When you travel, the first thing you’re told is to eat where the locals eat. Skip the tourist traps and the corporate cafeterias and look for the unassuming place packed with people all speaking the same language—preferably not the one you speak. A New York local, however, is a different kind of animal. We’ll tell you how to ride the subway without eliciting snickers from your fellow travelers, what you should never order from a bodega deli counter, which, but we don’t have a common food culture and you’d be hard-pressed to get a unanimous recommendation for the best…anything.
That’s because this city is home to a thousand different kinds of locals, each with a three-square-block hometown to call their own. Japanese students congregate on St. Mark’s Place, while their salaryman counterparts can be found in the East 50s. Steinway Street in Astoria is, at various points, Little Egypt, Little Morocco and Little Jordan. Yorkville, on the Upper East Side, has an annual German-American Steuben parade.
But there’s an even smaller New York subset: cab drivers. In large part of South Asian origin, these locals look not only for food that tastes the way it’s supposed to but for a quick, no-nonsense experience that, preferably, offers more than just food to make the pit stop worthwhile. These are not necessarily found in the same ethnic enclaves; taxi drivers’ neighborhoods are the busiest through streets of the city, the routes they travel most often to get fares wherever they’re going. Roti Boti in Queens, for example, is on 21st Street, the primary approach to the Queensboro Bridge. The large cafeteria-style restaurant also offers phone cards and money orders.
The apotheosis of these is Punjabi Deli & Grocery, on East Houston where it collides with 1st Street (114 E. 1st St., betw. Ave. A & 1st Ave.). The slightly subterranean entrance is faintly unsavory, another LES storefront that looks better suited for homeless naps than luring in passersby. From the sidewalk, all you can see is a narrow space with refrigerated cases on one side and a rickety counter running the length of the other. A cashier at the front is surrounded by what look like the usual bodega sundries: cigarettes, questionable herbal supplements, candy bars and Advil. The green awning gives nothing away but for the red starburst in the upper right corner: “100% vegetarian.”
That starburst, far from being a beacon to the area’s gluten-free power vegans, is a secret handshake for the city’s Hindu, Muslim and otherwise religiously restricted cabbies. Those refrigerated cases hold, rather than questionable tuna salad and some forlorn black-and-white cookies from a factory in Bay Ridge, an array of curries to rival any Lahori mother’s. Chickpeas to eggplant, saag to dal; the offerings rotate but tend to cycle through a dozen or so favorites. To make it easier (or to speed up the process for those who left the meter running), the trays are numbered, so if you haven’t a clue what any of it is and the line forming behind you is getting impatient, just call out your lucky numbers and see what you get.
A small is two items over rice—if you’re a small army looking to refuel, large gets you three. There is no reason you will need more food than this, but if you don’t get the samosa chaat, a potato samosa split and topped with curried chickpeas, onions and yogurt, you may have trouble hailing a cab again in this town. Word gets around. You can also have your meal with roti either in place of or in addition to the rice—sometimes this is a fantastic idea, but the bread occasionally suffers from having lingered too long and being reheated in the microwave.
Right, did we mention the microwaves? When you’ve decided on the lucky numbers of the day, your selections are ladled into a styrofoam bowl and nuked in one of the many machines lined up for duty. At busy hours their hum and intermittent beeping never lets up, an industrial lullaby to your impending food coma. It ain’t pretty, but that’s not why you’re here.
Oh, and that bodega detritus up front? Tucked among the gum and foil packets of painkillers is a chai station and Bollywood DVDs and CDs, sure to be the soundtrack to your next ride home, back from this local’s spot to your own.
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