It was a dark and stormy Saturday when Lemie pulled over on the corner of 40th St. and 8th Avenue.
When I asked the cabbie if I could interview him while he drove us to 60th/Lex, he said “no.” I wouldn’t be any good, he told me, I’d stutter the whole time.
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t push. But I sensed something below the surface of his shyness: “Are you sure? You seem really well-spoken to me.”
“All right,” he shrugged, “Get in.”
Over the next 20 minutes, Lemie (who grew up in Queens and used to own a bodega) expressed frustration over the taxi scam that’s rocking New York (“Now everyone’s going to think we’re trying to cheat them.”), giving me his copy of The Daily News so I could read about it myself.
He shared stories of some of his more memorable passengers: his very first fare was a woman who tried to pay him with two cans of Folger’s coffee. His most colorful customer? A New Year’s Eve fare he had to carry up three flights of stairs while his girlfriend spanked him the entire way (the guy never woke up).
Lemie softened even more when I told him I’d recently started driving a cab. When he first started hacking seven years ago, he was so terrified of getting lost in the Village, he’d turn on his off-duty light whenever he found himself there. Eventually, he realized that screwing up (i.e. getting lost) was the only way to learn the neighborhood.
By the time we got to talking about food, Lemie had fully shed his armor, confessing that the Puerto Rican food he grew up with was his favorite thing to eat – and that his preferred place to get it was Cuchifritos in Spanish Harlem (but only when he’s off duty).
Since he’s been going there for forty years (ever since he was in the womb), the cabbie was clear about what we should order: rice and beans, alcapurrias [torpedo-shaped fritters made with yucca flour], bacalao [codfish fritters], and pasteles [plaintain flour tamales].
The good thing about Cuchifritos, Lemie said, is that the food stays fresh because it turns over quickly. The place is always crowded.
The cabbie was right. After we ogled the deep-fried buffet that was steaming up the windows, Katie and I were lucky to find a place at the counter. (Even though there are no tables at Cuchifritos, it’s the kind of place where you can eat and run – or eat and linger while chatting with the stranger next to you.)
As we searched for Lemie’s favorites on the wall-mounted menu, I noticed a framed front page from The Daily News that read “Cuchifritos Forever!”
Between red neon, furious fluorescents and staff uniforms that reminded Katie of Coney Island, we forgot about the storm outside.
Our frituras arrived in a flash, along with tamarindo and parcha [passion fruit] juices that came from cans but tasted like a tropical party anyway.
True to the cabbie’s word, everything was fresh – even though the codfish fritter was fishier than I liked and the pastel that we thought was going to be a tamale turned out to be a spoonful of beef in a handful of fried dough.
Our alcapurria – crispy outside, soft and dense inside, stuffed with flavorful mixture of beef and peppers – was the winner in the deep-fried contest. I overheard others ordering it, too.
Katie and I agreed that alcapurria was what we’d order again if we came back to Cuchifritos. Alcapurria, along with saffron rice and gandules (pigeon peas flavored with sofrito, salt pork and adobo), which gave us the strength to return to the storm.
As we wrestled with our umbrellas on the way to the subway, we tried to figure out which part of the adventure we’d remember most. Our artery-endangering alcapurria? Our comforting pigeon peas? The cool staff at Cuchifritos, who let us taste the jugo de parcha before we decided to order a cup?
Or would it be Lemie, the straight-up cabbie who refuses $5 tips, who carries drunk passengers up the stairs, who singles out lady cab drivers for their bravery? In the end, it all converged in a happy Nuyorican haze that made us laugh at the rain.
168 E 116th St (between 3rd Ave & Lexington Ave) – Spanish Harlem
Tel. (212) 876-4846