Do you really live in New York if you haven’t eaten at a halal cart?

My first year on campus revolved around late-night outings to Union Square halal carts. Now it’s time for all new students to follow their hearts through their stomachs.

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Manasa Gudavalli

Many halal carts cluster around Union Square. Halal carts offer a heaping to-go container of seasoned rice piled with the meat or vegetables of your choice for five or six dollars, making it an ideal cheap-eats meal. (Staff Photo by Manasa Gudavalli)

By Sabrina Choudhary, Identity & Equity Editor

New York City is famous for its late night dining scene, from pizza at Joe’s to falafel sandwiches at Mamoun’s. Shared experiences at the various restaurants and food carts that surround NYU create the campus culture of our school. Many students go for pizza or Kati Roll; but if you’re really looking for the quintessential NYU experience, then your best choice is a halal cart.

Halal carts are scattered throughout the city, but I know of at least five clustered around Union Square, within a ten-minute walk of campus. For less than $7, you can get a heaping to-go container of seasoned rice piled with the meat or vegetables of your choice (my favorite is a mix of chicken and falafel) and slathered with creamy white and hot red sauces. It’s typically enough food to stretch into two meals — perfect for the broke student with a minifridge. 

 As a first-year student living in Brittany Hall, 11 p.m. halal runs were dangerously convenient. One of my friends down the hall was from Pakistan, and he appointed himself our halal cart ringleader. He vetted our local carts early on in our first semester and then led our friends and me to what he deemed the best one. He taught us what to order, even down to the correct amount of white and red sauce (beware of the latter — it can pack some serious heat). Soon, everyone in our friend group carried cash in increments of $6, which became our mental monetary unit. I would calculate while sitting at work: this three-hour shift translates to seven halal meals.

Our group would stay loyal to a cart until our friend told us he’d found a better spot, then we’d duly take our business elsewhere. We inched up from 13th Street to Union Square West (the 13th Street guy was creepy), then from Union Square West to the leftmost one across from Trader Joe’s — it’s $1 cheaper, the guy gives you a punch card, and he used to throw in a free soda before COVID-19 took its economic toll. I’ve been going to that cart since my sophomore year. When my friend visited the city this summer, I brought her chicken over rice from that cart.

 In a city famous for its food scene, NYU students can do so much better than instant ramen. But beyond the food itself, taking the time to find the best halal cart (or bagel place, deli or coffee shop for that matter) is what acquaints you with the city. It’s a process of trial and error and it’s a New York rite of passage. Learning the ins and outs of cheap street food made me feel like I really live here, not just that I go to school here. It gives me the same feeling of accomplishment that I get when a tourist stops me in the subway to ask for directions. Bickering with friends over the best dining spots around campus is a pillar of NYU culture. 

So the next time your friend suggests late night pizza, quietly shake your head and walk them over to your nearest halal cart. You’ll both be glad you did. Because in the end, nothing tastes more like New York than a heaping bowl of rice mixed with your choice of protein and a drizzle of white and red sauce.

Contact Sabrina Choudhary at [email protected]