Burritos, Bubble Tea and Burgers

Food carts are to college kids what ice cream trucks are to kindergartners. When we were young, the tinny truck music sent us running to our mothers for an advance on our allowances. We sprinted out to the street — to hell with looking both ways. Visions of green ice cream frogs with bubble gum eyes danced in our heads. We debated over sticking with the standby or expanding our options — buying the green frog or branching out into the adventurous realm of the chocolate eclair, the Firecracker or the King Cone.

Our college tastes are more mature, but the desire for novelty on a budget drives us still. After one too many nights of cereal or vegan shepherd’s pie in the dining hall, we flee to the food carts on York and Broadway for burritos and drunken noodle. But novel food is not always enough. When I grow weary of the same gothic buildings and same 50 kids in my residential college, I brave the 15-minute walk to the food carts at the Yale Medical School.

There, on the corner of York and Cedar, stands food-cart Mecca. The rich scents of frying potstickers, boiling pho, simmering massaman curry and grilling sausages reach down the block in a heady aromatic embrace. All the old standbys set up shop — Roomba, Thai Taste, Indochine, Lalibela. Mamoun’s and Noor Mahal. Unique carts abound, too. A Vietnamese cart turns out crisp spring rolls and savory pho. Three Chinese carts compete with astonishingly similar menus while Peking-Edo Sushi and More specializes in bubble drinks and pan-Asian fare. Two Mexican carts serve quesadillas, tacos and burritos. The hot dog stand also sells burgers and fries, while Brittany’s finds its niche in salads and subs.

The heterogeneity of the food supply mirrors that of the clientele. Construction workers, firefighters, police officers, doctors, lab technicians, business professionals, elderly residents, young mothers and college students congregate in hungry queues. They hail from all over the nation and the world but gather for a good, cheap lunch.

Maggie Chang, owner and operator of Peking~Edo Sushi and More, claims to make a special effort to bring familiar flavors to the considerable Asian Med School demographic. She frequently sells as late as 4 p.m. and admits that she feels “like a mommy” who wants to “make sure [the young medical students] have hot food.” When I stopped at her cart, she urged me to try a new dish: a dense pyramid of steamed brown rice, mushrooms and tofu wrapped in bamboo leaves bound with string. It tasted vaguely nutty and bore a striking resemblance to a Christmas gift.

While Brittany’s menu lists fewer surprises, it satisfies customers’ cravings for something wholesome, familiar and delicious. Chef John Roy sets a comforting tone as he tenderly prepares chicken, shrimp, steak and locally made sausages on his hibachi grill. John greets most of his customers by name and remembers their usual order, right down to the often-lengthy lists of condiments. After operating Brittany’s for 14 years, John is a multi-tasking master — he steadily chats with his customers no matter how many orders sizzle on the grill.

His patrons confide the highs and the lows of their days. “You hear a lot of different stories,” co-operator Ellen Rogers notes. “It makes your problems seem not that bad.” She described one patient who traveled from the emergency room to the food cart in the dead of winter wearing nothing more than booties and a hospital gown. He ventured out for the “healing power of John’s chicken Caesar salad.” And when he found the object of his snowy quest, “his whole face just lit up.” After digging into Brittany’s immense chicken Caesar salad, I understand why. The dressing is pungent, and the ratio is just right. The tangy mixture soaks into the hearty croutons without overwhelming the dish.

As delicious as the salad is, I suspect that the man in the ER did not make the trip outside for food alone. The ambience of the stands imparts a feeling of calm sociability and momentary rest in an otherwise hectic day. Most who frequent the food carts cannot stay for long, but they enjoy themselves and each other while there. People with no control over their health find empowerment in the food-selection process while those who make life-and-death decisions find relief in automatically ordering the same dish day in and day out.

We big kids need novelty and familiarity. We want the King Cone and the green frog, the bamboo bundle and the Caesar salad. Luckily, this New Haven dining spot gives us more ways to satisfy these conflicting desires than any other local, all on a student budget. Go now to dine with the sun playing on your shoulders, and bundle up this winter when you can bring your food inside the Med School cafeteria. Unlike the Good Humor truck, the Med School carts operate all year round. Yes, the Good Humor Man has nothing on these carts. At least not anymore. n

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