When you're standing, hunched, over the narrow counter at Punjabi Deli, eating among Sikh cabbies conversing in at least two languages, it's easy to imagine that you're eating street food in India. The deli serves fast, delicious food out of a refrigerated case, using a series of four microwaves to heat it up for service. It's open 24 hours, incredibly cheap, and 100% vegetarian.
I recommend starting your meal with a samosa with chickpeas ($2.25). Although you can get a samosa on its own, if you order it with chickpeas you get something truly special. "You want yogurt and onions, right?" the man behind the counter asked, so of course I said yes. They cut up the potato-filled samosa and put it in the bottom of the bowl, then top it with spiced chickpeas. Then they top that with a dollop of thin fresh yogurt and some chopped raw onions. The result is an eye-opening combination of warm and cool, of crunchy and smooth and crispy. And unlike samosas at most Indian restaurants, this full bowl is enough food for a small meal.
You can get a bowl of rice topped with a selection of vegetarian dishes, but instead of rice you can get a thin, pancake-like roti ($4 with your choice of one or two veggies). I got the spinach, which is pureed until creamy and smooth. It's sweeter than most other Indian dishes that I've eaten, and though heavily spiced, it wasn't spicy. I kind of wish I'd spent the extra dollar to get a second roti, since the bowl of spinach was so full that I ran out of roti long before I ran out of spinach to dip it in. Note that you will be provided with neither cutlery nor napkins unless you ask for them.
For a twist on a deli sandwich you can pick up the veggie sub ($3); for an extra dollar, get the sandwich topped with alu tikki, a potato pancake. The sub is dressed with a sweet tomato chutney, and between the potato and the chutney you get the unsettling feeling that you're eating a french fry sandwich. It's a refreshing mix of Indian and American flavors.
Punjabi Deli is a representation of what makes New York such an exciting place to live. It's a restaurant that would feel at home on the crowded streets of Mumbai, and yet exists is the East Village of Manhattan. Not many vegetarian restaurants are open 24 hours, and the fact that the food is good and cheap is just icing on the cake.
114 East 1st St, New York NY 10009 (map)
About the author: Howard Walfish is a Virginia native who has been living in New York since 2003. He is, in fact, a vegetarian, and is the co-founder of Brooklyn-based Eat to Blog.