Curry Hill, midnight. A line of yellow, dimpled with the black vinyl dashing of New York City taxi cabs. A low hum of Urdu fills the sidewalk beneath a bright red sign that glows: Haandi. Beneath the sign are the words Pakistani, Indian & Bangladeshi Restaurant. Though out of my way (located close to the 28th Street stop on the 6 train), Haandi is usually open until 3am and serves hot food until the doors close.
Up the cracked stairs, into the small space, along the tables strewn with tin foil, plastic cups and plates, pages out of New York Awam and The Pakistan Post doubling as placemats, you’ll find humble South Asian cuisine at all hours, rife with spice in a neighborhood that prides itself on olfactory dominance.
This late-night cabby-haven is quite unlike Alpha Donuts in Queens, where many drivers stop for a meal at the conclusion of their shift. Founded in 2001, Haandi is wedged between a buffet and liquor store in a part of Manhattan (28th and Lexington) frequented most often by college students hustling from Baruch, or the financiers on Park Avenue. There are posh Indian restaurants across the street, but none with the same energy.
Haandi is the quintessential grab-chat-sit-and-stay dining spot for any night owl in the Kips Bay-Murray Hill area. A simple glass serving counter is all that stands between you and cow foot soup, keema naan, qorma and tiki masala, made with beef, goat, lamb, quail or brain. Most house specials don’t exceed $9.99.
The extensive menus above the counter belie the whiplash service that follows your order. The deep flavors are further enhanced by the atmosphere, undercut with the constant thrum of news from back home and the frustrations of drivers boxed-in for twelve hours.
I experience my own frustration at Haandi: ordering. Every time I look at a South Asian menu I get stuck. I feel rushed. I worry about asking too many questions and being judged, sounding rude, inarticulate and uneducated. Don’t you know that’s creamy spinach? Don’t you know the difference between naan and kulcha? You idiot. Get out of here. Scram!
Of course, no one actually dispenses the unpleasantries I levy against myself, in my own head. I do have a few fallback lines on which I hinge most meals where I am either in a rush or too nervous to dissect every menu item, concerned for other customers, waiting impatiently behind me.
• What are the most popular items?
• What do you think goes well with [enter your favorite meat]?
• [Look around and point] I’ll take whatever she’s having!
If all else fails, order something from the chicken section of the menu, along with some samosas.
Another way to explore Haandi’s potentially overwhelming menu is their daily lunch buffet, ($9.99 during the week, $11.99 on the weekends). If you love something you sample, don’t be afraid to ask what its name so you can order it again, during non-lunch hours, because the restaurant really is best experienced late at night, a bright spot on an otherwise dismal stretch of Lexington Avenue. Nearby, Whiskey Rebel offers the dive bar hideout where you could easily drink yourself into a hankering for spice.
Stand outside and fret, first impressions leading you to believe this is a hailing stand and you’ve hit the vacant cab jackpot. Peer through the large windows facing onto Lexington Avenue, and revel at a different world. Then, invite yourself inside.