My brother has told me his new trick for sniffing out cheap eats downtown: pay attention to where the taxis park and look for the “halal restaurant” or curry shop. It was he that told me of one near Film Forum where he works. I walked right by it. “Hey, its right here!” Rob called to me. I turned and saw a doorway open onto a narrow entranceway. I peered inside and saw men standing and eating.
The location surprised me. Across the street was a faux Irish pub with pumping music and big-breasted blond women hailing cabs. Or maybe it was not so odd. The cobbled street was empty enough after dark, save for the pub, to afford plenty of parking spaces for taxi drivers. “Well – shall we?” asked Rob, dressed in his new pea coat, the first sartorial extravagance he has permitted himself since building up a remarkable collection of Ska band T-shirts. I took a picture of him with my mom and grandma at our sister’s wedding. My mom and grandma are in splendid red and blue dresses, and Rob grins in his black Toilet Boys T-shirt. He holds the door and I duck inside, brushing past a couple of men coming out.
It is a tiny space. Two men work behind a counter and deli case where pans of food are displayed. The customers stand at belly-high shelves along the walls and eat. Above and below the shelves are stacked various merchandise from toothpaste to bags of rice. Next to the counter a door opens and a man emerges adjusting his pants. “Figures,” I said to Rob, “what else do taxi drivers need as much as food? A toilet.” The drivers were a motley mix of Pakistani men ranging from the neatly coiffed, shaved and attired to the rumpled and stubbled and even one or two with a skullcap and an unruly black beard. An occasional American, white or black, toting back packs and equally eager for cheap food, shouldered their way in to gaze at the glass-fronted case full of pans of lentils, potatoes, and various other brown or yellow mixtures.
We stood awhile there studying the look of the dishes for clues to their flavors before the young man got to us. Rob ordered rice piled with chickpeas and curry chicken. He asked for bread as well, but the man heard wrong and gave him yogurt sauce in a bowl. I told him I’d order bread. I ordered about the same, but without the rice, and with yogurt sauce on top. The man popped our bowls in the microwave.
We stood around a stool, trying to shrink ourselves smaller to avoid being jostled, dipping our plastic spoons into the gooey food, slurping it down like delighted apes on a hill of termites. “Have some bread,” offered Rob, and I tore off a piece of warm flatbread and dipped it in the yellow lentils and chewed. Rob told me the slow burn spreading through my mouth was the yogurt sauce.
“Huh? I would’a figured yogurt sauce is gonna be cool,” I said. We spat out chicken bones and dropped them on the paper plate that held the bread. I picked up a folded copy of the “South Asia Insider” – some headline about Kashmir. As we wiped our hands with napkins, Rob said, “I wonder what this says,” pointing at a yellow and red lettered sign on a shelf right near our faces.
“Must be Urdu,” I said, “I can sorta read it but I don’t know what it means.”
“I think I’ll get some chai,” said Rob. He pointed at a pan with some orange and yellowish cubes and asked, “Are those sweet?” he ordered one of each. I bit into the orange one. It had a sickly sweet taste of old condensed milk. Rob offered me the other one, and it was much tastier, but we could not put our fingers on what it might have been.
“You scarfed down that whole orange thing?” I exclaimed a minute later.
“Hey, you gotta go all the way,” said Rob sagaciously, and raised the chai to his lips.
“Hey,” I said softly, pointing at a man’s plate, “Those danish-looking things have meat in ‘em.”
“Mm, I’ll try one next time,” said Rob.
As we got ready to go out, I got the counter man’s attention and asked him, “What does this sign say?” Like many a foreigner whose written language is unexpectedly taken notice of by an American, he smiled awkwardly, unsure what to say. Surely I didn’t want him to just read it out, did I? I have encountered Chinese people who literally cannot be coaxed to read out the sound of a character to me, instead hemming and hawing and offering explanations, or even writing out transliterations in Roman letters, but never speaking aloud the sound of the character. The gap, for some, between a Chinese character and a white face is simply too great to span for such people, at least verbally. Probably a similar thing was at work in this man’s mind.
“Oh, its about clean,” he said.
“Oh, like keep this place clean?” I asked, and he nodded. I bought a bag of basmati rice, only seven dollars for a 10 pound bag. “Beats Fairway,” I said to Rob. He drained his chai, and we went out.
Outside we looked up at the sign above the door. “Lahore,” a single word, was written in the upper left corner. The rest of the sign had been painted over in white paint. “I wonder what was there,” I say. “Probably has something to do with that,” I said, pointing at an American flag taped on the inside of the glass door. “I’ll bet you that sign used to have Arabic script on it, and they got scared of being a target.”