Two years ago, 30,000 food pilgrims and I invaded the town of Famaillá, in the Tucuman province of northwestern Argentina, for the National Empanada Festival.
For three days, we feasted on some of the greatest empanadas in the hemisphere. Most of them were stuffed with grass-fed Argentine beef, and all of them were enveloped in handmade dough and baked to order in clay ovens.
The memory of those empanadas – so juicy, so flaky, so clay oven-sublime – still haunts me. These days, whenever I start to crave them, I try to push them out of my mind. Apart from the Empanada Festival, I’m pretty sure I’ll never taste the likes of those heavenly turnovers again. Or so I thought.
Sunday afternoon, at the suggestion of Uzbeki-American cellist turned taxi driver Eduard Zavlanov, I hopped the R train to Rego Park and made my way to one of his favorite spots in the neighborhood: Tandoori Food & Bakery.
The strictly kosher Bukharan restaurant was packed with a post-Shabbat crowd, and I assumed they were Bukharian Jews like Eduard, whose ancestors had followed Silk Road trade routes from Persia to Central Asia over 2,000 years ago.
Over the past 40 years, thousands of Bukharian Jews – including Eduard – have resettled in New York, escaping political turmoil and the chaos that ensued after the fall of the Soviet Union. Most of them moved to Queens, bringing their faith and their Eastern/Western recipes with them.
East-West crossovers are all over the menu at Tandoori, and when you look at a map of the Silk Road, it’s easy to understand why. With Bukhara at the confluence of the ancient spice routes, it’s no surprise that cumin and cilantro find their way into so many dishes, that green tea is the beverage of choice, and that borscht and stroganov share space with shish kebab and lagman (a soup made with hand-pulled noodles that draws inspiration from Chinese lo mein).
On Eduard’s recommendation, I started with lagman ($4.50), expecting a spice assault and ending up with a tame bowl of lamb and handmade noodles. Despite a pile of scallions and cilantro, fatty chunks of lamb, carrots, celery and peppers of every color, there seemed to be a note missing. I could imagine lagman being legendary, but this version wasn’t.
I was halfway through my soup when the pace started to pick up at Tandoori. At 2:15, all seats were taken, an infant started wailing in tune with the ringing telephone, and customers lined up at the cash register to order samsas (a cousin of the Indian samosa, baked in a tandoori oven). I followed their lead.
I never imagined that a samsa ($2) from a kosher tandoori oven in Queens would remind me of the otherworldly empanadas of Famaillá – but it did. The filling – beef and onions laced with cumin – was more subdued than a Famaillá empanada’s, but the dough – crispy, buttery, beautifully browned – had the same magical properties that only a clay oven can produce. This was one glorious dumpling – so good that its tomato and cilantro dipping sauce was almost a distraction.
After the surprise of the samsa, I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t try the baksh (chicken and cilantro rice) that Eduard had mentioned. At Tandoori, they only make this dish for Shabbat dinner parties of 10 people or more, so I ordered pilav instead.
Almost every country in Asia has its own riff on pilav, and this Bukharan interpretation – with cumin-fried rice, caramelized carrots and chunks of tender lamb – was particularly delicious (and even better at breakfast the next day).
I’d always heard that you could travel the world for the price of a Metrocard in New York, but it wasn’t until after I took a ride in Eduard Zavlanov’s taxi that I realized I could also take a virtual trip on the Silk Road. The old trade routes may no longer exist, but the food of his ancestors – cultivated by so many ancient spice swaps – endures at Tandoori.
Tandoori Food & Bakery
99-04 63rd Rd. – Rego Park, Queens
Closed Friday afternoon until Saturday evening
Note: Tandoori is a few blocks away from 108th St., a.k.a. Bukharan Broadway, where you can also find a high concentration of good Bukharan food. If you want to dig deeper into these flavors, check out this piece from Time Out for some suggestions. But please don’t leave the area without trying a samsa from Tandoori.