Whenever I start to mentally prepare for a taxi adventure, I’m usually wondering where I’m going to end up – and who’s going to take me there.
Before today’s escapade, the big question was whether three days of taxi school – and the quest for a yellow cab license – would make the adventure from the back seat feel any different. Five minutes into my ride with Kamal Aftab, I knew that the answer was ‘yes.’
When I asked the cabbie – who came to New York in 1980 from Lahore, Pakistan – about the hardest part of the job, I was no longer quizzing him out of pure curiosity.
Assuming that I pass the taxi exam and get my hack license on December 11, I’ll need all the insights I can get from guys like Kamal, who’s been in the driver’s seat on and off for the past 23 years.
Like most cabbies who work the day shift, he starts at 4am. For him, the number one difficulty is dealing with passengers who are deep into drunkenness in the wee small hours of the morning.
Number two would be “people who stiff you,” followed by traffic, which he says he’s learned to manage. Judging from our uber-relaxed journey from Astoria to Jackson Heights, I believed him.
Despite his desire to escape hacking, neither warehouse work nor elevator maintenance nor auto repair suited Kamal, and the two bodegas he opened went bankrupt. He even tried his luck in Miami for two years, but the ‘security’ of driving a taxi brought him back to New York.
“I’m not a businessman,” he told me, “If I had a chance to do something else I would, but I don’t want to take any more risks.”
When it comes to restaurants, he also plays his cards close to his chest. The cabbie had no trouble naming his favorites – all Central Asian kabab houses – and telling me precisely what each place does best.
When he goes to Kabul Kabob House in Flushing, he always gets Qabeli Polo (kabob with rice, carrots and raisins), beef tikka and baklava for dessert. At Tandoor in Rego Park, he likes chicken tikka masala and onion naan.
Kamal seemed a little less enthusiastic about Kabab King Diner in Jackson Heights (“It’s dirty, you don’t want to go there.”), but when he told me he was a fan of their nihari (Pakistani beef stew), keema paratha, and beef biriyani, I made him stop the cab.
When I walked into the 24 hour Indian-Pakistani-Chinese cafeteria, the first thing I noticed was the bug zapper.
A server watched me grab a seat at the only empty table as he sliced ginger into a metal bin. My chair rocked opposite a trash can piled with dirty dishes. Fluorescent lights exposed the grime on wall-mounted fans. Urdu folk music pumped through the speakers.
It was the archetypal hole in the wall. But it was as I’d told the cabbie: filth didn’t matter as long as the food was good.
What made it hard to be objective about what I was about to eat was the way I was treated. The ginger-peeling server ignored me when it was obvious that I was ready to order, and the girl who doted on the 4-top next door acted as if I was crashing her party.
When I finally persuaded them to bring me the dishes that Kamal had recommended, I was prepared to be wowed, ready to have my taste buds rocked, hoping the food would defy the dirt and the rudeness. It almost did.
The beef in the nihari fell apart when I touched it with my plastic fork, but there was no way the meat could compete with all of the oil in the sauce to absorb the flavor of the masala. I liked the keema paratha (flatbread stuffed with spiced ground beef) better, and when I dipped it in the nihari, the smokiness and heat in both dishes came out to play.
Lunch took a nosedive when I tasted the goat biriyani (the cabbie’s beef biriyani is only available on weekends). What had once been basmati rice was cooked until mushy, and the goat stomped all over the spices.
Moral of the story? A hole in the wall is a crap shoot: the only way to know whether the food surpasses the filth is to try it. In any case, I’d like to think that things taste better when Kamal goes to Kabab King, and I’m still intrigued by his other two recommendations.
Kabab King Diner
73-01 37th Road, Jackson Heights, Queens
Credit cards accepted
Open: 24 hours/7 days