I remember both the hurricane and the NBA team named for it. The very first Panther game, I was in attendance with my father and brother. I experienced as a bank brat the evolution of NationsBank to Bank of America. But none of these Charlottean milestones meant that my city was growing as much as seeing a lone food cart on the corner of Trade and Tryon uptown last weekend.
Every Friday night, I drive the three year old from South Charlotte to “the Big Beautiful”; this is what she calls uptown Charlotte. I hope it catches. Randolph until it turns to E. 4th, right on N. College, left on 7th, left onto N. Tryon. It is always the same. We look at the lights, listen to the brass band that sometimes plays in front of the Il Grando Disco, and roll down our windows to hear the life in the city.
At the corner of N.Tryon, I noticed a red cart encased in blue lights with yellow placards of the food it sold. It a primary colored blip in my peripheral vision as pedestrians, cars, valets and bicyclists vied for necessary attention. And then the word “Halal” finally registered. The light was green, I had to go- to the nearest parking deck.
The drive is usually to ease my child into sleep but this Friday, she was getting out. I tossed her on my back, strapped her into her carrier and walked back from the parking deck near McCormick and Schmick’s. As we neared the four statues in Independence Square, I could smell the coriander and turmeric and I was already grinning. There was no line. Not like the ones in New York filled with a cross section of the city from Investment Advisors in three piece suits to construction workers in neon vests. It was a lone street meat food cart and it was mine.
I searched for the words I hadn’t read since April when I convinced my ex to meet me in JFK with a Styrofoam box. Falafel? No. Gyro? No. Chicken salad? Don’t tease me. And then I saw it. Chicken over rice. Lamb over rice. I was giggling.
Before the man could get in his cart I blubbered like an idiot, “I was waiting for this. Chicken over rice.”
He stepped behind his griddle.
A couple stopped. “Oh my God…”
I looked back. “I know, right?”
The man asked me, “Is this the same thing?”
“Like in New York? It is.”
“Yeah?” Now he was all smiles. “Like the one, you know, the one the famous one?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah!” He stabbed the air, his eyes sparkling as we were both caught up in our own food memories. “That one. I ate there four days in a row. So is this the same thing?”
“Seems like it. I haven’t tried it yet. Just ordered. Have no idea if it’s good or not. We will see.”
More people began to take notice and I began to just say, “Halal street meat! Yeah. Same thing as New York.”
Chicken thighs were laid on the flat top, chopped and doused; bubbling and steaming with chopped onions and bell peppers. They were then spread, scraped, and diced on the sharp edge of a dough cutter. Again, diced, brought together, diced and brought together until the pieces were bite sized.
A simple salad was nestled into a portion of the container. White sauce, a form of a minty zabadi, (cousin to the more locally familiar, more cucumber tzatziki) was zigzagged over romaine and tomatoes. He opened the rice cooker and steam rose out in fragrant plumes.
I was a little miffed that the basmati was not a bright saffron yellow but each cart is different and this one was already special because it was here in the Big Beautiful, my city (I will jump ahead a little to say, what it lacked in color, it made up for in taste). Rice was given in generous heaps until it formed a bed for the chicken that was spread over it.
The words barely left the cooks lips, “Hot Sauce?”
I leaned forward and demanded, “All the sauces!”
He obliged. White sauce and then red sauce, a spicy harissa derivative, were crisscrossed in thin ribbons until the chicken and rice were covered. As he closed my box, I told him how long I had waited for a halal street cart. I asked for his schedule and a card. I paid and tipped him.
I ate half of the chicken over rice in my car. It was everything I wanted it to be. The rice still had bite and tasted of coriander. The chicken was bright with flavor and tender. The sauces creamy and spicy. The salad refreshing.
There will no longer be aimless drives to the Big Beautiful. I have a purpose. I have a destination. I have dinner. And Charlotte, we have our own halal street cart. Is it too much to say we have arrived? Too soon? Too late? We all have our measuring stick. Mine is not the tall buildings that hover over Trade and Tryon. It is the tiny food cart parked there.