The halal chicken cart
Southeast corner of Broadway and 23rd, across from the Flatiron: fast, cheap, good, and if you take your food back to your office, everyone within sniffing distance will be wanting to know what you got. Also, I’ve been eating grilled chicken from that cart for years, and never suffered so much as an upset stomach.
The vendor’s a nice guy. He appears to be doing the whole immigrant success thing. This spring he traded his battered old bismillah-stickered cart for a shiny new one twice the size, so now along with spicy grilled chicken-and-rice, chicken-on-pita, and kebabs he’s doing falafel, Italian sausage sandwiches, and a spicy vegetable and rice thing.
It’s all good.
Queues and celery salt in the park
There’s an American-style burger shack in the park across the street from the halal guy. The good part is that it does classic pre-McDonald’s burger shack-style burgers. Even better, it does Chicago-style hot dogs with the full salady presentation.
What’s less good is that if you get there any later than 11:30 or so, there’ll be a line, and by 12:15 it’ll stretch halfway to the edge of the park. Some days, when you really want a Chicago-style hotdog, it’s worth it.
Kickshaws at Eisenberg’s
Eisenberg’s is a deli that’s across the street from the other side of the Flatiron. I think the only bits that date from later than the 1950s are the delivery boys and the textured coating on the north wall. The rest is a time capsule—like, not only can you get an egg cream there; you can get a lime rickey. They’re said to make the best standard tuna sandwich in New York, but I’m not big on tuna sandwiches so I wouldn’t know.
I’m curious about the terminology on their takeout menu, though. The section for side dishes is labeled “sidekicks.” Now, I know the etymology of sidekick has never really been nailed down. The word showed up in American English around the time the Flatiron was built. There’s a theory that it derives from a term for side-pockets on one’s pants, but that’s a best-guess no-real-connection kind of explanation.
Eisenberg’s has me wondering whether sidekick is derived from kickshaw: an interesting word in its own right. Kickshaw is an English repronunciation of quelque chose, which is French for “thingy.” It has two main meanings: a trifling, trumpery thing, or a side dish—what they used to call a “made dish.”Kickshaw may have contributed genetic material to kicky-wicky, a term for “wife,” which Shakespeare used in All’s Well that Ends Well, II iii.297:
To the wars, my boy, to the wars! He wears his honour in a box unseen,Kickshaw has never fallen out of the language.
That hugs his kicky-wicky here at home,
Spending his manly marrow in her arms,
Which should sustain the bound and high curvet
Of Mars’s fiery steed….
Meanwhile, in America, the recorded terms for a person we’d call a sidekick were side-pal (1886) or side-partner (1890). I find it very easy to imagine that kickshaw, “side dish,” collided with side-pal or side-partner and came out sidekick.
Trust me on this one
On the same block as Eisenberg’s are three deli-plus-salad-bar places. I strongly recommend the two southernmost ones. They never get shut down for penance and cleanup.
Achieving authenticity the hard way
Finding bits of historic New York is always a matter of knowing where to look and being able to recognize what you’re looking at. The Old Town Bar manages to look just like a nineteenth-century New York bar by dint of being one. If you want to hang out and pretend you’re waiting to meet a guy who’s with the Five Pointers, this is the place for you. It has good beer, good burgers, and good potato salad all the time, and other stuff that’s usually pretty good too. The food comes down from the second-floor kitchen via one of New York’s few operating dumbwaiters.
On a quiet afternoon in the summer, the Old Town’s first floor is one of the best places in the city to hide out: dark, cool, easygoing, with deep booths, and a very high hammered-tin ceiling that swallows up the heat and noise and holds it far away from you. The height of that ceiling makes the climb to the second floor surprisingly long, but the upstairs dining area is very pleasant.
Why I decided I liked the Old Town: Back before computers, before Selectrics with their swappable type balls, when an Underwood Electric Typewriter was about as good as you got, copy typists learned all kinds of little tricks, protocols, and maneuvers to make documents look as good as possible.
The first time I went to the Old Town, I opened their hand-typed menu and realized that (a.) it had no typos in it whatsoever, and (b.) the person who’d typed it—on a machine with nice clean keys and a new cloth ribbon—had used all those old-fashioned copy typist’s moves, the likes of which I hadn’t seen in thirty years. I immediately conceived a good opinion of the place, and it’s never given me any reason to change my mind.
Where it is: You know the big Barnes & Noble on Union Square? Okay, imagine you’ve set up a cannon facing it. If you fired a shot that crashed through the front wall of the B&N, flew across the store, and punched through the back wall, your cannonball would come to rest on the sidewalk in front of the Old Town. Which is convenient, because by then you’d really need to sit down and have a drink.