Havana central stuffs both pastries and students’ stomachs every week
On Wednesday evenings the long line of cheerful-looking people outside of Havana Central (2911 Broadway between 113th and 114th streets) proves that their $1 empanada cart is one of the best bargains near campus. Every Wednesday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., Havana Central sells this traditional stuffed pastry outside of the restaurant.
Havana Central offers three flavors: beef picadillo, broccoli and cheese, and chicken sofrito, this last one being the most popular flavor. The empanadas come steaming hot as the chef wraps them up for customers, placing them in a paper bag for easy transportation. At first glance, students would never know that these empanadas, with their slightly hard, crusty shells, contain such rich and authentic flavors. Slightly spicy, the chicken sofrito contains meat stewed with peppers and onions. The broccoli and cheese option features fresh and flavorful broccoli surrounded by warm, melted cheddar—a taste and texture far from the realm of the “Hot Pocket.”
Fitting for spring, Columbians can purchase fresh squeezed lemonade, also only a dollar. This thirst-quenching juice makes it easy to pretend school has already ended. Finals approaching? Not while sipping this lemonade, which practically overflows with pieces of lemon, strawberry, mango, and pineapple. Each cup is a work of art both in taste and appearance and comes chilled with ice cubes and bits of pulp, providing plenty of zest. As the man serving it said, “You’re not going to find this in a bottle!”
Fruit is nature’s street food
From the Columbia’s still conceptual Nom^3 to the flamboyant Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, New York’s street eats scene seems overrun by zany food carts. But the classic and healthy staple of green carts chills quietly for Columbians who seek it out.
The fruit carts on Amsterdam and Broadway are actually a New York City government-sponsored initiative to increase the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables. In 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed a law that permitted 1,000 green carts to set up in New York City. Though the carts don’t provide the variety of nearby Westside and Garden of Eden, they do offer a different advantage.
“We’re cheaper,” Abdul Azzine, vendor of the Amsterdam green cart, said. “Nobody can give you four bananas for a dollar! Is there anybody that can give you four bananas for one dollar? Nobody! But the push cart can do that.”
Azzine’s cart is stationed at 111th and Amsterdam on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, and at 112th and Amsterdam on Thursdays and Fridays. He sells everything from the plump red strawberries that have infected Columbians’ spring cravings to cheap coconuts and avocados that remain cooking and snacking favorites.
“The oranges are excellent, but all the fruit is very nice and very healthy,” Azzine said. Despite recent trends, Azzine thinks fruit choice is ultimately not about what’s in season, but rather personal preference. “Maybe you like the mango, maybe I like the blueberry, somebody else likes the avocado.”
Dosas embrace grease and grime
Swirling a thin batter in concentric rings with the bottom of a cup, the dosa vendor at 115th Street and Broadway simultaneously chatters on his cell phone and jokingly assures a reluctant customer, “If it’s not good, your money back!”
Dosa, a pancake speciality of southern India often consumed for breakfast, appears to be one of the more unusual food cart offerings around Columbia. Stuffed with fiery garam masala and turmeric-scented potatoes, each elongated crepe gets folded into a tube and chopped into segments. Not at all greasy, the pieces feel light and almost insubstantial. Served with a coconut curry, these dosa are not street cuisine for the timid—clumsily picked up with fingers and dunked in sauce while waiting for the bus, each pancake section juxtaposes creamy potato with crispy crepe, pleasant heat with mouthwatering saltiness.
While picky eaters might abhor the dosa cart’s grungy vibe, the unpainted sheet metal, bucket of slop water, and stained rags actually add a measure of authenticity to the experience. After all, students patronize such a food cart not for a hermetically sealed, sanitized experience, but rather for the strange thrill of eating finger food on New York’s already dirty streets.
More utilitarian than the halal carts that serve a variety of dishes, this stand offers only one option. For $5, the dosa themselves feel a bit scanty, more mid-afternoon snack than gut-busting chicken-and-rice dinner. Nevertheless, sporadic visits seem worthwhile when munching on a spicy pancake provides such an escape from the daily grind.