Waiting for Indian food

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My friend Raj has been tempting me to go try Indian-Chinese food in Queens for months now. He and his girlfriend frequently zip up to Queens from their place in Brooklyn to sample such tantalizingly named dishes as chicken lollipops (well Raj does, Allison is vegetarian). We finally planned to go on Sunday night, and he enlisted some friends to join us so we sample a good portion of the 200+ items on their menu.

His usual choice, Tangra Masala, is a tiny place, and so Raj suggested we meet at their cavernous sister restaurant, Tangra Asian Fusion, just off the 40th St. stop on the 7 train.

Unfortunately, this view of their over-the-top interior was as close as we got to eating chicken lollipops that night. Perhaps eating Chinese food is an Indian tradition on Mother’s Day, but for whatever reason, a restaurant that is normally empty was packed at 8 pm on Sunday night, with the crowd impatiently spilling onto the sidewalk.

We put our names down at 8 and were hopeful that we would have a table by 8:30. It was a nice night, and we stood on the sidewalk chatting amicably. Then 8:30 came and went. When Raj went to check with the host and showed shock at the long list of names ahead of us, the host tried to reassure him, “Don’t worry, people eat quickly!” When more time passed, Emily decided to fight her way through the throngs to ask when our table would be ready. Fifteen minutes later, she returned with the news that if “Houd” was gone, the next table would be ours! Unfortunately, “Houd” was very present.

It was time for Plan B. There was a “Cafe Romania” across the street, a Turkish place a few doors west, a Japanese place a few doors east, and another, small, bare Indian restaurant on the same block, Vicky Punjabi Haandi. Emily, who lives in Sunnyside, said that she had gotten take-out there before and that the food was fine. By that point, that was good enough for us.

I only know the name of the place because I took a photo of the small, photocopied sign taped to the front window on my way out. There is no larger sign declaring the actual name, though neon letters make clear that you are there to eat “INDIAN CUISINE.”

The decor inside was similarly schizophrenic. The tabletops were shiny with a huge, blown-up photo of blowsy pink roses on each one. There were a few tapestries tacked high up on the walls and a TV in the corner playing Bollywood movies, but the room was otherwise more stripped down than a Chinese take-out place with bulletproof glass. Vicky was obviously catering more to take-out customers. Still, nothing was out of the ordinary, and we could smell good things from the kitchen.

We only began to realize we had entered a Twilight Zone of Indian restaurants when we began to order. One lamb tikka, one chicken tikka masala, one fish goa, and then, Raj, the only Indian, tried to order bhindi masala. “Bhindi masala,” he said. “No, bhindi masala,” the waitress said. At first, we thought she was telling us there was no more bhindi masala, but no, she was correcting his pronunciation. Raj was too nice to tell her his family is from the south and they don’t speak Hindi.

Things got stranger. A group of three kids came in and she walked over to them with an obvious roll of the eyes. I thought she knew them, but no, she was just unhappy to see them. Then a group of 14 came in, of which 5 were under six, hungry, and cranky. Tangra Asian Fusion was clearly overflowing into Vicky Punjabi Haandi. We heard the children scream and cry, “We waited over two hours!” “I didn’t eat today!” The waitress was really unhappy to see them.

It became quickly obvious why. We waited and waited and waited for our food. Tangra Asian Fusion called my cellphone to tell me our table was ready at 9. We laughed and relinquished it, believing our food would be on our table at any moment. We waited and waited and waited. Emily and her friend Lory got antsy. They became the cranky, hungry children at our table. I have never heard someone “hmmph” and sigh with as much gusto and repetitive speed as Emily did that night. Other parties started getting up and switching tables for no explicable reason. I tried to start conversation topics that weren’t about food or hunger, but only Raj answered my questions. Every 10 minutes or so, our table would watch the waitress come out with plates of food, and we would sing in a hopeful crescendo, “Oh–oh–oh,” only to let out a deflated “nooooooo” when she put the food on a different table. Twenty minutes after they arrived, the party with the starving children were asked what they wanted to eat. We waited and waited and waited.

At 9:30, 45 minutes after we had arrived at Vicky, and an hour and a half after we had started waiting for dinner, our food arrived.

And the irony of ironies? The food was really, really good. Everything came out hot, like it had just come off the stove. The flavors were fresh and bright, with a balanced smoothness and complexity that showed obvious care. The tikka masala sauce looked real, not pink. The tandoori lamb was moist, the naan fluffy, crispy and chewy all at the same time. As we ate, we could imagine the beleaguered lone cook, talented but unused to crowds, grinding spices and making everything from scratch, methodically moving through the orders one by one.

We ate everything in 10 minutes. We even dared to order more naan, and wonder of wonders, we got it in 5 minutes. We geared up to ask for the check, and when we finally waved her down and said, “We’d like our check please,” she replied, “You look like my sister.” She was looking straight at Emily, who is East Asian. In case we didn’t understand, she said, “She’s an Indian woman.” She then took some plates and walked away.

When we realized she probably hadn’t absorbed our request for the check, we did an estimate of what we owed and just managed to get the check in time to check our math. We had had delicious Indian food. It was time to leave.

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