I’ve said before that I rarely get the chance to try the same restaurant twice. So when cabbie Laskar Korshed told me that Tangra Masala was his favorite place to eat, I jumped at the chance to see whether the Indian-Chinese food at this 10-table storefront in Elmhurst was as delicious as I remembered.
But before the cabbie from Dhaka, Bangladesh delivered me to what would end up being an explosive lunch, he gave me an earful about the difficulties of driving a taxi in New York: “We’re frustrated. Every single thing is against the taxi driver. Our costs are going up, and business is going down. I work 12 hours, and I make $70-80. That’s not enough.”
And when you add traffic tickets to the mix, Laskar said it makes things even more challenging: “I got six tickets in July – three at Penn Station. People jump in my cab where I’m not allowed to pick up passengers, and I get blamed.”
After six years behind the wheel, he’s ready to give it up, but he can’t figure out what he wants to do instead (and he has no desire to return to Dhaka).
When I told him that I’m in the process of getting my hack license, I don’t think he believed me. But he did warn me that it’s not a job to work long-term: “Two, three, four years maximum.”
The cabbie’s fire changed color when we got to talking about food, especially when he professed his love for Tangra Masala. When I pressed him about his favorite dishes, he just kept telling me that everything on the menu was good. He’s right, as far as I can tell.
After I saw that the chili pepper symbols on Tangra Masala’s menu had changed to flames, I fought the urge to order the lollipop chicken I’d tasted on my first trip there.
I also let the server steer me away from Hakka noodles (“They’re not spicy at all,” she sniffed). Manchow soup was what I wanted, she assured me, along with Manchurian chow mein.
Cue burning lips, watering eyes, and flaming skin. Five spoonfuls into my soup, I noticed I was the only person there who was wiping her nose. Once I got past the combusting chilies, there was garlic, cilantro, and ginger upon ginger. If an exclamation mark had a flavor, it might taste something like Manchow soup.
And if noodles had any say in how they’d like to be stir-fried, they’d want to end up as Manchurian chow mein. If I could make ginger, garlic, scallions, bird chilies (coarsely chopped), chicken, cabbage, bean sprouts and egg noodles come together this way – part zip, part aromatics, no grease – I might have a hard time going out to eat.
Even with all of this border-defying flavor, there are things you can’t do at Tangra Masala. In deference to Islamic tradition, they don’t allow alcohol (Read: no beer to diffuse the heat). Credit cards are a no-no, as are strollers (no space). Though it’s too clean to qualify as a hole in the wall, plastic and linoleum are all around, and gold-tassled curtains can’t camouflage the grim windows or the view of the bus stop. But once you taste the food, none of this matters.
I’m hoping that the same will be true once I get behind the wheel – that despite the restrictions, despite the injustices, despite the grueling pieces of the job that Laskar described, there will be some people who get into my cab and make me forget how difficult it is – even if it’s just for a ride.
87-09 Grand Ave. – Elmhurst, Queens
Open: Sun-Thurs: Noon-10pm; Fri. & Sat: Noon-11pm
Subway: V, R to Grand Ave.