I admit to being biased in favor of taxi drivers (even more so now that I am one) and to having faith in their culinary judgment (at least until they prove me wrong).
But sometimes a conversation with a cabbie reveals assumptions I didn’t know I was carrying around. I love it when this happens.
Thursday night, when my co-adventurer and I got into Mustapha K.’s cab on 8th Ave. and he told us he was from Morocco, it took a lot of willpower to keep from begging him to take us to the best tagine in the city within the first 30 seconds.
I held off, though. I’ve discovered I’m more likely to get a good restaurant recommendation after I’ve put the driver at ease with a few simple questions (e.g. what’s your name, where were you born, did you do something else before you started driving a cab?)
By the time I was ready to fire the tagine question at Mustapha, we’d discovered that he’s a mechanical engineer who speaks five languages fluently: Arabic, English, French, Italian, and Spanish. I was taken aback when he told us that he doesn’t miss Morocco: “I don’t miss much. [New York] is my home.”
Since he started driving a cab in 1989, Mustapha has also taught himself to cook. He had his dinner – chicken and vegetables – packed in a thermal bag. He even offered me some, but we got where we were going before I could actually taste anything.
When I finally got around to quizzing the cabbie about his favorite thing to eat, his answer wasn’t what I expected: “A big steak with roasted potatoes and rosemary.”
“Where do you go to get that?”
“I make it myself!”
He also makes his own Moroccan food. But when the cabbie hasn’t had time to cook, and even while he’s driving, Mustapha likes to stop at Floridita in West Harlem for Cuban food.
Though he was too shy to let me take his picture when he dropped us off at the restaurant – “I look terrible today” – he was quick to tell us about their chicken with rice and beans.
Celia Cruz belted out “La negra tiene tumbao” while we studied the menu beneath fluorescent lights and fake palm trees. Besides Mustapha’s chicken, they had four kinds of mofongo, seven varieties of tortilla española, asopado and Cuban sandwiches. Breakfast looked amazing: yuca with fried cheese, tostones, and mangu (mashed plantains with olive oil) seven ways. A pitcher of mojitos only cost $20.
Celia was still going strong when we got down to business with pollo Floridita (butterflied chicken breast grilled with onions), tostones (mashed, fried green plantains), pescado en salsa (bone-in white fish poached in a tomato-based sauce with sauteed peppers and onions), red beans, black beans and ‘saffron’ rice.
Though the tostones needed a little salt and the chicken was overcooked, we loved the tomato sauce on our pescado. But the red beans (rich with pork fat) and rice were the best part of the meal. If I went back to Floridita, they’re the one thing I’d be sure to order again.
On our way out, we chatted with Yoisha S., who’s been working at Floridita for ten years and told us that the restaurant’s been around for the past 29.
“I used to be a customer,” she said. Of all the Cuban restaurants in New York, this is by far her favorite. Even though she happens to be from the Dominican Republic.
3219 Broadway (near 129th St.) – Harlem
Open: 7 days, 7am-midnight
Appetizers: $2.50-12.95; Mains: $8.95-23.95