Culinary Cab Confessions: New York City edition

Ali found me lingering on the corner of Christopher St. and Seventh Ave. S. in the West Village. Before I recently moved out of the neighborhood I’d spent eight years hailing cabs in this very spot. But no ride was probably ever as unusual (or short) as this one.

He laughed when he heard my request. That I wanted him to take me to lunch; to take me the place where he goes. I reminded him about the reputation that taxi drivers had: that they know the best cheap eats in a city. It just has to be a place you go to regularly, I told him. Ali stroked his long grey beard and said, “I know a place. I just went there this morning and had my soup.”

Ali said he’s originally from Istanbul but he’s been driving a cab in New York for 40 years. With that kind of experience behind him, his lunch-finding credibility is huge. Before I could think about it anymore we were stopped at the curb. “That’ll be $3.80,” he said. Really? We were here already? Right here on McDougal St. between Bleecker and W. 3rd Sts.? I had envisioned (and was ready for) an epic ride out to, perhaps, Gravesend, Brooklyn, or Rego Park, Queens to discover an out-of-the-way gem of an eatery. But right here in my own backyard?

“That’s right,” Ali said. “It’s very good Turkish food. Please say hi to Cem, the owner for me.” Which taught me something: the ethnicity of the driver is largely going to determine where I’m taken to eat. At least in New York. I invited Ali join me, but he refused. “It’s too hard to find a place to park here,” he said. I paid the fare and got out. As I was walking into Turkiss, Ali rolled down his window and yelled out to me: “Get the lamb.”
Turkiss, which has a small menu of doner kabobs, lentil soup, and borek, only has two tables. I took Ali’s advice and ordered a lamb doner sandwich. It was a simple concoction: lettuce, tomato, hot sauce, and super juicy, thinly sliced lamb stuffed into a pita. I have to admit: I don’t eat doner kabobs very often. But this was one of the best I’ve ever had. The lamb juice was dripping down my arm after a few bites and I was tempted to lick it off. I wanted to order seconds like the two construction workers sitting next to me. Instead, I just decided to make sure I come back. After all, Turkiss is just around the corner from my office at New York University.

But, I wondered, why hadn’t I heard of this place before? I’ve walked down this street hundreds of times. McDougal St., still associated with the 1960s when Bob Dylan and Co. were hanging around these parts, doesn’t have the best culinary reputation. The street is flanked by casual eateries catering to NYU students. There are a few go-to spots, though: Mahmoud’s Falafel has a loyal following (even though, despite the protests of one particular food-loving friend of mine, I think it’s overrated); there’s Artichoke pizza; (the impossible-to-get in-to) Minetta Tavern; and Saigon Shack (one of the best places to get a banh mi in the Big Apple). But otherwise, everything else is largely forgettable here.

It turns out, Turkiss is only a week old (despite a plan to open months ago). When Cem (pronounced like Jim), the owner, told me this, I said: “And Ali already knows about it?”

“Well, you know taxi drivers,” he said. “They always know about the best places to eat.”