Boris – who was born in “a small town in Russia called Moscow” and used to fly planes for Aeroflot – told me that he eats at McDonald’s when he’s driving his taxi (“Shame on me.”)
Besides the piroshki with potato, cherries, fried onions and sour cream that his wife makes, he likes Italian and French food. And where does he go when he’s in the mood for good Italian? The Olive Garden.
Given that my hatred of the Olive Garden runs as deep as Anthony Bourdain’s aversion to ABBA, I thought it best to stop questioning the cabbie about food. I asked Boris what made him leave Russia.
He told me it all began with perestroika. Apparently, when Gorbachev started restructuring the Soviet economy back in the late 1980s, the General Secretary of the Communist Party didn’t have any concrete plans for dealing with the consequences. Pretty soon, the mafia started colluding with the police, and the country became “like a jungle, a wild jungle.”
“People started to eat each other just to make money,” Boris said, “I was 34 or 35 at the time, and I thought that if I didn’t leave then, I’d stay forever. I left for my kids.”
Eduard Zavlanov left Uzbekistan for different reasons. A classical cellist who graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1985, he’d dreamed of coming to the United States since he was 14. His father, a Persian Farsi-speaking Jew who had his heart set on Eduard going to Israel, was devastated.
Within a month of moving to New York in 1995, Eduard found a job playing music at a kosher Uzbeki restaurant in Queens called Crystal, but it wasn’t enough to support his two kids. He started driving a taxi.
During his first two months as a cabbie, Eduard quit a total of twenty times. Between the cops and the parking tickets and the wacko passengers, he hated the job. He tried waiting tables and moving furniture, but he didn’t like waiting a whole week to get his paycheck, and he wasn’t too keen on having a direct supervisor.
“When you drive a taxi, you’re alone,” he said, “No one touches you. No management, no bosses, and when you go home you see money every day. I like that. I didn’t want to be a taxi driver, but…”
But the money was too good. Two years ago, Eduard stopped playing music professionally (though he still toys with the drums, piano and electric guitar he keeps at home).
By the time he dropped me off in midtown Manhattan, the cabbie had also let me in on what sound like two spectacular places to eat:
1) Istanbul Restaurant (95-36 Queens Blvd. bet. 63rd Ave. & 63rd Dr., Rego Park, 718-897-1509), a former strip club that now serves a mean mezze platter and other Turkish delights.
2) Tandoori Food & Bakery (99-04 63rd at 99th St, Rego Park, 718-897-1071), which is Eduard’s chosen spot when he’s craving Uzbeki food. He always orders lagman soup (with lamb, carrots, spaghetti and cumin), and he loves their Bakhsh (Bukharan rice sauteed with cilantro and chicken).
I’m going to check out both spots and report back on the food. In the meantime, I’ll be sorting through my heartbreak over Boris’ affinity for the Olive Garden and the end of Eduard’s cello playing career.