Cart Blanche

Cart Blanche

W atching the lunch carts of Cedar Street roll in late-morning on a weekday is like attending a seminar on advanced teamwork. Vans pull up curbside with dented, well-worn carts in tow, which are dispatched mostly in teams of two. Some carts require gas tanks; some run off generators. Drivers and passengers work with the hurried grace of people who’ve done this hundreds, even thousands, of times.

All in the name of delicious, fresh, cheap food.

Within a half-hour, Cedar Street will go from a thoroughfare used mainly by medical students and hospital employees to a gastronomical wonderland. The range of choices is dizzying: Colombian, Ethiopian, Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai, Chinese, Mexican, Yemeni, Italian and, of course, apizza.

Most carts here aren’t flashy. Some don’t even bear proper names. One simply reads “Japanese Food;” another, “Vietnamese.”

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For over twenty years, lunch carts have dotted this stretch of Cedar Street between York Street and Congress Avenue. Some of them have been around quite awhile—New Haven’s lunch-cart O.G.s—steaming and frying traditional dishes with casual aplomb and speed.

Peking Edo has been a mainstay for nearly thirteen years. Pork buns, steamed vegetables, beef and BBQ pork stews, Taiwanese noodle soups and whatever else Maggie Wei, the woman behind the stove, feels like cooking up that day. Nothing is ever more than six bucks and the portions are monstrous, like nearly every other cart on the block.

Before a recent lunch rush, near the corner of Cedar and York, I watched two hyper-focused Ali Baba’s Fusion employees empty their van of its abundance of milk-crates and tin trays and hook up a gas-powered grill in under ten minutes. Bodies spin, boxes stack here, a thick mat rolls out there, a spatula flies through the air. Finally there’s a lone aproned man behind the grill, rhythmically chopping onions and meat, the van pulling away to park.

I tell the guy behind the grill, Hicham Biada, how impressive I think the set-up is. He half-smiles and shrugs off the praise, then sticks a spoon in a steaming pot and stirs. He does this everyday.

Hicham has manned Ali Baba’s Fusion for three years. Previously, he ran his own cart slinging Indian curries and samosas. Now he serves Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fare like gyros, grilled fish, kebabs and couscous. He’s especially partial to that couscous, a semolina-based staple of his homeland, Morocco.

Hicham lights up when I ask if he enjoys the community built by these carts—where cooks from various countries mingle amidst so many exotic cuisines with diners from all walks of life. He grins widely: “It’s nice, yeah.” While he was setting up, Hicham received many hand-slaps and one-armed hugs from his cart colleagues, a clear Cedar Street favorite.

A man walks up to Hicham and squeezes his shoulder. “Hey buddy!” the man says. They smile and shake hands.

“What you like today?” Hicham asks.

“Oh, just make me something.” Hicham grins again and slaps meat on the grill.

Soon hospital workers are streaming out into sunshine, reuniting with extra-departmental friends. Some carts have lines ten to fifteen deep, like Rubamba’s “Ay! Arepa.” Its signature arepas, or sweet corn-cakes, are served as follows: with rice and gandules (pigeon peas), a choice of meat or vegetables, guacamole, sour cream, sweet plantains and a vegetable ragout stuffed between the two cakes ($5.50 – $7.00).

In the middle of the block, Will Gardner, a Southern Connecticut State graduate student and Cedar Street regular, rubs his chin. He’s got an appointment soon and needs to make a quick lunch decision.

Gardner is jonesing for some veggie bibimbap from Dr. Jung’s Kimchi Corner, but the Corner is still in the midst of setup. He eyes Lalibela’s Ethiopian cart, but he’d downed a vegetarian combo just the day before. The week prior, he’d sampled some noodles from Thai Jasmine, so that was out too. Ultimately, the urge for rice, kimchi and chili sauce wins out and Will vows to hold out for Dr. Jung’s after his appointment.

Gardner likes his variety, but many frequent cart patrons have a favorite and stick to it, sidling up to carts and ordering without saying a word. A simple, knowing smile-and-nod is enough.

Later, toward the end of lunch service, I crouch in a corner shoveling fresh sesame chicken with sticky white rice from Liu’s Lunch ($5.50) down my gullet. I see Gardner walking over with a rectangular styrofoam container. He pops it open to display a spicy-looking mix of vegetables and rice.

“It’s good,” he says, “But it’s no Lalibela.” Everyone has a favorite.

For me, it’s the Kati Roll cart. It’s hard to go wrong with the ‘Bengali Burrito,’ a crepe-like flatbread called paratha stuffed with onions, carrots, lime juice, a spicy sauce and a choice of lamb, beef, chicken, cauliflower, mashed potatoes or scrambled eggs for just $2.50.

At around 2pm, the carts start to close. The breakdown is slower than the setup—far more relaxed. I repress burps. Cooks smile and exchange leftovers. Carts are hitched to vans and drivers give off good-bye beeps, already thinking about prep for tomorrow.

Cedar Street Lunch Carts
On Cedar Street between Congress Avenue and York Street.
Mon-Fri 11:30am-2pm (approximately)

Written and photographed by Jake Goldman.

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Jake is a writer and a teacher whose fiction and non-fiction can be found in Abe's Penny, The Huffington Post, The New York Press and elsewhere. For a spell, he made a living writing 'comedic ringtones,' which meant hundreds of really bad cellphone-related knock-knock jokes and puns. He lives in New Haven with his wife and cats.

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