Still, I was thrilled when a Bangladeshi cabbie named Mizanur dropped me off at Curry in a Hurry.
“I eat there after my double shift on Sundays,” the taxi driver said, “I usually get a combination platter.”
Mizanur should know something about where to find good food in New York. Before he started driving a cab three years ago, he managed a restaurant in Queens (where he’s lived since he came to the U.S. fifteen years back).
During our short journey from Union Square, I learned that the forty-something cabbie isn’t planning on staying behind the wheel much longer – and that his favorite place to eat in Queens is an Indian-Chinese restaurant called Tangra Masala.
“Indian-Chinese?” I asked him.
“Indian-Chinese,” he answered, with an undertone of duh.*
I was intrigued, but first I wanted to sample the goods at his Manhattan curry house of choice.
When he pulled up to the corner of 28th and Lexington, I discovered that Mizanur wasn’t the only cabbie who was a fan of Curry in a Hurry. Yellow taxis crowded the parking spaces outside. Men rushed out the door, take-out containers in hand.
The scent of cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom floated through the air as I approached the counter. Tandoori chicken, lamb vindaloo, and a rainbow of vegetable curries rested beneath a glass-enclosed buffet, waiting to be eaten. I wanted it all.
Nearly everything was under $10. I asked the men behind the counter what was good. They filled my tray with red vegetable curry, dal, basmati rice, and naan. Total cost: $10.21 with tax and tip.
I lugged my booty to the chutney bar – where I piled on all the raita and onion chutney I could eat – and climbed the stairs to the dining room.
A muted TV was tuned to a Bollywood film. Two taxi drivers were finishing their meal, glancing at the sari-clad girl dancing on the screen. Indian flute music sounded through the speakers. Christmas lights hung from happy plants.
I found a table next to the window, where I could watch the comings and goings of the cabbies outside, and began my feast.
Butter-laden basmati rice was a perfect foil for the vegetable curry. It lacked the fire I was expecting, but the spices were beautifully layered, clinging to potatoes, peas, and eggplant that was tender yet firm. With a little raita (yogurt and cucumber sauce), the dish traveled skyward.
I used naan bread softer than my pillow to scoop up the black lentils in the dal; the sour note in this soup-like dish surprised me. I didn’t totally understand the flavor, but I still felt compelled to finish the bowl.
Stuffed and spiced, I ran the last bite of curry over my tongue, thanked the guys behind the counter for giving me the good stuff, and stepped out of Curry in a Hurry to see what else I could find in the neighborhood.
A few doors up Lexington Ave., I ran into Kalustyan’s, a specialty foods landmark that’s been around since 1944. Looking for Peruvian yellow pepper paste? Vietnamese cinnamon? Panela sugar from Colombia? Indonesian curry? Kalustyan’s stocks them all. If Marco Polo were running around the world today, this is the store he would open to showcase his food discoveries.
The sensory spree continued further up the block at the Spice Corner, an Indian food purveyor where Indian mangoes were ‘on sale’ for $2 apiece. The season is short, the storekeeper told me, and these are the best mangoes in the world.
The man wasn’t lying. A few hours later, I squeezed the last of the nectar from that honey-sweet fruit. Despite its long journey from India, it could have doubled as candy.
That mango was a metaphor for everything I tasted on Curry Hill. Like so much of New York, these flavors have survived transplanting, adapting to new soil with their roots intact.
* After lunch, I did a bit of research and discovered that Mizanur is onto something: Indian-Chinese food is gaining growing a following in Queens. According to borough-based food writer Suzanne Parker, chili beef and spicy chicken ‘lollypops’ are some favorite dishes. Tangra Masala, Mizanur’s preferred spot for Indian-Chinese, is the restaurant that started it all. This is my next stop.
Curry in a Hurry
119 Lexington Ave. (28th St) – Murray Hill
Hours: Wednesday to Monday, Noon to 11 pm. Closed Tuesday.
Prices: Appetizers $2.50-$7.50; Main Courses $4.99-$14.99
MC, Visa, Amex, Diners Card & Discover
123 Lexington Ave. – Murray Hill
Web: www.kalustyans.com (To order online)
135 Lexington Ave. (29th St) – Murray Hill
Web: www.spicecorner29.com (Mail order for the USA and overseas)