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.”

Culinary Cab Confessions: where to eat raw meat in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

The cab driver didn’t blink when I told him what I wanted. It might have been one of the most unusual requests he’d ever had. But he didn’t even look back at me or take a glance in the rearview mirror. He pointed his diminutive blue taxi up the wide boulevard and asked where I was from. As we turned on to Chechnya Street, named because of the apparent anything-goes debauchery that takes place here when the sun goes down, he turned into a de facto tour guide, pointing out the places where one might encounter a prostitute.

But I wasn’t seeking thrills of a sexual nature. I wanted to eat. And to eat at a place I may never find on my own. Welcome to Culinary Cab Confessions, a short series about letting cab drivers decide where I’ll be eating. There’s a long-standing belief that taxi drivers hold the secret to a city’s best eateries; not the upscale variety, but the affordable, no frills type; the places where we may never think of going and in neighborhoods where we might rarely venture. Wherever I’m traveling in the world or if I’m home in New York City, I’ll be hopping in cabs and telling the driver to take me to wherever he–or she–likes to eat. And then I’ll be writing about it. If the driver is hungry and inclined, I’m always happy to have a culinary guide to the restaurant. Lunch is on me.

Today I’m in Addis Ababa, the chaotic capital of Ethiopia. I walked out of my hotel, the Hilton, and jumped in the first taxi I saw. I got lucky. Fekadu Kebede, 27 years old, said he had a special treat in store for me. He looked excited. I’d been here already for almost two weeks and was slowly tiring of the usual local fare. I hoped he had something different up his sleeve. After cruising down relatively tame Chechnya Street (it was still daytime), we made a few twists and turns before navigating onto a bumpy dirt road. “Okay,” he said. “We’re here.” I put my hand on the door knob and then paused. “Come on,” he said, beckoning me to get out with a wave. There are no street lights on this road–somewhat typical of Addis–and so at night we would have been wandering into the blackness. Wherever it was Fekadu was taking me. There was no sign to indicate what it was, just two open gates and a hallway flanked by ceiling-to-floor bamboo. “Welcome to Yohannes,” he said. “This is the best kitfo in Addis.”

I needed no introduction to kitfo. I had read about it in my guidebook and hoped to try it while I was here. Kitfo is an Ethiopian specialty: raw hamburger meat. I know what some of you are thinking: eating uncooked meat in a developing east African country would be about as questionable a decision as Justin Bieber deciding to make a sudden, unexpected appearance wearing ass-less chaps at a NAMBLA convention. The guidebook and everything else aimed at non-Ethiopians strongly recommended to get the cooked version of kifto. But I wanted whatever Fekadu was having. He ordered for us and within minutes small cast iron bowls were set in front of us, each one layered with an ensete leaf. The server plopped a huge mound of minced, raw beef in each bowl, garnished with dollops of soft, spiced cheese. I was nervous. Was this going to be a turning point for this trip? An Ethiopian version of the Delhi Belly, the Addis Ababa Bowel Effusion? Fekadu went first and I followed. It was delicious. Imagine steak tartar but imbued with mitmita, a spicy chili powder and then doused with niter kibbeh, a spice-and-herb-infused butter.

I ate mine so fast that Fekadu scooped some of his kifto into my bowl. As we ate, sometimes with the spoon, other times scooping it up with injera, the ubiquitous spongy bread Ethiopians use as edible silverware, my new friend told me about how he dreams of taking his wife and their seven-year-old son to live in San Diego where his older sister has been living for the last 20 years.

“We will not find kifto there,” he said. “But I think that’s an okay trade off, no?”

And with that I raised my beer, Fekadu his soda, and our bottles clinked, echoing for a long second to the high ceilings of a restaurant I would have never found on my own. In the end, I took his picture next to his car–yes, that’s really Fekadu above–and he drove me back to my hotel.

So, where, you’re most certainly wondering, is Yohannes? I couldn’t tell you. After all, that’s what cab drivers are for.