Food Carts in NYC are a major part of both New Yorkers’ and NYC tourists’ lives. First, it’s important to have a basic understanding of how they work and the different types.
The majority of these carts are independently owned and operated by licensed vendors. They have an official spot at which they can park and are generally there all day long, every day. In busy areas, many of them are there well into the night. If there’s demand and foot traffic, they will stay. These carts are always cash only and prefer exact change, though they will certainly give change for smaller bills. They may get huffy if you hand them a large bill for a small purchase, though.
Hot Dog & Pretzel
The most common food cart is the hot dog and pretzel food cart. The hot dogs are boiled in water and the pretzels are salted and char-grilled. You can request a pretzel without salt, or alternatively, you can get the salted pretzel and wipe off however much of the salt you don’t want. It’s pretty easy to do. I’d recommend going this route so you can still get a bit of the salt flavor.
Hot dogs usually cost between $1-2 per dog and pretzels between $2-3. In very touristy areas, vendors may tack on an extra $1 for each. These vendors generally offer the option of adding ketchup, mustard, and relish to your hot dog at no extra charge. They are served on a piece of wax paper or aluminum foil as are the pretzels. At these carts, you can also buy sodas and bottled water for anywhere from $1-3 depending on location and size.
Bagels, Pastries & Coffee
Then there are carts that sell bagels, pastries, and coffee. These carts generally get the earliest start with some of them setting up shop around 5 am. Many New Yorkers stop at one on their way into to work or before getting on the subway for their commute. These tend to be located in areas that are frequented by morning commuters like the Financial District, Grand Central, and Port Authority/Times Square areas. Usually they have a few of the classic bagel options (plain, sesame, everything) and at a minimum plain cream cheese. Bagels can be buttered as well.
These carts also tend to offer croissants, danishes, donuts, and other similar breakfast pastries as well as juice and filter coffee with optional cream and sugar. Prices will generally be around $1 for a bagel with spreads as an extra charge.
Soft-Serve Ice Cream
Ice cream carts abound during the warmer months, usually first coming out around April and staying active until October. They are happily everywhere! Each cart pretty much has the same offerings, which includes vanilla and chocolate soft serve (or twist), a variety of cones, and toppings to go along with it. Toppings include fudge sauce, strawberry sauce, caramel, sprinkles, etc. and cone options include the classic, double, sugar, and sometimes even waffle cone bowls. You can, of course, always get the soft serve in a paper cup instead of a cone.
Prices generally start at either $3 or $4 for a plain soft-serve ice cream cone, though the soft-serve does tend to be piled high. Toppings or double servings will cost extra, topping out at about $6. Some of these carts also offer milk shakes.
Our favorite of the soft-serve carts is Mr. Softee, though these days there are several competitors of less good quality. Mr. Softee’s ice cream tends to be so creamy and tasty, but occasionally you’ll happen to buy from a cart that hasn’t controlled the temperature properly and it tastes a bit icy.
Halal Street Meat
Halal food carts are famous, well liked, and abundant in NYC. They all offer a similar menu of grilled gyro meats (chicken or beef), rice or pita bread, and fresh veggies like shredded lettuce, tomato, and onion, topped with a variety of sauces (yogurt, hot sauce). These carts are frequented throughout the day, but also quite often at night, particularly after a night out and as such, these carts tend to remain open late – some even until sunrise.
The most famous of these carts is “The Halal Guys”, which is always parked on the corner of 53rd and 6th. They have a huge following and it is not uncommon for the line to be rounding several blocks at all hours of the day and night.