When I asked Famous Fat Dave – the Hungry Cabbie who’s known for his Five Borough Eating Tour on the Wheels of Steel – where and what he would eat if he had only 24 hours left in New York City, I found panic in his eyes.
“What do you mean I have 24 hours left? Am I being exiled? I can never come back?” His voice approached the anxiety of a lover being torn from his beloved.
“Where am I being sent? Do they have Jamaican food there? 24 hours – does that mean breakfast, lunch, and dinner, or can I eat the whole time?”
I thought it might be a challenging – maybe even cruel – question for the Hungry Cabbie to answer. But I still wanted to know. When I gave him permission to add or subtract from his list, he took a deep breath and plunged into a hypothetical Final Feast.
“Basically I’d do my own tour. A slice from Patsy’s on 118th and 1st Ave [the original Patsy’s! Not the satellite locations]. A Nathan’s hot dog, a pickle from the Pickle Guys, a bagel from Ess-a-Bagel –”
Are you salivating yet?
“There are certain places you don’t want to miss,” he continued, “Spumoni from Spumoni Gardens in Brooklyn, a chocolate peanut butter chip cookie from Levain Bakery on 74th and Amsterdam – have you been there? You’d love that place. A tres leches donut from Doughnut Plant. Definitely the Morir Soñando from Reben Luncheonette – I had one of those earlier today…”
This was the sweet course. He wasn’t finished.
We happened to be sipping hibiscus tea – a Mediterranean version of warm cider, garnished with apple slices – and waiting on a plate of koshari at Kabab Café as the Hungry Cabbie put the finishing touches on his Last Supper.
Dave’s stomach was still blissed out from his Morir Soñando, but hunger pangs were ricocheting through mine after listening to his imaginary gastronomic send-off.
Aside from his love for koshari, Dave explained that he’d brought me to Kabab Cafe because “it’s where all the cabbies USED to go before Ali [El Sayed] became a foodie giant.”
Back in 1989, Kabab Cafe was the first North African restaurant on what was then a predominantly Greek section of Steinway Street. Thanks to Ali El Sayed’s trailblazing, and an infusion of hookah bars and ‘Middle Eastern’ restaurants, the area is now known as Little Egypt.
Chowhounds sang his praises. The New York Times gave its stamp of approval, despite the absence of a formal menu. Bourdain and Zimmern raved, featuring Kabab Cafe on the Travel Channel (after Dave turned Bourdain’s producer on to the place).
But when Jamie Oliver pulled up a chair at one of Ali’s seven wobbly tables and compared his Egyptian soup to minestrone, the chef from Alexandria revealed a temper that’s just as famous as his food: “You Europeans think you can come in and put a label on everything! You can’t compare my soup to minestrone! Minestrone my dick!”
As with any artist, Ali’s food is an extension of his mood. If you compare his soup to minestrone or his sausage to merguez, his contempt could show up on your plate, and you might get hit with an outburst that would make the Soup Nazi cower.
But if you work your way into his good graces, as the Hungry Cabbie certainly has, Ali will put you on the fast track to ecstasy. Not only did he spend his formative years in a kitchen with great cooks – including Mom, whose picture is on the wall – he’s also cognizant of the history, the geography, and the suffering at the root of his dishes. Ali’s gift goes beyond understanding the synergies of spices. His food wields ancestral force.
Take his koshari: a peasant dish influenced by Indians who brought their culinary traditions to Egypt with the English occupation, it’s a combination of lentils, rice, and macaroni that could easily fall flat in someone else’s kitchen.
But Ali perfumes his koshari with coriander seeds, mixes it with caramelized onions and serves it over plates of za’atar with ground thyme and sumac. At first blush, it’s comfort food. After a few bites, the spices start to surface, and you realize all that Ali can coax from his ingredients.
When Dave told me that he looks at food through the lens of “life, love, sex, death and history,” I heard what he was saying. When I ate Ali’s koshari, I tasted what he meant. If I had only 24 hours left in New York City, I’d spend a few of them here, too.
25-12 Steinway St. – Astoria, Queens
Open: Tues-Sun, 1-5pm; 6-10pm