Sunday, July 27, 2008

Cheap Eats Hall of Fame: Punjabi

It isn't all that easy to find truly cheap eats in New York. Sure, you might be able to grab a quick snack for a few bucks, but it's rare to happen upon a place where you can get an entire meal for that price. And in this economy? Well, as we New Yorkers (supposedly) like to say, Fuhgeddaboutit! I mean, even the famously dirt-cheap square meal at Gray's Papaya, the Recession Special--currently priced at $3.50--is about to jump in cost for the second time since 2006.

So imagine my delight when my friend Willy recently introduced me to one of his favorite bargain dining spots, Punjabi. Punjabi is an unassuming--even scruffy--little storefront located right off of East Houston Street in the East Village. It's an Indian/Pakistani takeout joint that NYC cabbies frequent: when I was there last week the line of taxis out front extended down the block. Well, take it from the cabbies, because not only is the food here crazy inexpensive, but it's delicious and satisfying, too. Here it is, Punjabi in all its dingy glory:

And there's not much more to the inside, either: just a narrow counter running alongside the right side of the restaurant, where, if you're lucky, there might be a few stools for you to sit on, and, on the left, the glass case that displays the day's offerings. Punjabi has a rotating menu of six vegetarian dishes labeled only with a number; to order you say, for example, "A small with rice and #3 and #6." A generous portion of rice then gets scooped into a small styrofoam bowl, topped with your selections, and nuked in one of the four microwaves that perch atop the display case. How much? $3 for a small--which, for me, is plenty of food, and I have a big appetite--or you could cough up two more dollars for a large, which allows you three vegetable offerings. Here's what I got when I was in recently: a small with spinach and a stew of peas, carrots and cauliflower:

I probably should have thought, before selecting that spinach, that it would photograph like something that comes out of a baby's diaper. But you know what? There was really no other choice. I've gotten that dish each time I've been to Punjabi, and it's excellent: meltingly creamy, with soft, sweet onions cooked into the mix, and a bracing seasoning of turmeric, fresh garlic, and lots of fresh ginger. Yum. My other selection tasted great, too. I can never resist anything with cauliflower in it, and Indian food makes particularly tasty use of it. The vegetables in the stew were well-cooked but still had some bite to them, and came bathed in a fragrant sauce that complemented the perfumed basmati rice. So the next time you find yourself with an empty stomach and $3 burning a hole in your pocket, I suggest you follow the taxicabs and head on over to Punjabi.

114 East 1st Street (between 1st Ave. and Ave. A)
(212) 533-9048


Nina said...

Wow! Another great installment! The food looks great (even the spinach--ha!) MOM

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