Mohamed is a burly man with light eyes and a hint of dark cropped hair under a white cardboard hat angled atop his head. He is 32, Egyptian, and if you work in Tribeca, you know he serves the best food in town.
Greenwich Street in Tribeca runs like a backbone down one of the most expensive zip codes on the East Coast, with the type of restaurants strung along it that you'd be embarrassed to walk into wearing jeans. It's a veritable Rodeo Drive of food, but you won't find Mohamed serving lunch inside one of these eateries.
You might duck into Wolfgang's Steakhouse at noon and have the waiter call you "sir" while eating a steak sandwich (after the check arrives, you will understand why he was so polite). But you won't find Mohamed.
You could, if you've got the time and don't mind restaurant interiors that resemble a caveman's clay residence, head over to Nobu -- the restaurant partially owned by Robert De Niro -- for a little afternoon sushi, and if you have that kind of time, you have that kind of money. But Mohamed's not there.
Then there's Benvenuto and 'wichcraft, where it'll only be about 15 minutes for a drink and a healthy $15 sandwich pressed to the width of a floor tile and half as good to eat. But Mohamed is serving something better and cheaper just across the street -- at the HM Halal cart idled on the sidewalk outside 388 Greenwich.
The cart is like many others in New York, a shiny aluminum box no bigger than a walk-in closet, gas supplied, burner lit, advertising gyros and cheese steaks along the canopy, ready in about three minutes. But it's here, beside the most expensive restaurants and dwarfed by the CitiGroup building, that Mohamed stakes his claim with a hot meal and a drink for less than six bucks.
He came from Egypt last summer before Hosni Mubarak stepped in front of the cameras with his Count von Count hairdo and admitted the inevitable. When Mohamed is asked about it he smiles and stops. With concentrated effort, like a child stepping from stone to stone across a pond, he furrows his brow and manages, "I like the change a lot," he says in a thick accent. But, it's the smile and the glint in the deep-set eyes that make you believe it. He may not have mastered the language yet but he has mastered the food.
From 8am to 3:30pm, Mohamed operates on a level Wolfang Puck would be proud to duplicate. Hundreds, "sometimes more, sometimes less" according to Mohamed, swim like trout against the tide away from the crowded building entrances to his cart at lunchtime and order falafels, chicken gyros, cheesesteaks -- anything and everything on the board. He slaps rice into a Styrofoam plate, shaves off layers of hanging beef, chops chicken on a fryer billowing smoke like a freight engine and steaming up the small grill area like a sauna.
Mohamed works at a feverish pace, taking orders, grilling, and changing cash in a continuous rush during lunchtime. The customers check their BlackBerries; over-worked and clinging to financial jobs in a financial crisis, they just want something good to eat and fast too. So Mohamed gives it to them, and as one patron put it, "It's the best. I come here four days a week." That's what the cart gives these workers: something good for something less, which is a rarity today.
"It's calm now, much more calm," he says of Egypt as one last customer comes up to the cart before they close. His partner, a stern looking man, flips and chops as Mohamed puts on a technicolored sweater and leans back. He hasn't returned to Egypt yet and doesn't say if he ever will. The customer smiles and thanks them for the meal. He too, thinks it's the best. No more customers will come now but Mohamed wants one last thing: a picture with the cart. He takes off his sweater to show his company's shirt and delicately places the white cardboard hat back atop his head, adjusting it to make sure it fits just right. He smiles and gives the peace sign as the picture is snapped -- and like any good American these days, he immediately inspects the photo lest one be taken of him that isn't worthy. He smiles again, that same grin that makes you believe him, and says, "It's not bad."
The sky is ashen now and they say it will rain tomorrow and Mohamed will come back as he does every weekday to beat Goliath at his own game. It is what we like as Americans. But you knew that and now you know where to go when you want the best lunch in one of the most expensive places in New York. So, now, the only question is, white sauce or hot sauce on that gyro?
Follow Colin Barnicle on Twitter: www.twitter.com/colinbarnicle