If you see people carrying bowls of barley lentil or curry laksa ramen soup away from a mustard yellow and silver food cart on a warm summer evening, your instinct might be to pass by the first–and second–time staring in awe. Don’t walk away–you’ve located one of the most unique food carts around, serving exotic dishes you don’t know how to pronounce.
Mamak, New York City’s first Malaysian street cart, has operated for almost two months serving lunch in Hanover Square and, more recently, dinner off the corner of North Sixth Street and Bedford Avenue.
In Malaysia, carts offering a variety of curries and stews are about as common as a jumbo pretzel in Midtown, so chef and owner Erik Cheah, who hails from that country, saw an opportunity to improve upon the lunch and late night offerings for suits and skaters alike. Plus, running an outdoor food operation means you can do things like see the sunset and get fresh air, elements that are not necessarily common in stationary restaurant kitchens.
Cheah’s pedigree includes training under Chef Jonathan Benno of Per Se for several months, and he grew up in a family full of restaurateurs. His father operated a street cart in Malaysia, and other members of his family are involved with various southeast Asian restaurants throughout the greater New York City area.
This background not only provided him cherished family recipes from which he could build from but also the knowledge that a successful business comes down to a successful location. His Brooklyn spot, which long housed a stationary taco stand and recently hosted a Korean BBQ cart, is slowly developing a clientele of late night commuters stopping by on their walk home. Meanwhile, having a set-up in Hanover Square helps feed the masses of Wall Street denizens looking for a great meal at a fair price.
It took Cheah roughly seven months to finalize his diverse menu. Weekly specials are continuously changing based on the feedback received from customers, and seasonality also plays a role in the items that are featured (e.g. the current spring menu features a lighter lemongrass-based curry soup). Barley pandanus, an iced drink made with a floral plant common in Malaysian cooking and sweetened with rock sugar, has a sweet rice-like taste and makes for a nice accompaniment in the sweltering heat. Some entrees that made the final menu took into account the differentiated American palate. The ramly burger, which features a fried egg, cheddar, cabbage, and sweet chili ketchup, was designed as bridge between Malaysian and American cultures, and it can help convince a customer to come back and try something a bit more out of their comfort zone. That customer might consider the beef rendang curry, the highlight of the menu as suggested by the chef. It’s a dish that embodies the balance central to Malaysian cooking: Boneless shortrib is coated in papadum and sambal chili, doused in four different sauces, and seated next to a hard boiled egg on a bed of coconut- and pandanus-flavored jasmine rice.
Because Malaysian food takes considerable time to prepare–everything is homemade here, and the chili sauce takes at least two hours to complete–many of the challenges Mamak faces are very different from other operations. “We are a food cart that sells restaurant quality food,” Cheah notes. Dishes are prepped in a commissary kitchen and take up to five hours to finalize, and then Cheah and his team have to deal with transport issues.
Cheah’s eventual goal is to open a brick-and-mortar location of Mamak, but he’s content for the time being. “Keep calm and curry on,” he laughs, his experience in building restaurants a unique asset that is not necessarily common with all up and coming hidden gem hopefuls.
Mamak typically comes out of hiding from 12 to 3 pm at Hanover Square and from 5:30 pm to 10:00 pm at N. 6th and Bedford with expanded hours on Friday and Saturday night. The cart also delivers, caters, and makes guest appearances outside of music venues. Check out @lovemamak for information on new locations and hours of operation.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 19, 2013