Punjabi - A "Real" New York Eatery
A while ago my buddy and I were talking about New York versus the “Real” New York. As a native New Yorker, he maintained that the longer one lived here, the more city secrets one learns and the more a familiar community the entire city becomes. One learns the best route to cut across town during rush hour, the best Laundromat to get you wash done and, most importantly, the best restaurants to get incredibly delicious and cheap meals. He said through a motley crew of networks and sources, he has cobbled together a comprehensive list of fantastic eateries that offer everything from large pizza slices to golden falafel to plump dumplings. So it came to my surprise when I asked him if he had ever be to the infamous, Pakistani cabbie haunt and his reply was a relative blank stare.
I had first heard of Punjabi on a tip from an old co-worker who used to live in the Lower East Side. He told me about this unbelievably delicious hole in the wall that was beyond cheap and served nobody but cabbies. He told me it was on Houston between First and Second Ave and to go there the next time I was craving an authentic ethnic meal. With no address, I asked him if I would be able to find the place. He just smiled and told me there would be about ten yellow markers leading me to its doorstep.
Those yellow markers turned out to be a never-ending line of cabs and ten was more than an understatement. During a shift change, one’s guaranteed to find at least forty or fifty cabbies come through to enjoy a hot meal and a warm cup of chai. The restaurant is a narrow joint, with a baked in spice aroma and walls jam packed with the latest Pakistani Cds, making it one of those places that transports you to an entirely different part of the world the second you step through the door. The food is on par with the atmosphere, with large pans of lentils, curries and chutneys lining the glass case. With a small portion (rice with two sides) costing two dollars and a large portion (rice with three sides) costing four dollars, it’s not hard to see why the line at Punjabi is inexhaustible. (NB: Even though it’s cheap, the food is easy on the stomach, which seems like a respectful nod to the preferred occupation of their clientele.)
Although I have enjoyed multiple plates of rice and sides (I recommend the curry with spinach and potatoes), the real treasure is the samosa with chickpeas. Served in a Styrofoam bowl, this aromatic piece of heaven will cost you a whopping dollar fifty and drive your taste buds wild. When ordering, I recommend adding a dollop of fresh yogurt and a few slices of onion. The samosa was placed at the bottom of the bowl, smothered with chickpeas, then topped with onions and a healthy spoonful of fresh yogurt. The samosa was stuffed with cooked potatoes and shelled green peas and mixed with a plethora of spices that included garam masala, coriander and cumin to name a few. The chickpeas were tender and sweet, and their soft texture mixed well with the crispiness of the samosa. I urge one to eat this dish quickly, as to keep the crunchy texture of the fried samosa in tact. The onions added a nice tart flavor, while the yogurt’s creaminess coolly balanced out the heat from the spices. Don’t be fooled by the cheap price and small size, one of these bad boys will fill you right up.
Earlier this week I was down on the Lower East Side, catching a show with my native New Yorker friend. In between bands, he suggested we grab some food and immediately headed in the direction of Punjabi. Jokingly, I said, “Punjabi? Never heard of it.” In complete deadpan he replied, “Really? Because anyone who’s a real New Yorker knows all about it.”
Punjabi is located on Houston between First and Second Ave in New York City (Hint: Look for the long line of cabs).