To ride in Troy Johnson’s cab was to get a taste of New York City in its glory days. To eat at El Quijote, his favorite restaurant in Manhattan, on the ground floor of the Chelsea Hotel, was to be transported to another time and place. So you can understand why my heart broke a little when I came across this article, which confirmed the rumors about the closure of El Quijote as we know it. In honor of this 84-year-old restaurant, and the cabby who introduced me to it, here (again) is the story of my first (and last) meal there.
[The city] carries on its lapel the unexpungeable odor of the long past, so that no matter where you sit in New York you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds, of queer people and events and undertakings.
– E.B. White, “Here is New York“
Troy Johnson spent the 1960s at the helm of disco in Brooklyn. In the 1970s, he opened a boutique in the West Village and feasted on soul food at the Pink Teacup, where John Lennon also loved to eat.
He spent the 1980s as a man of leisure, traveling around Europe and falling in love in Brazil (After bringing his lover back to New York, they couldn’t make it work).
By 1995 his money ran out, and he started to drive a taxi. Even though he’s losing his hearing (I had to shout my questions at him through the partition – was it the years at the disco?), he’s still at it after fifteen years.
When my co-adventurers and I hopped into Troy’s back seat, he told us “you’re not gonna get rich driving a cab.” And that his girlfriend of 18 years had just left him “because I wouldn’t get married.”
“I said it from the beginning,” he said, “But she hung around. If a guy ain’t gonna marry you after three years, you better hit the road.”
He admitted he was having a hard time letting go of his ex. To ease the pain, he’d just picked up turkey wings, smothered pork and pig’s feet from RCL Enterprises, the soul food restaurant that’s going to be the subject of Part 2 of this adventure.
When we asked the cabbie – who grew up in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn and now lives in Union Square – about his favorite food in Manhattan, he led us to El Quijote, the Spanish restaurant where he’s been eating paella valenciana since 1958.
“And the restaurant’s even older than that!” he said.
Judging from the polyester uniforms on the middle-aged waiters, the fading windmill mural on the wall, the music from “Cats” and “Evita” that piped through the speakers, Troy wasn’t fooling.
We spread linen napkins across our laps, eyed the pink and blue neon, and squinted at the long, leather-bound menu, where I read that the Minister of Spain had declared El Quijote “the best Spanish restaurant of any country in the world outside of Spain” in 2002. The dining room was empty except for us.
We ordered a half pitcher of “secret sangria…from the same coveted recipes passed on for generations by [owner] Manny’s family.” It was smooth and fruity and not too sweet. Dangerously easy to drink, as the best sangrias are. Delicious – especially for $16.
While we waited for Troy’s paella valenciana ($19.95), we went crazy over the side salads that came with the pollo quijote lunch special ($12.95) we ordered. Rather, we went crazy over the dressings: blue cheese that was as thick and chunky as my grandma’s and a punchy vinaigrette loaded with onions and red peppers.
The seafood in Troy’s paella – jumbo shrimp, plump mussels, giant clams – was impressive, too. Apparently owner Manny Ramirez harbors a Spaniard’s obsession for fish. According to his menu, “he was the first to establish his own fishing boats along the coast of Maine so as to offer generous portions with the emphasis always on FRESH.” We could taste that freshness, even if the rice was overcooked and so much chorizo made the dish too salty.
The chef had also been heavy-handed with the salt in our pollo quijote. But we still appreciated the combination of onions, garlic, olive oil, tomato and red wine that had worked its way into chicken thighs that we cut with butter knives. We left a side of over-fried potatoes pretty much alone, overwhelmed by the portion sizes. The two dishes we’d ordered could have easily fed four people.
As we lingered over cups of “El Quijote’s famous Spanish coffee,” which turned out to be a justifiably famous cafe con leche, I got to thinking about E.B. White, who believed that “no matter where you sit in New York, you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds.”
Nowhere is this more true than at El Quijote – and in the back seat of Troy’s cab.