Our New York touchstones disappear and reemerge with dependable regularity. Ratner’s, Baby Jupiter, The Edison Cafe, and the Malaysian place that never had a sign out front (does everyone have one of those?) now all gone, were some of mine. But there’s one that has kept pace with my tenure in New York, thriving all the while
It is truly a hole in the wall. It’s run by two young guys named Ammar and M. Shaffiq and it’s called Lahore Deli. It’s across from one of Manhattan’s rare gas stations, tucked into a brief nook on the backside ground floor of a building where the rents are gag-worthy. It’s been in that nook for 20 years, and I first lucked upon it in the late ’90s. Soho was 11 subway stops away from my illegal sublet, and had already re-invented itself several times by then, but I got a newcomer’s thrill of discovery the first time I squeezed in for lunch. Finding an authentic New York Bargain was a step towards establishing my permanent resident status.
Over the course of a two-year documentary production, Lahore became my canteen. It was conveniently located in between the primary shooting location and the edit studio, and lunch–a veg and rice curry, plus chai–cost $5. They catered the party we had for the film, delivering 200 fresh samosas to our producer’s apartment. And I was back the next day for my usual.
Lahore is open 24/7, the food is prepared fresh at all hours, and boasts a steady stream of customers, regulars from all five boroughs, converging and dispersing with orbital reliability. There are day birds like me, who grab a tea and lunch for the road; night owls beginning their shift, or taking a break during a lull; cops and cabdrivers, fueling their cars and themselves; the drinkers who know this is the best place for a late night feast after last call.
Lahore makes it work, year after year. The biryani is always ready at 11:30am, and Ammar always gives my kids a packet of tea cookies for the road. The economics of a place whose average bill is still $5 boggles my mind, but it thankfully keeps it doors open. I’ve heard rumors that the gas station is closing (and then there will be nowhere in lower Manhattan to fill up), which would have dire implications for Lahore’s business. Ammar recently told me he wants to open up a restaurant with tables and everything, and he’s got a legion of devoted customers who would love to be able to pull up a chair.