The various rivalries between Boston and New York are legend, and the latest arrives in the form of a bright yellow truck with a cartoon chicken painted on its side.
For years, hungry New Yorkers have enjoyed the offerings of halal carts, stands selling plates of chicken and rice topped with a tangy, yogurt-based white sauce and a fiery red hot sauce. In the City That Never Sleeps, the chicken and rice is a staple in the diets of club-goers and other late-night types.
Here, in the City That Gets A Sensible Eight Hours, you won’t find chicken and rice at 3 a.m. But thanks to the efforts of Ian So, 25, an entrepreneur and Babson graduate, you will indeed find it — at the window of the yellow truck, known as The Chicken & Rice Guys, in various spots around the city, including Chinatown, Copley Square, Northeastern University, Boston University, and Cleveland Circle in Brighton.
So and three partners — a high-school buddy, a college friend, and So’s girlfriend — started scooping out chicken, lamb sausage, and rice in the spring, after a winter of R & D. So candidly admits that he modeled the meal on New York’s carts. “People kept telling me about chicken and rice stands in New York,” says So, who grew up in Scarsdale, N.Y. When he finally had a chance to try it, he discovered that the “food was delicious. I ordered two plates and went back for more.” The partners, who had been casting around for the right business concept, saw the potential. “We just got the feeling that, hey, it’s such a popular idea, and Boston doesn’t have it,” says So. It was easy enough to procure halal chicken and arrange the rest of the meal.
The group worked hard to perfect the formula, which So describes as still “a work in progress.” Seasoned bites of boneless chicken thighs were initially boiled, for instance, but the team soon decided that baked tasted better. They also got some valuable input from So’s mother, born in China and now living in Seattle, whom he describes as “an amazing cook.” As any halal-cart patron will tell you, the true key is in the sauces, and So says that getting them right was “definitely the hardest part.”
There were plenty of other pieces of the business to consider, from buying and fitting out the rig to getting permits for operating a food truck. Searching for a used food truck on eBay, So found one in Miami, flew down with one of the partners, and drove it back to Boston, all in a 48-hour period. He’s hoping to run another truck in the near future and open a storefront at some point.
On a recent muggy Tuesday, So and company are serving lunchtime patrons in the shadow of the Chinatown gate at Surface Road and Beach Street. The truck doesn’t yet attract New York–size throngs, but the queue is half a dozen deep a few minutes before noon. The menu is simple, and the offerings will be familiar to halal cart customers: You can order chicken and rice, lamb sausage and rice, or a combo. Each version costs $6. Drinks are $1. The chicken is halal, as is the lamb in the sausage; the sausage itself is not.
Meals come in aluminum take-out pans. There’s a heap of bright-orange rice (orange from food coloring), a pile of meat, a chunk of iceberg lettuce, and two small triangles of grilled pita. Customers can add all the sauce they want (white, spicy, barbecue) from squirt bottles at the window; most apply it liberally. It’s a savory, filling plate of food, and definitely a bargain.
Many patrons are frequent fliers who are here once or twice a week. “The sauces are good, the food tastes fresh, and the price is right,” says customer Paul Bergman. Another, Derek Lister, reports that he had eaten at a New York cart on Sunday and at the Boston truck on Monday, and he was back for his third such meal in as many days. Lister gives the Boston version high marks for taste, cleanliness, and fast service.
Does that mean we have beaten New York at its own game? “Yes,” says Lister. But, he adds loyally, “That’s generally true.”
To find locations and hours for the Chicken & Rice Guys, go to www.the
Jane Dornbusch can be reached at email@example.com.