiece. A work of perfect food art created by a master chef. You’re not going to find a lightly seasoned branzino paired with an aperitif or a dry aged tomahawk steak paired with a glass of wine. The great joy of a food cart is nostalgia. It’s simple pleasurable foods designed to entice you and bring you in. It’s a harkening back to a time when you were little. And a hot dog with a squirt of ketchup and cheese, hold the relish was all you ever needed or wanted in this world. Sitting there like a young boy in your high chair while your mom makes you food. The immediacy of having it now and the messy joy of just shoving it into your face. Cheese and ketchup squirting out as you take your first bite. And in a city as diverse as New York you can find comfort food from all over the world over by just taking a little stroll. Sizzling meats from the Halal Guys, a taco cart parked next door and a Greek souvlaki food truck next to that. Comfort food. Comfortable food that makes you feel good. A little bit of joy as you prepare to wander back into the night exploring what other little joys you can find in New York.
"Street food is about being out and about. It's just one part of a bigger story but maybe the best part."
For some the dream of opening a food truck or cart is an escape from their day job. A chance to excape the office and serve pork buns with a smile. But for many new immigrants it’s the American dream itself. An opportunity to start a business and pursue a better life. People come from every corner of the globe and bring their rich food traditions to this tiny island. Manhattan is roughly two miles wide and thirteen miles long but it holds the hopes and dreams of millions upon millions of people. But the dream of a better life for you and your family isn’t easy. Nor is it easy working in a food cart or truck. Long often 10+ hour days are spent standing on your feet slaving over a hot grill. Serving hot food to sometimes rude or un-gratuitous tourists and busy New Yorkers. The shouting and yelling from customers and competition from nearby carts.
Since the 1980’s New York city has put a cap on the number of mobile food vending permits that they’ll allow. This regulation is good for the city so that street carts don’t block busy New Yorkers commuting to work and it’s good for existing vendors to not have to compete with too much competition driving down prices. But in recent years it’s also created a two tier system of the haves and have nots. Sometimes it can take many years for a new entrepreneur to get their permit approved. Which has created a black market where permits are sold for up to 20,000$.
But even in this chaotic environment people still come from all over the world to serve you a hot dog. And in the process many of these people overcome the odds and find the American dream that they were searching for. The next time you ask for extra sauce give em a little extra tip.