Since Guru Nanak founded Sikhism in the Punjabi region of India in the 15th century, feeding the hungry has remained an admirable tenet of this young monotheistic religion. Meals are given away freely at Sikh temples, or gurdwaras, around the world. Happily, along with the gurdwara and homes of Sikh friends, the excellent vegetarian cooking of Punjab can be sampled at numerous small delis around the city that offer delicious curries at prices so low—for Manhattan—that they are practically giving the food away.
Punjabi Deli is a beloved example. While the backbone of its business has been cab drivers, the place is also a favorite of vegetarians, foodies and rock-and-rollers for two decades. It’s my go-to when I’m playing a show at Mercury Lounge, Rockwood Music Hall and other LES/EV venues. A drummer friend used to say, “Play for love or money, preferably both, never neither.”
A meal here fits that ethos: It’s the perfect place to eat when I find myself playing a gig for love, and not so much money. The place is always open, so it doesn’t matter what time the gig is, or whether or not I want to eat before or after it.
This is what my kind of fast food looks like: vibrantly spiced bean and vegetable dishes served over rice, devoid of any sketchy meat to leave you wondering how the food can be so inexpensive. Those bothered by the microwave burning the edge of their meal into the styrofoam plate or bowl can pay an extra 50 cents for “eco-friendly” serving containers. Given recent legislation, the styrofoam is likely to become a thing of the past soon anyway.
You order a small (two curries over rice in a bowl, $4) or large (three curries over rice on a plate, $6). The six or seven curry choices are laid out in trays behind a glass display, and you choose by number. Numbers one through three never change: a chickpea curry, saag (ground spinach, perfectly spiced) and a lentil curry (either black or yellow). Numbers four through seven change daily between various spiced vegetable dishes ranging from eggplant to potato to pumpkin and yogurt and paneer (homemade cheese) curries.
All are mildly spicy, meaning someone used to mild food might find them spicy, and someone used to spicy food will find them mild. All except the yogurt and paneer curries are vegan. They are filling, yet do not feel heavy. Even after a $6 plate I’ve never felt weighed down.
There’s no seating, just a narrow counter where you stand and eat while listening to music from the Indian subcontinent, which just makes it above the steam of the espresso machine they use to make a milky chai. The environment is spartan but cheerful, and the restroom is clean. Other amenities include free water (serve yourself) and free spicy pickles in stainless steel pitchers along the bar height counter.
Usually I’ll do a two-item bowl of chickpeas and greens, sometimes substituting a vegetable curry for the greens. If I’m particularly hungry I’ll round things out with a fried samosa filled with nicely spiced potatoes and green peas ($1.50). A larger samosa made with chickpeas is sold in orders of two for $6. Numbers one through three (chickpea, greens and lentils) are the standouts, however.
After trying them an English friend remarked, “Leave it to you to find not only the best curry I’ve had in America, but also the cheapest!” A young man I met while eating at Punjabi one night exclaimed, “I’m from Punjab, and this tastes just like my mother’s cooking.”
Unfortunately things have not been as rosy as they could be for Punjabi Deli. Construction on East 1st Street has made parking near the establishment difficult. This was an issue for a business for which cab drivers make up a large part of the clientele.
I used to call it the Punjabi Cabbie Stand, but recently I took to calling it Punjabi Deli, because the line of yellow cabs parked in front had disappeared. Construction equipment occupied much of the nearby parking for years, and predictably, business slumped.
An online petition aimed at prompting the TLC to create a taxi relief stand in front of Punjabi Deli garnered thousands of signatures. That, along with a little legal wrangling, may have accomplished something. In front of the establishment is an area of parking spaces that bears a striking resemblance to a taxi relief area. Drivers are currently using it as such, in spite of the “No Standing” temporary construction regulation sign posted there.
The staff at Punjabi Deli are hopeful that this will allow them to remain in the neighborhood for years to come. I share that hope.
And I challenge you to find a tastier, healthier and cheaper meal in the neighborhood than what you get at Punjabi Deli for four bucks.