When Peter J. Kim wrote and told me he wanted to try a taxi adventure in New York City, I knew I couldn’t refuse: “I have a reputation for chatting up cab drivers,” he said, “I’m a food enthusiast. I’m now wrapping up a 6-month amateur course at the French Culinary Institute and have been in the kitchen ever since I grew tall enough to reach the stove top.”
Peter also described himself as “fearless when it comes to meeting new people or trying new foods.” After reading his first New York taxi adventure, I think you’ll agree: he ended up at a 24-hour Bangladeshi deli where they don’t have any idea who Lindsay Lohan is.
Stay tuned for more of Peter’s dispatches – and if you’re interested in trying your own taxi adventure, email me at [email protected].
“What is it with you Koreans?” says Mohammed, a 30 year-old Bangladeshi, after I explain my ethnic background to him. “My best friend at school is Korean too.”
I shrug and reply, “What is it with you South Asians? Half of my friends are South Asian.” We both chuckle.
Mohammed zips around traffic on the FDR, somehow managing to simultaneously maintain eye contact with me in the rear-view mirror.
“New York is like Darwinism,” he says. “Survival of the fittest. Humans can evolve and survive anywhere, even on the moon, why not here?”
For Mohammed, cab driving is part of his own Darwinian struggle. He does it to support his studies at Queens College, where he’s pursuing a degree in physics.
I ask him about his favorite food. An ethnic Bengali, Mohammed speaks enthusiastically about the bounty of food that Bengalis eat for special occasions: chicken pulao, roasted spicy chicken, pitha (sweet and savory cakes) in countless varieties. “And,” Mohammed adds, as he deftly circumvents a slow-mover ahead of us, “I like Korean sweet rice cakes.”
But what does he miss the most? “Deshi chicken. We grow them in the house, not on a big farm. They’re not like the cloned chickens here—here, in a couple of days you can make a big chicken. These Deshi chickens, they grow up at home, they eat a lot of good food, they live well.” He pauses. “Those chickens taste really good.”
By now, I’m licking my lips and imagining what a DFC—you know, a Deshi Fried Chicken—might look like. I ask Mohammed to take me to his favorite restaurant, fully prepared for a long haul into the outer boroughs. But instead, he takes me straight into Little Chinitaly, and we arrive at Mott Corner, on the corner of Mott and Kenmare. He parks the cab and we go in together.
On the surface, Mott Corner isn’t the most obvious destination for Bengali food. Its purple awning bears the image of a man with a one-sided Dali mustache wearing a sort of off-kilter flattened beret with “coffee” written on it. Glass cases filled with beer hum next to stacks of potato chip bags. Behind the register lies the usual deli bric-à-brac—cigarettes, razors, condoms, and the like. And the menu is a familiar heartland lineup: turkey with gravy, root beer float, BLT, egg salad.
But look a little more closely at the menu. Tucked in between the bacon cheeseburger and the tuna melt, you’ll see “Bengal Noodles (Spicy).” “Lamb / Goat Curry” next to a ham, egg, and cheese sandwich. In the back of the restaurant, past the burgers and the chicken noodle soup, there are bubbling pots of Bengali curry and a spice rack filled with the unmistakable colors of turmeric, chili, and cumin.
Mohammed explains to me that Mott Corner is a 24-hour hub for Bangladeshi cab drivers who come to socialize, read Bengali newspapers, and most importantly, feast on the restaurant’s daily changing curries, which today are two varieties of fish curry. Mohammed and I order both curries and the spicy ginger chicken salad.
The first curry features cross-sections of tilapia with wedges of arrowroot. The second is made with buffalo fish and slivers of Chinese eggplant. Both are served in a hearty red curry soup seasoned with cumin, garlic, onion, turmeric, and chili. Bangladeshi curry uses water where Indian curry would use paste, Mohammed notes. “More water, less oil—it’s better.”
Mohammed suggests that I eat the curry with my hands, as Bengali tradition dictates. A grizzled veteran of hand-as-utensil eating, I enthusiastically comply.
In both curries, the fish remains delicate, seasoning is appropriate, and spices complement, but do not overpower, the flavors of the dish. Both the arrowroot and the eggplant reduce to a satisfyingly creamy consistency in my mouth. It’s clear that a knowledgeable hand has prepared these curries.
I ask Mohammed why there’s a separate, blocked-off seating area in the restaurant. He explains that sometimes the drivers eat with their hands back there. “Some Americans just can’t deal with it,” he says as I scoop up another fistful of fish curry.
The spicy ginger chicken salad is not as endearing. Here, Mott Corner’s all-American pretenses creep too far. The base of chopped spicy fried chicken, pickles, ginger, chili, iceberg lettuce, and tomatoes is appetizing enough, but a thick coat of mayonnaise takes this dish closer to Cleveland than to Kolkata.
After polishing these plates off, I sit back contentedly with turmeric-stained fingertips, but still feel peckish. At Mohammed’s recommendation, I order the Bengali noodles and slip behind the counter to watch the cook prepare the dish. Thin ramen noodles, spicy chicken, and vegetables hiss and sizzle on the flat-top as I look on. The dish, more of a late-night comfort item than a delicacy, is a good value but falls far short of the curries.
I thank Mohammed for guiding me here and we part ways—he has a long night of work ahead. Outside, I notice one of the Bengali diners in Mott Corner come outside, get into his cab, and flip on the car’s top light. I can’t resist, and hop in. He tells me he’s been going there for about nine years. I tell him that the Bengali noodles left me positively stuffed.
“Ah, the Bengali noodles are the best there. I ordered some to bring home to my wife, she thinks they are very nice,” he says.
I reply, “Do you really think that those noodles will make it all the way home?”
Mott Corner – Map it
58 Kenmare St. (corner of Mott and Kenmare) – Little Italy
Recommended dish: Curry, $7 (changes daily)