Food by VICE

The Coffee Cart Is the Unsung Hero of New York Fast Food

Everything's better after coffee and a bagel.

by Sarah Forbes Keough
Dec 1 2017, 6:45pm

All photos by Sarah Forbes Keough


I slip through the closing doors of the subway very early to go and photograph coffee carts. Morning rush hour in New York lasts for some time and each wave has a personality. At 6 AM, nurses and dusty suits are somber, courteous toward one another and asleep. One lady hugs herself tight and rests her sleeping head on her boobs. Another guy sleeps on his newspaper and wakes up at his stop with ink next to his mouth. Some late stragglers are still heading home at this hour too and when I have been that person, I am grateful for the quiet. The next rush will be louder — kids going to school, enterprising tourists and people with boring jobs battling for a little bit of breathing room.


At Fulton, the crowd pushes me out the door, up the stairs and into the sun. Silver coffee carts pepper the routes to giant office buildings. Each cart has a slew of regulars lining up. I am jobless at the moment and therefore have no set commute route and no loyalty - I go wherever. In line just now, getting coffee from a guy near the World Trade Center station entrance, a little drama plays out in front of me. A chatty man slow to decide is one ahead of the woman in front of me. She has her exact change out and her face is steely. The cart guy shoots the shit amicably with Mr. Slow while noticing the escalating death glare from his regular. He misses no beats as he, still chatting, hands her her usual, takes her money and winks. Mr. Slow laughs, requests a donut and doesn't move from his place at the front window. He also orders his coffee with six Splendas. The horror.


The Turkish Coffee cart on Wall Street sometimes has burek, a savory pastry filled with meat or cheese. I couldn’t find him this morning so I called the number listed. He answers and tells me to take it easy, he’ll be there soon.


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The carts I watch out for are those who have a little something special to offer beyond bananas, hard-boiled eggs, bagels, and coffee. The Turkish Coffee cart on Wall Street sometimes has burek, a savory pastry filled with meat or cheese. I couldn’t find him this morning so I called the number listed. He answers and tells me to take it easy, he’ll be there soon. A moment later, I look up and see him pushing the cart down the block with his friend. Their coffee takes a few minutes to make and is well worth it. The 1 train uptown is totally jealous when I open mine and the smell of strong coffee fills the car. Many carts offer a decent egg and cheese on a roll as well. A guy in Zuccotti Park sells tamales and you can get his homemade salsa on your egg sandwich too.

Coffee cart guys will chat with you about anything — sports, weather, politics, art — but they hesitate to get too specific about business. I don’t want to press so I glide back over to my favorite subject: breakfast. The man in the coffee cart on Vesey and Ann Streets looks at me like I am nuts when I ask what his best selling item is. Coffee, he says. He also says I can take his photograph but no names. "How will I find you?" He shrugs toward the cart and the street surrounding him and laughs.