There's a game I like to play from time to time in this city: find something so completely foreign to me that I have to see it with my own eyes to believe it's really in New York. Usually that takes me out to the far reaches of the outer boroughs, but this trip kept me in the heart of Manhattan. I was, after all, following the trail of people who make it their business to stay downtown.
I'm talking about New York's cab drivers—specifically those who hail from the Indian subcontinent—and the places they go to eat in between fares. Taxi stands and watering holes dot the city all over with the promise of a cheap, filling meal and a hot cup of chai to take along the way. Their customers are almost wholly Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Sri Lankan, and while you'll find a butter chicken here and there, most of the food you'll find leans toward the more exotic: ground meat and egg curries, stewed bitter melon, and bean pulses in every color. And this stuff is cheap—you'll be hard pressed to come out stuffed spending more than $10. I went off to sample the offerings from five of these spots to see what was out there.
We're sometimes told that these cabbies know about the best and most authentic Indian food in town. Frankly, that's no more true for Indian cabbies than it is for anyone else. This tour unearthed several tasty specimens, but also plenty of mediocrity along the way. But you shouldn't track down these spots just for the food. Go for the chance to explore a New York subculture we rarely get to see, and have a hell of a good time along the way.
Some highlights: watching 20 thirsty worshipers from the mosque downstairs accosting a cashier with orders of "one sugar!" or "two sugar!" (indicating the desired sweetness for their chai); hanging out with 10 jocular, friendly people in a space the size of my bathroom while lapping up lentils and okra; watching harried cabbies run in from the cold, grab a tea and a curry, and dash off into the night. The scene at these stands becomes a night bazaar of cabbies, rickshaws, and illegally copied DVDs. It's a crazy slice of New York nightlife, and one I'm grateful to have taken the time to seek out first-hand.
My tour took me to two hubs for restaurants: 29th Street between 5th and 6th (which I'm naming Rickshaw Row—see slide 1) and down by Houston street, There are, of course, plenty more places than the ones I visited on this brief tour, and I can't wait to explore the good, the bad, and the bizarre at others in town. Check out the slideshow for a look at all the bites of the evening and a closer look inside these budget-friendly spots.