I went over 7,500 days without eating anything that came from a halal cart. (I guess some of those were my no-solid-food days, but I liked the number, so let me live, all right?) I don’t know whether I’ve ever gone more than 7.5 days without smelling something from a halal cart, but until this past January, I’d never, ever gotten up close and personal with any chicken and lamb over rice. As a kid, I guess I never had much interest—and as an adult-ish thing who at least attempts to handle her allergies responsibly, I figured that there’d be no feasible way to get in touch with a “halal guy” for Q&A.
I could’ve just walked up to a random cart and asked about nuts, sure, but I’m typically a little uncomfortable with such a casual approach. I don’t like to go into first-time meals without having spoken to an employee—preferably, a higher-up—via phone (or preferably email) well in advance. I don’t think it’s all that rational, but the feeling I have is that waltzing on in, asking a few questions about nuts, and then sitting right down to eat is too lax a restaurant-vetting method. Showing up and asking doesn’t does it do much to make me feel safe—and a meal spent worrying is bound to be an unpleasant one, no matter the quality of the food. Plus, I’ve found that the answers I get in person are, for whatever reason, way less likely to be true. So when I’m in the mood to try something new, I make sure I’m sticking to premeditated meals at restaurants with phone numbers.
But how to fit a halal cart into that perhaps-ridiculous requirement? By the end of a few months of idle brainstorming, I’d come up with nothing. If I spent long enough combing Google, could I maybe find a cart with a phone number or email address? (Well, I couldn’t.) Could I, with enough effort, get any search engine to point me toward a single page that might mention both halal carts and food allergies? (God, no.) What about The Halal Guys? They’re huge—could I get in touch with them? (Yes, but I didn’t end up being comfortable with their baklava.) Could I develop a half-decent rapport with one of the halal guys I walk by every day, to the extent that I’d be able to have a nice, thorough conversation with him about his ingredients? (Sounds like a lot of work.)
Out of the bunch, the Halal Guys idea was the only one that’d even come close to leading me anywhere, so I decided to search (and search) for some other halal-cart chains. (I had no idea these things came in chains. I thought they were one-off things. Guess not.) Rafiqi’s looked promising, but their Twitter is inactive, and they read and ignored the Facebook message I sent. And then I found Sammy’s, Queens-born winner of the 2006 Vendy Awards…and solution to the Halal-Cart Problem™.
Sammy’s has no website, no Twitter. (They seem to have had a website at one point, but these days, the URL just leads to spam.) What they do have is a Facebook page, which proudly bears just what I’d been looking for: a phone number (which ended up being one of two I’d later realize were printed right there on the front of the cart itself).
Half-afraid that the number would somehow up and disappear right before my eyes, I called it immediately—and the guy I spoke with told me just what I’d been wanting to hear: that none of Sammy’s carts use any nutty ingredients, and that I’d be just fine, allergy-wise, with all the food they serve. I forgot to ask about their pita (which is of particular concern to me, as all bread products are), but some cart window–peeking has since tipped me off that Sammy’s uses Kontos pita, which contains wheat, sesame, and soy, but which fortunately doesn’t come with any sort of “may contain” warning for tree nuts. Good enough for me.
In my 7,500 halal-free days—or rather, in my 500-ish Halal-coveting days—I’d cultivated quite the mental swath of hype for this stuff, to the point that it seemed unlikely that any of it would ever be able to meet my ridiculous expectations. I mean, those carts smell good. Plus, everyone’s always cracking open those styrofoam containers in NYU’s lounges, and while I’ll always cast a reflexive sneer at anyone who thinks it’s okay to eat fragrant food in an otherwise food-less public area, I can’t deny that their lunches always make my stomach growl. Plus, white sauce? Come on. I had to get in on that.
And you know what? Sammy’s didn’t disappoint me anywhere near as much as I’d figured it would. In fact, it hardly disappointed me at all—and I’m perfectly willing to write off the entirety of that (negligible) disappointment, given the sheer size of the overgrown hype-swath I’d been living with.
For my nerves’ sake, I kept my first Sammy’s order exceedingly simple: chicken over rice, topped with white sauce and nothing else. (The unnamed green sauce is evidently what sets Sammy’s apart from other halal carts, but—for whatever reason—I was particularly nervous about my first Sammy’s meal, so I didn’t exactly feel like courting a mystery sauce.) And simple as it was, I definitely did enjoy it. The chicken was nice and tender, with a very mild spice to it, and the rice itself was surprisingly good. (I’ve been eating a lot of poorly cooked rice lately, I guess—but this rice was particularly good: not over- nor under-cooked, and nicely seasoned, too.)
The white sauce—which I did like, by the way—was the only thing that left me wanting. If I hadn’t been looking, I wouldn’t have been able to tell it from straight mayonnaise…and that’s fine, I guess, but it wasn’t exactly what I’d been dreaming of. I would’ve liked it to be a little tangier—or a little more anything-but-mayo-y, really—to cut through the flavors in the meat and the rice, but I suppose you can’t always get what you want. White sauce is mayo-intensive. Never knew. But once I’d come to terms with that, I started to enjoy it quite a bit.
The only issue I took with my chicken over rice was that it ended up being a little flat—especially as the meal goes on and the platter gets more and more mixed up—which was why, my second time at Sammy’s, I decided to go with chicken and lamb over rice with both white and green sauces on top (pictured at the top of this post and immediately above). And sure enough, that did it.
The lamb, though not all that great on its own, brought new life (well, new flavors) to the platter—but it was actually the green sauce that really changed the game. I don’t know what’s in it, nor do I even really know what it tastes like (cilantro, for one), but I do know that it combines with the white sauce to produce a topping that’s actually effective at brightening up the meat it tops. Predictably, it adds some much-needed dimension to these relatively plain meat-over-rice platters, and so I’ll admit it: The Yelpers are right. Green sauce, at Sammy’s, is indispensable.
(Sorry for being so vague about the flavor of this stuff. It’s herby. It’s sort of garlicky, but I have no idea whether there’s even any garlic in it. I should probably at least mention that it isn’t hot. The red sauce is the hot one. That’s the only sauce they’ll explicitly offer you, by the way. You’ll have to request the green sauce by name—and I’d advise that you not forget to do so.)
Onto the falafel, though. Pictured above is, of course, a falafel sandwich, which just might be my favorite Sammy’s offering, if only because I’m a sucker for warm, chewy pita. The falafel itself is good—both in this sandwich and over rice, too—and the lettuce and cabbage are surprisingly inoffensive. (I think there’s other stuff in there, but I can’t quite say what. Onions? Probably. And a few bits of carrot, too. Basic stuff, really. But pleasant stuff nonetheless.) Again, though, it’s the combination of the white and green sauces that sold me on this thing. They work just as well with the falafel as they do with the chicken and the lamb, and they coat the pita nicely, too.
Anyway, I really like Sammy’s—as if that weren’t abundantly clear. And I’m sure a lot of that’s just my excitement at having finally become a halal-cart regular, but it has a lot to do with Sammy’s itself, too. The food is cheap as hell; it never tastes like it’s been sitting around, even though it probably has, I guess; and the guys who run the cart are always pleasant and friendly. Being able to make a casual stop for street food is new to me, sure—and the novelty of the whole thing has certainly done a bunch to shape this review. But Sammy’s is good. I really do think so.
Find this particular Sammy’s cart on the corner of West 4th Street and 6th Avenue. (There’s another in Queens, on the corner of 73rd Street and Broadway, and there’s one in Brooklyn, too, on the corner of Brighton Beach and Coney Island Avenue.)