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A Tour of Columbia University’s Asian Food Carts

Eater's senior critic samples dishes from six Ivy League carts

Mid-morning every weekday, six carts (fewer on weekends) pull up just north of the main gates of Columbia University and line up on the cobbles under the leafy trees. They linger until around 8 p.m. in a parade of delectability. Four of the carts present a generally northern Chinese bill of fare — cherry picking dishes diners may recognize from Spicy Village and Xi’an Famous Foods — with a few southern Chinese and Taiwanese standards thrown in. The other two carts are Korean and Thai. Working our way from south to north along Broadway starting at 116th Street, here are the carts and some highlights of their menus.

[Healthy Food cart, three items over rice.]

Cart One: Healthy Food — About the size of one of those doughnut-and-coffee breakfast wagons, this establishment prides itself on cheap over-rice combinations ($4 small, $7 large), which allow you to select three dishes from a daily assortment of 15. The offerings might remind you of one of those Fujianese steam table joints in Chinatown, not pulling punches when it comes to variety meats. Thus bamboo and pig ear is a common offering, as is the Sichuan classic of shredded potatoes, green chiles, and red pepper flakes. And the portions aren’t skimpy, either: the choice called simply "pork" is a gigantic, red-braised rib whose sauce nicely soaks the rice. Squirt on the sriracha!

[Korean Cart, kimchi fried rice]

Cart Two: Korean Cart [No Name]— Its student devotees refer to this waffled red cart as Kimchi Fried Rice, because that’s the most prominent and desirable of its 10 offerings, which also include the tofu stew called soondubu jigae, fried udon, ramen of the packaged sort, and over-rice presentations that are mainly teriyakis. The kimchi fried rice, a homestyle dish that makes the students nostalgic, is superb even though the classic spam version is unavailable. Instead, pick sausage, which turns out to be hot dogs. Not a bad spam substitute!

[Bottom: Scrambled egg and tomato soup, pork burger]

Cart Three: Uncle Luoyang — This monster yellow truck is the most flamboyant of the chorus line of food vendors. The side of the truck is a bewildering patchwork of food photos and handwritten menus in Chinese and English. These menus include cheap grilled brochettes like those of Flushing’s Beijing barbecue carts, soups and stir-fries featuring broad wheat noodles (though not made to order, as at carts four and five), southern-leaning fried rice, and simple fried dumplings and chicken drumsticks. Henan scrambled-egg-and-tomato noodle soup is a cheap student favorite. For a quick snack, the pork burger (rou jia mo) — popularized by Xi’an Famous Foods — is a good bet, at $3.

[Bottom: brisket noodle soup, jianbing.]

Cart Four: The Tuo Fast Food [Green Cart, No English Name] — I asked several Chinese students waiting in line for a translation, and there was some disagreement about what the cart might be called in English but the simplest version was "The Tuo Fast Food," with "Tuo" being a nickname of the proprietor. This is the most northern Chinese cart of the bunch, offering Beijing street snacks such as jianbing (called "pancake" on the menu) — a thick crepe filled with egg, spicy sauce, a cruller, and a supermarket chicken frank. The brisket noodle soup hui mian is much like that served at Spicy Village, and well worth ordering.

[Auntie Wong's cart, meat pie.]

Cart Five: Auntie Wong’s [Red Cart, No English Name] — To confuse things, the two Northern Chinese carts with no English names on them are sometimes reversed in order, but please note the color of the cart; for the non-Chinese speaker, this is your surest form of ID. Auntie Wong’s (that’s what the guy working the window called it when I asked him) offers the usual over rice specials, but instead go for her most popular dish, chicken rice ($6), which is spicy as all get out and includes lots of bone-in pieces of chile-braised chicken interspersed with potatoes, sometimes served with a free warm soy milk. For hot weather, the cold sesame noodles — served with a julienne of cukes and a soy-boiled egg — is just the ticket. Lots of cheap snacks, too, including a pork-filled bing called "meat pie."

[Mircale Thai; drunken noodles]

Cart Six: Miracle Thai — The orange cart, which often has a line, sets itself apart from the other carts by leaving a big space between it and the next cart. The fare is exclusively Siamese, running mainly to crowd-pleasing noodle dishes, around $7 for a large serving, including standards like pad Thai, pad see ew, and, best of all, drunken noodles, a hangover remedy that flaunts a touch of heat and a squirt of fish sauce on the fleshy rice noodles. Your choice of main ingredient includes tofu, vegetables, chicken, or shrimp. The balance of the menu is fried rices, dumplings, and a grilled chicken cut in tidbits that, while not exactly the famous Esan recipe, is a good deal. Free Thai ice tea sometimes comes with your order.

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