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New York Dispatch: Boogie Boarding Babies & Lamb Burgers

“Not hungry!” Zorba exclaimed…”But you’ve not had a bite since morning. The body’s got a soul, too, have pity on it. Give it something to eat, boss, give it something; it’s our beast of burden, you know. If you don’t feed it, it’ll leave you stranded in the middle o’ the road.”
– Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

The middle o’ the road was exactly where I was when a mom, a toddler, a stroller and a giant shopping bag with a boogie board hailed me on 10th Avenue.

My stomach growled as we inched uptown and I listened to mom try to pacify Millie by telling her they would stop for a slice of pizza before they went home.

“Millie, why are you acting like this? Don’t you want a slice?” Mom said, “You can drop us on 111th and Broadway.”

I know it’s totally rude to make it obvious that you’re eavesdropping on your passengers, but since it was apparent that mom was a New Yorker and since the pizza negotiations were starting to get loud, I said:

“Do you mind if I ask you where you’re going to pizza?”

Mom paused.

Millie stopped fussing, “What did the lady ask you?”

“Oh, we’re just going to Famiglia. It’s a chain, but it’s right by our house.”

Visions of original New York pizza dashed.

“But there’s a great restaurant called Vareli on Broadway between 111 and 112,” Mom said, “It’s Mediterranean food. Everything they make is good. But I love their lamb burger. And their Turkish flatbread.”

Of course there was no parking when I drove past Vareli after I dropped off Mom and Millie. As I promised myself I’d be back for the lamb burger, I remembered the days before I started driving a taxi when I would ask cabbies where they liked to stop and eat on duty.

Sometimes they disappointed me when they mentioned places like Blimpie and Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s (But when I started driving – and waking up the parking and bathroom realities of New York – I could see how a cabbie might be tempted to hit these spots).

But the worst answer, an answer I refused to understand – an answer I’ve heard in Buenos Aires, New York and Berlin – was this one: “I don’t eat when I’m driving. I don’t have time.”

On Sunday, after an unusually slow morning and under the ensuing threat of not being able to pay back my lease fee to the garage, I finally achieved some empathy with those drivers who don’t eat on duty. Like them, I couldn’t afford to stop.

24 hours later, off duty, on foot, and hungry for a lamb burger, I walked into the oak and soft lights of Vareli’s dining room – where the host wore an ‘I heart NY’ t-shirt, R&B slid through the speakers, and I was the only customer in the house.

I knew I wanted a lamb burger ($14), but after spotting wines from places like Galilee and the Basque Country on their list, I was lost and tempted to splurge. A singing server guided me to a ‘peppery’ glass of Austrian Zweigelt ($8), a medium-bodied red that they’re going to remove from the list despite its deliciousness because “the vintner isn’t selling it anymore.” I drank to transience.

And I blessed the hassled mother with fantastic taste in food when I took my first bite of lamb burger. Cooked to a juicy rare, flecked with fresh mint, topped with pickled onions, tomatoes and barely-there harissa, it was Mediterranean glorious. Its airy bun didn’t disintegrate, but it didn’t totally do the burger justice. The side of skin-on herb fries (crispy, greaseless, seasoned with flat leaf parsley) did.

I left Zorba the Greek on the table and gave my burger and fries and wine the attention they deserved, watching repeat customers settle at the bar, catching strains of salsa music from the kitchen downstairs, savoring the deceptive simplicity of what I was eating, blurring the memory of my first and last on-duty fast.

Vareli Map it
2869 Broadway (at 111th St.) – Morningside Heights
Tel. (212) 678-8585 ‎
Open: Sun-Wed 11:30am–11:45pm; Thurs-Sat 11:30am-2am
Credit cards accepted
Recommended: Lamb burger, espresso, server-suggested wines

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