chicken and rice à la 53rd and 6th’s halal cart in new york
This week, my Barbri class began, which means I have ten straight weeks of doing little else except intensely studying California law. That’s right; I’m lawyering up. Unlike the last two years of law school, the California bar exam doesn’t let me pick and choose which subjects I’m interested in or focus on the specific areas I’ll likely practice in. Oh no. That would be too kind. And far too practical for this great state. California makes you learn it all, from the humdrum of wills and trusts to the intricacies of contract law (a subject which, by the way, the instructor claimed was about as fun and exciting as getting a prostate exam; being female, I wouldn’t really know much about that, but I’ll make a semi-educated assumption that the comparison is spot-on). Needless to say, thinking about the next ten studying- and memorization-filled weeks and the Big, Bad Bar Exam lurking in the final days of July has me longing for simpler, fun-packed times. Like last spring, when my law school’s moot court program paid for my trip to New York, where I stayed for five days and ate at the infamous 53rd St. and 6th Ave. Halal Cart … on four separate occasions.
If you aren’t already aware, for $6, the fine men at the cart will load you up (or you and a friend – seriously, I recommend sharing, especially when it’s a late night post-bar binge) with chicken and rice, topped with a handful of lettuce. Then, you step around to the side of the cart and go to town dressing it up with the white sauce and the red sauce. No labels. Just giant squeeze bottles full of white, and others full of red. The white sauce is magical (mostly because you don’t know what’s in it) and creamy, so be generous with it. But I’d be careful with the red stuff. This cart takes their hot sauce extremely seriously.
Once I got home, I was (of course) obsessed with recreating the dish, but online searches yielded nothing except forums debating what, exactly, was in that mysterious white sauce. So I did some experimentation to figure it out. And as far as taste goes, I’ve come really close to the real deal – as close as I can get without taking one last trip to New York to re-experience the original halal cart and make some finishing touches.
The chicken has a ton of complex flavor thanks to spices that are typical in Middle Eastern and Indian food, while the rice is spruced up with the yellow flourish of turmeric. And be sure not to ditch the lettuce. It may sound weird, and it certainly threw me off a bit when the halal cook tossed lettuce on top of a piping hot dish of rice and chicken, but the lettuce adds a cool and fresh crunch that mere chicken and rice wouldn’t be the same without.
The yogurt-tahini sauce has a light cucumber flavor that brightens the deep, smokey flavors in the chicken and rice, while a little bit of harissa adds a nice kick.
This dish is relatively easy and cheap to make, assuming you followed my advice and invested in spices. At it’s core, it’s simple Middle Eastern street food (or New Yorker I-drank-too-much-and-stayed-out-so-late-that-I’m-starting-to-feel-hung-over-even-though-I-haven’t-gone-to-bed-yet street food).
But this chicken and rice recipe is guaranteed to be much more interesting and delicious than the one your mother taught you to make with cream of mushroom soup. (Sorry, Mom!)
Tzatziki (a.k.a. “White Sauce”)
You’ve seen me make a tzatziki before, so I figured you know roughly what to do sans pictures. Though the process is, generally, quite similar to my former tzatziki post, the ingredients are varied to get much closer to the taste of the magical white sauce featured at 53rd and 6th’s halal cart.
10 oz. Greek yogurt
1/2 c. light mayonnaise
1/4 English cucumber
1 Tbsp. salt
1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
1 Tbsp. lemon juice (½ lemon)
1 Tbsp. olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbsp. tahini
Remove seeds from cucumber. Put in food processor with a pinch of salt, then process on high for 30 seconds. Drain through a paper towel, reserving the cucumber juice.
Mix cucumber juice, and all other ingredients in a bowl, then refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before serving. May be made a day or two in advance if stored in an air-tight container and refrigerated.
Chicken and Rice à la 53rd and 6th’s Halal Cart in New York
From what I can remember, the original cart doesn’t add veggies (except lettuce) to the dish, but I enjoy adding chopped onions and bell peppers on occasion. Also, when I don’t marinate the meat and drain the marinade off before cooking, my chicken ends up with a little bit of sauce, which I don’t mind but which isn’t exactly authentic because the cart’s chicken is definitely spiced but has no sauce. Except the magical white sauce above, of course.
2 chicken breasts (may substitute some lamb meat for additional flavor)
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 Tbsp. cumin
1 1/2 Tbsp. curry powder
1 1/2 tsp., plus 1 Tbsp. turmeric, divided
1 1/2 tsp. paprika
2 Tbsp tomato juice
salt, to taste
1 yellow onion, chopped into strips (optional)
1 green bell pepper, chopped into strips (optional)
3-4 c. iceberg lettuce, chopped
2 c. basmati rice
4 c. water
harissa to taste (make your own)
pita bread for serving (optional)
(If you have time, you can marinate the chicken overnight in turmeric, salt, pepper, garlic, ginger, cumin, curry powder, paprika, and tomato juice. Then just cook the chicken and onions in pan the next day.)
Cook rice in rice cooker or per package instructions in pot, adding 1 Tbsp. turmeric and a pinch of salt.
Meanwhile, cut meat into thin strips, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat pan, then coat with olive oil and add meat. When chicken starts to whiten (and if chicken was not marinated overnight per the Note), add garlic, ginger, cumin, curry powder, turmeric, paprika and tomato juice. Stir, and cook on medium heat for about 7 minutes. Add onions, and cook for 8 more minutes. Add salt to taste.
Make a bed of rice, and scoop chicken on top. Sprinkle about 1 cup of lettuce per place, and generously drizzle with tzatziki sauce. Add harissa or other hot sauce to taste. Stir it all up, garnish with pita bread triangles if you like, and chow down!