Five years ago this month, just before leaving New York City for Berlin, I compiled a list of my 15 favorite cabby-recommended dishes in the Big Apple.
Of course, a lot has changed in five years: some restaurants have closed, some have raised their prices, and some have, unfortunately, lowered their standards. After my last trip to New York, I thought it was high time to bring this list up to date.
Once again, I give you, updated, slightly trimmed, and still in random order, my list of the 14 things I’d most want to eat if I had 24 hours in New York City (Please don’t ask me to rank these dishes. It was hard enough keep it to 14!):
1. Baklava at Güllüoglu Baklava & Cafe – The only bad thing about the baklava at Güllüoglu Baklava & Cafe, which is airlifted from Istanbul and baked fresh every day by a Turkish pastry master in Brooklyn, is the distance it has to travel to reach its fans in New York. Güllüoglu’s is the baklava that taxi driver Huseyin Kanal used to deliver when he first arrived in New York from Turkey two years ago. To this day, he claims it’s the best in the city. I agree with him, especially when it comes to sour cherry and walnut.
(982 2nd Ave at 52nd St, Midtown East, (212) 813-0500 and 1985 Coney Island Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11223, (718) 645-1822 – Map it)
2. Tira de asado at El Gauchito – Side-cut ribs as delicious as the steaks I learned to love in Buenos Aires. Even though the beef isn’t from Argentina (the restaurant does offer grass-fed Argentine beef, but it costs $35), it’s grilled to pink, perfectly salted, and beautifully marbled. Slather on their amazing chimichurri sauce, loaded with basil, oregano, flat-leaf parsley, vinegar and more garlic than would ever be allowed within the Buenos Aires city limits. This is where former cabbie Daniel Beccaria goes when he’s missing his home town – and where I would take anyone who wants to experience the warmth of a Buenos Aires parrilla.
(94-60 Corona Ave. – Elmhurst, Queens, Tel. 718-271-1917 (restaurant); 718-271-8198 (butcher shop), Open: Mon, Tues, Thurs & Sun, 12pm-10pm; Fri & Sat (12pm-11pm); closed Wednesdays – Map it)
3. Jojeh Kabab with Zereshk Polo at Kabul Kabob House – Delicious kabob and rice options are all over the menu at this Persian-Afghan restaurant in Flushing, but my absolute favorite is jojeh kabab with zereshk polo: saffron-marinated, bone-in pieces of Cornish hen served with basmati rice and barberries (the Persian equivalent of currants). A masterpiece – especially when you chase it with rose water ice cream. I’ll always be indebted to cabbie Kamal Aftab for leading me here.
(42-51 Main St. (between Cherry and Franklin Aves), Flushing, Queens, Tel. 718-461-1919, Open 7 days, 11am-11pm – Map it)
4. Goat curry at The Door – I’ve had the pleasure of trying a lot of goat since I came to New York. Cabbie Constance Marie Barnes was right when she told me that no place does a Jamaican version better than The Door. Goat isn’t for everyone – it can be too earthy for some – but this goat is simmered to tender and slathered in a mustard-heavy curry paste that plays on the meat’s strong flavor without muting it. Oxtail stew, corn bread and soups are also great here.
(163-07 Baisley Blvd., Jamaica, Queens, NY 11434, Tel. 718-525-1083, Hours: Sun-Thurs, 8am-10pm; Fri-Sat, 8am-12am – Live reggae on Saturdays – Map it)
5. Samsas at Tandoori Food & Bakery – I never imagined that a $2 samsa from an Uzbeki kosher tandoori oven in Queens would remind me of the otherworldly empanadas of northern Argentina – but it did. The filling – chunks of beef and onions laced with cumin – is more subdued than that of most Argentine empanadas, but the dough – buttery and beautifully browned – has the same chewy crispiness that only a clay oven can produce. This is one glorious dumpling – and its tomato and cilantro dipping sauce is a great foil. Cheers to cabbie Eduard Zavlanov for telling me about this place.
(99-04 63rd Rd. – Rego Park, Queens, Tel. 718-897-1071, closed Friday afternoon until Saturday evening – Map it)
6. Potato-battered chicken stuffed with mushrooms at Cherry Hill Gourmet Market – Almost everything at this Russian superdeli in Sheepshead Bay tastes as if it’s passed through a babushka’s capable hands, but there’s a magical quality to this chicken. Maybe it’s the contrasting textures: meat and mushrooms are moist and tender inside a super-crispy fried potato batter. Or maybe it comes down to the primal pleasure of hash browns. Whatever it is, it works.
(1901 Emmons Ave. (at Ocean Ave.) – Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, Tel: 718-616-1900. Open 24 hours, 7 days a week – Map it)
7. Grilled tilapia and jollof rice at Papaye – Godfred knew exactly what he was doing when he ordered this Ghanaian staple for me after our journey to the Bronx. The rice is loaded with palm oil, cayenne pepper and tomatoes and served with a smoky chili relish. The fish is grilled and served whole – head, tail, skin and bones – and so tender you can cut it with a plastic fork.
(2300 Grand Concourse (at 184th St.), Fordham, Bronx, Tel: 718-676-0771 – Map it)
8. Mofongo con camarones at Sofrito: Pork and green plantains are a wonderful combination, and there’s no greater proof than the mofongo at Sofrito. Topped with giant prawns and a light tomato sauce, this dish is an Afro-Puerto Rican masterpiece worthy of super cabbie Iris Javed. So is their mango panna cotta.
(400 E 57th St. – Midtown East, Tel. (212) 754-5999, Open 7 days – Map it)
9. Masala dosa at Ganapati Temple – Ganapati Temple is cabbie cum astrologer Vinod Dogra’s favorite place for dosas, the rice flour and black lentil crepes beloved throughout India. The masala dosa is the mildest on the temple’s menu, but it still pushes sweat through my pores. Stuffed with potato-onion curry and dipped in coconut chutney and sambar, this is the next best thing to eating on the streets of the subcontinent.
(45-57 Bowne St., Flushing, Queens, Tel. 718-460-8493 – Map it)
10. Koshari at Kabab Cafe – When I asked Famous Fat Dave – the Hungry Cabbie who’s known for his Five Borough Eating Tour on the Wheels of Steel – where and what he would eat if he had only 24 hours left in New York City, Ali El Sayed’s koshari was one of the dishes he named. After tasting it, I agreed with him. Koshari is a combination of lentils, rice, and macaroni that could easily fall flat in someone else’s kitchen. But Ali perfumes his koshari with coriander seeds, mixes it with caramelized onions and serves it over plates of za’atar with ground thyme and sumac. At first blush, it’s comfort food. After a few bites, the spices start to surface, and you realize all that Ali can coax from his ingredients.
(25-12 Steinway St. – Astoria, Queens, Tel: 718-728-9858, Open Tues-Sun, 1-5pm; 6-10pm – Map it)
11. Sarson ka saag (mustard green puree) and pudina paratha (griddled flatbread stuffed with mint) at Tandoor – I have cabbie Kamal Aftab and fearless forager Salem P. to thank for introducing me to this restaurant and this fabulous pairing, respectively. The combination of ginger-spiked mustard greens with the fresh mint in the pudina paratha was something Salem’s mother discovered years ago. I could taste why he pounced on it when he saw it on Tandoor’s menu: mint holds the butter-rich greens in check even as it underlines their spices. Chicken tikka masala is also excellent here.
(9525 Queens Boulevard, Flushing/Rego Park, Tel. (718) 997-6800, Open 7 days for lunch and dinner – Map it)
12. Sweet Dhodi at Sagar Sweets & Restaurant – Cabbie Rashed K. from Bangladesh recommended I try the savories at Sagar Chinese Restaurant, but all my friends and I could talk about after that meal was the sweet dhodi we’d eaten for dessert, which comes from Sagar’s Sweets, around the corner. More commonly known as mishti doi or lal dahi (“red yogurt”), sweet dhodi is caramelized sweetened condensed milk combined with yogurt and evaporated milk. Its texture is somewhere between cheesecake and mousse. Its flavor? Imagine tres leches cake without the cake. Sagar stocks sweet dhodi in one-pound tubs that cost $6 and last several days if you can manage to keep a hold on your spoon.
(168-25 Hillside Avenue – Jamaica, Queens, Tel. (718) 298-5696, Open 7 days, 9am-11pm – Map it)
13. Qaw Lamb Meat at Balkh Shish Kebab – I found this “special home made balkh shish kabab qaw made from lamb meat baked in oven special marination served with brown basmati rice, raisin and carrot” thanks to a cab driver named Rafiq, who spent his first six months in New York City working in the kitchen at Balkh. Rafiq wasn’t exaggerating when he said they make some of the best lamb in the city: this version falls apart as soon as it touches your fork, its fat having melted into its flesh from what tastes like many hours of low, slow cooking.
(23-10 31st St, Astoria, Queens, Tel. (718) 721-5020, Open: 7 days, from 12pm)
14. Sweet Potato Pie at RCL Enterprises – I could just as easily wax poetic about the oxtails and the turkey wings that cabbie Troy Johnson recommended at this soul food take-out spot in the far reaches of Queens, but sweet potato pie is what I think about when I remember RCL. The filling is smooth and rich with just a touch of all-spice. The pale crust looks unimpressive but is both flaky and buttery. I want this for Thanksgiving dessert for the rest of my life.
(141-22 Rockaway Boulevard – Jamaica, Queens, Tel. (718) 529-3576, Open Mon-Wed 10am-midnight, Thu-Sun 10am-2am – Map it)