Late on a summer morning, the sun is already scorching Cedar St., and food cart griddles lining the blacktop on both sides only make this day hotter.
Tastier, too. On weekdays, from 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Cedar St. between Congress and Davenport avenues is a mecca for foodies, most of whom work as nurses and doctors at the nearby Yale-New Haven Hospital.
More than 30 food carts offer anything from drunken noodles, a stir-fried noodle dish with chili and basil, to arepas, a stuffed cornmeal patty, for around $5. The variety of cuisine and hearty portions appeal to regulars like Vladimir Shapiro, a construction worker who eats from different carts once a week, and who has today settled on a Bengali burrito.
"I'm going to try Vietnamese next," he says.
Without Lam Nguyen, who set up on Cedar St. 26 years ago, options for lunch would never have flourished as they did. Uncovering the raw beef he's searing, Nguyen prepares everything he sells from his Japanese-style cart right on the premises. Salad with ginger dressing is the most popular item on his menu.
Across the way, Jon Roy of Jon's Lunch says he "sells more steaks than anyone in New Haven."
Roy first met Lam while working together at Blessings, a Chinese restaurant. He staked his claim in the food cart business only a month after his co-worker did. Today, Roy says: "I pretty much know everyone by name or dish."
When Jonathan Ryan, a nurse at Yale-New Haven Hospital, comes to order his lunch, he praises Roy's Americana cart as "one of the best" on the street. And this is no meaningless commendation: Ryan has been coming to Jon's Lunch for "very affordable" lunch and dinner meals during his 12-hour shifts for the last seven years.
"Weren't you closer to the curb?" he asks Roy, as they both reminisce about times past.
"Yeah, the city moved me."
Vendors like Roy pay the city $200 a year for a vending permit, and $280 to the state for license and inspection. Regulations require food be prepared on the cart or in a commercial kitchen.
Melissa Chang of Chinese Food Healthy Way, a cart serving mostly steamed dishes to 100-plus customers a day, says the food she sells is prepared at China Garden in West Haven. (Chang also says that, ironically, regulars order General Tso's Chicken more frequently than any other dish. So much for food the "healthy way.")
Many carts on Cedar St. — like Lalibela, which has served Ethiopian wats, or stews, and injera, a sour pancake bread made from teff, since 1994, says vendor Eduardo Aranda — are satellite operations of restaurants in town. Some have sister carts on Prospect St., from which Yale students and professors carry away the Styrofoam cartons.
On Long Wharf Dr., where locals and travelers on I-95 often stop for a bite to eat, one finds a different breed of food vendor: the food truck.
Among star-spangled banners and Latin American flags, and alongside Latin specialties like tongue and head tacos, you'll find Sweeney's Hot Dog truck.
Owner Bob Sweeney, who has been in business for 51 years now, claims "the mayor grew up on these hot dogs — his father brought him down here."
Although Sweeney's hot dogs cost $1.50 today, they were only 20 cents in 1960.
"I remember when we had to go up to a quarter. I told my brother that we'd go out of business."
But according to Frank, a traveling salesman from Branford, Sweeney "has very loyal customers."
Other trucks to look out for and follow online include the Cheese Truck, a mobile kitchen affiliated with Caseus Fromagerie and Bistro that sells grilled cheese sandwiches; the Cupcake Truck; Beach Street Sandwiches, a gourmet sandwich truck visiting various Connecticut cities; Munchies' Food Truck, serving burgers and Middle Eastern fare in New London; and the GoChef gourmet food truck, selling Italian cuisine in Milford.