In Argentina, I quickly realized that signals might get crossed if I asked a cabbie to join me for a meal after delivering me to his favorite restaurant.
As much as I wanted to continue the conversation, I was afraid that most taxistas would interpret my invitation to dine as an offer to get naked (In Buenos Aires, it’s common knowledge that an invitation to coffee equals an invitation to bed).
Since transplanting the taxi adventures to New York, I’ve been hesitant about asking cabbies to break bread with me for different reasons. In Gotham, time really is money: a half hour break from hacking can add up to $30 of lost revenue.
But when a cabbie is off duty, it’s a different story. Which is why Huseyin Kanal and his amazing girlfriend Courtney agreed to meet my co-adventurer Lilian M. and me at Bay Ridge Shish Kebab & Gyro last night.
Back in January, Lilian and I hailed Huseyin somewhere near Union Square. After he guided us to Adana kebab at Uskudar and led us to extraordinary baklava at Gulluoglu, we knew we had to try his favorite spot for chicken gyro in New York. When he agreed to meet us there, we were even more inspired to check it out.
By the time our mixed appetizers ($7.99) got to the table, the four of us were chatting like old friends. Huseyin and I shared stories of our escapades behind the wheel (He’s been on Japanese TV for a feature about NY cabbies and for some reason keeps getting fares to Columbia University, where he may apply for an MBA).
He also revealed some secrets about the best avenues to find customers (Naturally, I’ve been driving on the wrong streets, which might explain why I only made $2 last Saturday. When I told him this, he was visibly pained: “Maybe I could give you some of my passengers?”).
I paid close attention to the cabbie’s words of wisdom while gobbling up fabulous haydari (yogurt with garlic, dill and walnuts), tabuleh, and the best hummus (smooth, creamy, replete with garlic) and babaganush (smoky, with just the right touch of tahini) I’ve tasted in New York to date. Meanwhile, one bite of Courtney’s red lentil soup was enough for me – it was way over-salted.
Before we knew it, our chicken gyro ($7.99) made it to the table, along with Huseyin’s Adana kebab ($7.99, grilled minced lamb with red peppers that’s a specialty of his home province in southern Turkey).
Lilian and I weren’t surprised that the chicken on our gyro platter (marinated and seasoned by its own fat on a rotisserie) was so full of flavor, but the Turkish pilaf that went with it (long grain rice with orzo pasta and what I guessed was loads of butter) turned out to be equally addictive.
Huseyin and Courtney nodded knowingly as we tore into the dish, confessing that they’d been unable to resist ordering the gyro for dinner the night before.
“We order from here three or four times a week,” Courtney said, “I think we keep them in business.”
We pulled away from the gyro to steal bites of Huseyin’s Adana kebab, which was seasoned more aggressively than the version at Uskudar but seemed to use lesser quality lamb.
It was probably a combination of Huseyin’s Turkish, Courtney’s charm, and the departure of our disaster of a waitress (who was inexplicably stingy about her silverware), that moved the new owner to give us dessert on the house.
Though we were the last customers in the restaurant, a friend of the owner’s offered to refill our tea (Lipton black made delicious by Turkish-style double boiling) while we scooped up cinnamon-topped rice pudding (which I’d order again) and milk pudding (rich but plain) and fantasized about meeting up somewhere in the Middle East.
In the meantime, a Turkish soap opera unfolded on the flat screen, a cook cleaned the flat top, and our conversation fogged up the windows while the night fell below freezing.
Bay Ridge Shish Kebab and Gyro
7224 5th Avenue, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn
Tel. (718) 238-7095
Open: 7 days, 11am-11pm
Credit cards accepted
Appetizers: $4.79-12.99; Mains: $7.99-18.99