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New York Dispatch: Top 5 Food Finds of 2011

Every year cabbies surprise me, inspire me and disappoint me with their food knowledge. This year, so did the passengers in my cab.

Here are my five favorite New York-based, taxi-assisted food finds from 2011, courtesy of a few wise cabbies, and some very food-savvy passengers:

1. Chicken tikka masala and roti: When I lived in Astoria, I must have walked by Roti Boti twenty times before cabbie Abdul finally convinced me to try it. They were out of his favorite chicken biryani when I went, so I curbed my disappointment with chicken tikka masala. Loaded with ginger and fresh thyme and plenty of the tomato cream sauce that makes this dish so delicious, Roti Boti’s chicken tikka masala is one of the better versions I’ve tried in New York. Basmati rice might be chicken tikka’s more logical sauce-absorbing companion, but roti is an even better foil: Chewy and warm and oven blistered, it will make you want to try everything that touches the tandoori here.
(Roti Boti / 27-09 21st St (near Newtown Ave) / Astoria / Tel. 718-278-7888 / Open 24 hours / Chicken tikka masala, $9; Roti, $1Map it )

walkers woods jamaican restaurant new york2. Oxtails with rice and peas and sweet plantains: Oxtails at this Spanish Harlem storefront are smothered in simple brown sauce and fatty in all the right places. Sweet plantains leave no grease on your fingers. But rice and peas, simmered in coconut milk, are maybe the most remarkable part of this dish. Save room for rum cake – which showcases its star ingredient without letting it take over. There’s a reason Walkers Woods sells out of this dessert every day. It’s the same reason Max and Gillian and daughter, the passengers who told me this is their favorite Jamaican restaurant in New York, make the trek here from the Bronx as often as they can.
(Walkers Woods Caribbean American Restaurant, 2135 2nd Avenue (at 110th Street) / Tel. 212-996-2310 / Open: 8am-11pm / 7 days a week / Oxtails, $10 with two sides – Map it )

3. Steamed catfish in black bean sauce: Hop Shing may be known for dim sum, pineapple buns (Bau Lo Bao) and roast pork buns (Cha Siu Bao), but the cab driver who led me to this classic Chinatown restaurant steered me in a totally different direction. His ‘Lam Chops’ were on the menu, but his favorite steamed catfish in black bean sauce wasn’t. “If I walked in here tomorrow and ordered steamed catfish in black bean sauce,” I asked the waiter, “Would you make it for me?” Yes, he assured me, they would. So you should try it. The bone-in catfish could sometimes be fresher, but the black bean sauce – with fresh ginger and garlic and scallions – is something you’ll want every grain of rice to soak up.
( Hop Shing / 9 Chatham Sq (near East Broadway) / Chinatown / Tel. (212) 267-0220 / Open: Mon-Thur, 7am-9pm; Fri-Sat, 7am-10pm; Sun, 7am-9.30pm / Steamed catfish in black bean sauce, $10.95 / Map it )

4. Lamb Burger: I forgave the hassled mother who blew her top at me when the credit card machine in the cab stopped working when I took my first bite of the lamb burger she’d recommended. Cooked to a juicy rare, flecked with fresh mint, topped with pickled onions, tomatoes and barely-there harissa, it is Mediterranean glorious. Its airy bun doesn’t fall apart, but it doesn’t totally do the burger justice. The side of skin-on herb fries (seasoned with flat leaf parsley) does.
(Vareli / 2869 Broadway (at 111th St.) – Morningside Heights / Tel. (212) 678-8585 ‎/ Open: Sun-Wed 11:30am–11:45pm; Thurs-Sat 11:30am-2am / Lamb burger, $14 – Map it )

Photo by Amy Cao

5. Chicken in a Pot: When I asked cabbie Saliou Seck what he would eat if he only had 24 hours in New York, chicken in a pot at Ben’s Deli in Midtown Manhattan was his answer. At $17.99, it’s more expensive than most dishes that cabbies recommend, but if you’re short on cash you could easily split this soup/stew with one or two other people. Abundance isn’t the only thing going for it: the broth has the intensity of flavor that comes with slow cooking, you can cut the chicken with a spoon, peas and carrots are cooked to crispy, and the matzo ball is so delicate it almost disintegrates in your mouth. The tough dough on the kreplach is the only unimpressive ingredient in a soup that “cures everything,” according to the sign above Ben’s door. Maybe he’s not exaggerating.
( Ben’s Kosher Deli / 209 W 38th St / Phone: 212-398-2367 / Open: Dining Room Daily 11am-9pm; Take Out Daily 9am-9pm / Chicken in a pot, $17.99 – Map it )

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