MIDTOWN — Like many Manhattanites, Ginger Mahmoud can be picky about her lunch — she doesn't like onions. When she first went to Essam Ahmed's halal cart across the street from the Hampton Inn where she works, she made sure he knew it.
"He took fresh meat, not pre-cooked, and made sure the whole time there were no onions," she said.
Ahmed presented her meal with a smile — and no onions. When Mahmoud tried to pay for it, Ahmed refused.
"He said 'This is my invitation to you. Enjoy,'" Mahmoud recalled.
Ahmed, 54, died in Bellevue Hospital after suffering a heart attack on Jan. 5 while setting up the halal food cart that had become a mainstay of a block near West 35th Street and Sixth Avenue, authorities said.
Ahmed's family and shocked customers are now mourning the death of a fixture of the block who helped bring a smile and tasty food to their day.
It seems like every person who works along the block where Ahmed set up his cart had a story of him showing remarkable kindness. Customers on the block said that Ahmed — called "Sam" by most of his regulars — helped humanize an often fast-paced, frantic area of Midtown, where a halal cart usually meant barking an order and getting a quick meal.
Ahmed was different, friends and family said. He would talk, joke, even regularly give free meals to nearby homeless people.
He was also known for the way he cooked his food — unlike most cart cooks, he put the typical halal sauces — white or hot — on the meat while it cooked on the grill, and then threw on gobs more afterward for good measure.
"The food was awesome," said Marianela Gutierrez, who also works at the Hampton Inn. "It was just juicy, delicious, and unique."
Ahmed's cart had become a fixture on the block after being there for less than a year, and frequently attracted a line of waiting customers. He was noticed by the food blog Midtown Lunch, which gave him a glowing review in June — one that Ahmed proudly taped to his cart.
The halal man's heart attack happened after a cold morning. He had complained of chest pains earlier in the day, witnesses said.
"He came here and started saying he wasn't feeling good," said Aimee Gomez, a guard at Mercy College where Ahmed used to take refuge from the cold and chat when customers weren't around. "He said he was really cold, and his chest hurt."
Hours later, he collapsed in a bathroom next door, witnesses said. Family members said that Ahmed had about a third of one lung removed during a surgery two years ago, which had made him susceptible to cold.
Ahmed was originally from Cairo, Egypt, and moved to the United States in 1985, according to his stepdaughter, Rocio Arevalo. He met and married his wife, Ecuadorian immigrant Susana Arevalo, not long after.
"He raised me. He was my dad," Rocio Arevalo said. "He was the father we didn't have in our lives. We'd give more for him than we ever would to our biological father."
Ahmed spent years working on halal and breakfast carts in Manhattan and Queens before setting up shop on West 35th Street.
Arevalo said Ahmed's kindness extended beyond his halal cart. When she was young and had frequent late-night asthma attacks, he would stay with her at the hospital and then go to work with no sleep.
While the rest of his family was Catholic, Ahmed was an active Muslim. He prayed daily and went weekly to a small mosque under the roar of planes approaching LaGuardia Airport, near the family's home in East Elmhurst, Queens.
"It was never an issue that my dad was Muslim and we were Catholic," Arevalo said. "We grew up with that and we had the best of both worlds."
Arevalo said that later in his life, Ahmed was dedicated to her son and his grandson, Omar, who's now 8. He'd often get home from work and play with him.
If he finished work early enough, he'd cook the family food — often rice, beans, and chicken.
"Sometimes, he'd make his famous macaroni," Arevalo said, laughing. "Very different from halal food."
Arevalo worked in Midtown, and would sometimes visit her father's cart, where she knew he was beloved by his customers.
"He was always concerned if you were hungry," said Gutierrez. "He would even offer to go get food from other people's stores if he thought you didn't want his."
Several others said that Ahmed was the kind of vendor who wouldn't mind if you were a couple of dollars short for your lamb and rice.
Ahmed's brothers have taken over the family cart, and plan to bring it back to the block where he was so well-known.
It was temporarily gone on Wednesday, much to the chagrin of Adam Sparks, who had no idea that Ahmed had died.
"I came here all the time," said Sparks, 29, who works nearby. "I'm sad to hear he died. I know it really sounds cliched, but he'd always brighten up our day."