I'm officially christening 29th Street between 5th and 6th Rickshaw Row. This strip has three cafes above a mosque; all three are of the steam table variety, but have reasonably comfortable seating. First stop: Gourmet Palace.
13 West 29th Street New York, NY 10001 (map); 212-213-1314
Chicken and egg
Gourmet Palace has the friendliest service and best food of the 29th Street restaurants. We were offered a free sample of the chicken and meatball curry. "I like the conceptual symmetry of this dish," one of my dining companions said. I agree: there's something amusingly sinister about eating chicken and eggs on the same plate.
The chicken meatball we sampled was pretty great: plenty moist and well spiced with just a bit of warming heat. Oh, and if you're squeamish about slicks of oil on your food, you're just going to have to accept it as a hazard of $6 steam table eating.
Chicken and cauliflower
Combo meals are the way to go at Gourmet Palace. Grab a meaty curry and a vegetable dish over rice for best results. Seen here: chicken and tiny florets of cauliflower. Not the best curry in Manhattan, but a solid, warming plate of comfort food.
The servers may warn you away from this one for fear of the bitter flavor. But it really just tastes like saut´ed zucchini with a slightly bitter tinge, which is rounded out by turmeric.
Just make sure to not skip the yellow daal, which is mild, creamy, and not too thin. Great for dipping chunks of poofy naan.
Chicken and chickpeas at Lasani
Next stop: Lasani, right next door. You know how some restaurants sort of scream quiet desperation? That's the vibe here, down to droopy samosas and service that's at once oppressive and uncaring. After our last chicken meatball success, we tried the rendition here alongside chickpeas, okra, and more daal—without a winner among them. Lasani, you're no Gourmet Palace.
15 West 29th Street, New York, NY 10001 (map); 212-683-3737
Do consider the rice pudding, though! It's on the thick, almost spackle-y side, without much individual rice grain definition, but the flavor of cardamom-kissed milk was pretty excellent.
The night scene
We left Lasani as services were ending at the mosque down below. A stream of worshipers came out into the night as vendors set up tables to hawk illegally copied DVDs. Most of the worshipers were headed for our next stop, Chandi, so we followed suit.
We thought it was time for some good 'ol Westernized butter chicken. And hey, several locals were ordering it, too. If I worked in the area and got sick of the not-quite-Flatiron-not-quite-Midtown lunchtime food desert, I'd eat this again. But not often, considering that Gourmet Palace is right next door.
The crowd left as quickly as it arrived; here's the relatively calm space afterward. One of the men behind the counter was in charge of all the chai orders, of which there were about 20 at a time. You don't know the meaning of "in the weeds" until you have 20 hurried cab drivers thrusting singles at you, shouting "one sugar!" or "two sugar!" to indicate how sweet they want their tea.
11 West 29th Street, New York, NY 10001 (map); 212-686-4456
Next stop: downtown to Houston and Crosby for a visit to Lahore, a space so small it's literally a hole in the wall.
132 Crosby Street, New York, NY 10012 (map); 212-965-1777
Ten or so people rubbed shoulders in this tiny spot. I can't remember the last time I've seen everyone in an eating establishment having such a good time. And I mean breathless, excited chatter and belly laughs.
Lentils and okra
Firm lentils with meltingly soft okra, smothered in thin, tangy yogurt. Hardly gold standard Indian food, and more greasy than I'd like, but it's $6 or so for a satisfying vegetarian meal for two. I'll take that deal in Soho (especially after a few drinks at the nearby Pegu Club).
Customers (here and elsewhere) were going crazy for boxes of rusk: twice baked English biscuits.
Punjabi Grocery and Deli
There are plenty of hipsters and NYU kids soaking up dirt cheap chickpeas and rice after bar crawls on 1st Avenue. But hipsters and cramped quarters aside, it was the best eating of the night. The menu here is exclusively vegetarian and painfully cheap. Your plate will overflow for under $10.
114 East 1st Street, New York, NY 10009 (map); 212-533-3356
Chickpeas and summer squash
Chickpeas come mild but earthy in a starchy broth. Mix them with something lighter like turmeric-stained summer squash for best results—they become sauces for each other.
I'm a sucker for these in every form, but even I'll admit this was painfully sweet. That said, it's wonderful cut up with your spoon and stirred into some rice pudding.
Chai is, of course, all but mandatory. Okay, this isn't chai so much as a cheap tea bag with steamed milk and some cardamom pods floating around. But it gets the job done.