Back in January, I was interviewing Rashed K. from Bangladesh for a story on New York cabbies’ favorite restaurants,* and he started off telling me he usually eats at McDonald’s and Wendy’s.
“I have diabetes and high cholesterol,” he said, “I order the grilled things.”
Since I started driving a cab, statements like this no longer alarm me.
When your blood sugar is low and you’re afraid you won’t be able to make your daily lease payment, McDonald’s and Wendy’s and the Dunkin’ Donuts at the gas station actually start to look OK. (Yep, I admit it: a few shifts ago, I was having a particularly slow day, so I surrendered to desperation and made lunch out of a $3 flatbread sandwich from Dunkin’. Flog me if you want.)
But I had a feeling that Rashed, like me, doesn’t always resort to fast food.
Sure enough, as we made our way from Manhattan to Queens, the cabbie (who used to work for a catering company before he started driving a cab three years ago) began reminiscing about the Chinese food in Bangladesh:
“It’s different. It’s not fast food there.” He told us about a place in New York that makes Bangladeshi-Chinese “75% close to the way we cook [it] back home.”
Two months passed before I enlisted a group of food pilgrims to hop the F train to Jamaica to try Rashed’s restaurant.
When the five of us finally walked into Sagar Chinese, we all started coughing from the chili pepper smoke. A good sign.
When we caught sight of all the chili pepper symbols on the menu, we licked our lips.
And when the waiter carried a steaming platter of garlic and chilies across the room, we coughed some more before we grabbed him on his way back to the kitchen.
“What is that?”
We ordered it. Along with chili fish, Sagar fried rice with chicken and vegetable hakka chow mein (recommended by Rashed), gobi masala (curried cauliflower) and an off-menu appetizer that the waiter suggested we try.
We were already keen on our waiter (a gangly teenager who’d been on the job for two weeks), but we liked him even more after we tasted his appetizer: potato-battered shrimp and zucchini fritters with a carrot-sweetened red chili dipping sauce. We fought over the last one (crispy, light and fried to golden) and ceded half of it to the fishetarian in our group.
The fritters sent our expectations into an upward spiral, so we were a little disappointed when we tasted some of our mains.
The vegetable hakka noodles and chicken fried rice (made with basmati but missing grease and garlic) that Rashed had raved about elicited a collective “meh.”
The sizzling chicken that had seduced us with its heady smell wasn’t nearly as explosive or flavorful as we expected it to be. Garlic was there, chili was there, along with a little sweetness, but I wondered whether the cooks had toned down the spiciness on our behalf.
Gobi masala (curry-battered cauliflower with onions and bird chilies that one member of the group claimed might be the best version cauliflower she’s ever tasted) and chili fish (in a delicious garlic-powered brown sauce with more bird chilies) easily set themselves apart from the rest.
But we were up in the air about whether these dishes were good enough for a return visit – and a little surprised when our waiter told us that people come from New Jersey and Pennsylvania to eat at Sagar.
That very day, a couple had made the trip from Virginia, filled their car with takeout, turned around and driven straight back home. Had we ordered the wrong things? Had we missed something? What was so wonderful about the place?
Dessert is what’s so wonderful about Sagar. Dessert in the form of Sagar rasmalai (cottage cheese and flour balls flavored with cardomom and bathed in sweet milk), mango ice cream with actual chunks of mango, and sweet dhodi (yogurt mixed with caramelized sweetened condensed milk with a texture somewhere between cheesecake and mousse that reminded me of tres leches cake minus the cake).
When we found out the sweets came from Sagar Sweets & Restaurant around the corner, we ran over to the Indian-Bangladeshi buffet and bought tubs of the amazing sweet dhodi ($6 a pound) to take home.
Suddenly the journey on the F-train seemed a small sacrifice for what was the greatest yogurt any of us had ever tasted. As we tried to figure out what made it so good (Did they use mango? How did they achieve that silky texture?), we knew we’d be back – thanks to the diabetic cabbie who’d led us there.
87-47 Home Lawn Street – Jamaica, Queens
Tel. (718) 657-3333
Open: Mon-Thu,Sun 12:30pm-10:30pm; Fri-Sat 12:30pm-11pm
Credit cards accepted
Subway: F to 169th St.
Sagar Sweets & Restaurant
168-25 Hillside Avenue – Jamaica, Queens
Tel. (718) 298-5696
Open: 7 days, 9am-11pm
Credit cards accepted
Subway: F to 169th St.
*The story is going to be published in My Midwest magazine in May – I’ll share it once it’s in print.