One of the things that makes my porky heart hurt is when wonderful, hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants close down. El Karnak, that fun Egyptian spot I visited in Astoria? Long gone, replaced by a Yemeni restaurant called Maya Cuisine. You know I love Yemeni food, but NYC was a distinctly more enjoyable place when you could go to Astoria and take revenge on pigeons.
By dumb luck, I stumbled upon a suitable Egyptian replacement for El Karnak in a surprising place: 10th Avenue and 47th Street in Midtown West, far from the Middle Eastern culinary nirvana of Astoria.
At a glance, Taxi appears to offer little beyond standard Middle Eastern chow; koshary is the only uniquely Egyptian offering on the menu. We had a good feeling about the place – it’s called Taxi, so that means that it must cater to cabbies, right? And NYC cabbies often know a thing or two about international food. So that’s good.
Our first round of dishes weren’t particularly exotic: shish tawook (chicken kabobs), tabouli salad, and babaganouj. As soon as we ordered, we could hear the sound of vegetables being chopped in the kitchen – and we were the only ones there, which made me think that the tabouli salad was being made to order, much like the food in my favorite Astoria Palestinian spot.
And yep, that’s exactly what was going on: we had unwittingly stumbled into an evangelical house of fresh Middle Eastern food. I freaking love a good tabouli salad, and this was the best I’ve eaten in literally decades – idiotically fresh, with a generous dose of salt, lemon, and parsley. I even told the owner that I thought the tabouli was the best I’d eaten. He immediately started ranting and raving in a totally charming way, with lots of gratuitous exclamation points: “Yes, it is the best!!! You know why? Most places, they make a big batch, enough for 30, 40 people. Today, maybe 10 people order it. Tomorrow? Maybe five. Next day? No good!! We make everything here! Everything!! You order, I put the bulghur in hot water! We chop the vegetables. If they bring you tabouli right away, no good!!…”
He kept going, and I immediately loved this man like a brother. Even the hot sauce – nearly identical in appearance to the “red sauce” offered at every NYC halal stand – was clearly handmade, with a nice hint of citrus. The babaganouj? Mashed to order. The chicken kabobs were thoughtfully prepared, and served with a delicious, salty side of fresh peppers, pan-fried in olive oil.
The two of us weren’t exactly hungry after eating all of that, but ordered a plate of hummus and some eggplant salad anyway, and inhaled all of it on a train to Connecticut. (Yes, we ordered five dishes for two people. No, there weren’t any leftovers. Yes, my head is hollow and is useful only as backup food storage.)
So you know how hummus is one of those things that’s almost always good, but rarely mind-blowing? On a scale of 1 to 10, I didn’t think that hummus could do much better than a 7. I really like hummus, but it’s not the world’s most interesting food. Our new Egyptian friend proved me wrong: it took 20 minutes for the hummus to emerge from the kitchen, and it was clearly a different breed of hummus, with a tasty sprinkling of fresh parsley, a generous garlic flavor, and a deeper sesame taste than you usually encounter in hummus. It was still lukewarm, and I suspected that even the tahini was produced to order.
The eggplant salad was borderline mind-blowing. I’ve eaten my share of Middle Eastern eggplant salads over the years, and it’s always been served cold, pulled straight from the fridge. Not at Taxi: the stuff was still warm, as addictive as Percocet, and served with a side of pita and another passionate speech (with lots of extra exclamation points!!) about the importance of fresh, handmade food.(!!)
The total for five dishes: $36, including tax. I don’t think our new favorite Egyptian chef charged us for the speeches or for the side dish of exclamation points. But maybe he should have.
691 10th Avenue
Subway: 50th Avenue (A, C, E trains)