A temporary pause in the customary blog action to mourn the closing of Sonali, a personal favorite pitstop on the Indian restaurant block of 6th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues in NYC. I'm not sure exactly when it closed, but I snapped this sad picture last night while on my way to meet a friend on the Lower East Side.
I suspect that most New Yorkers would echo the typical hate/tolerance of Curry Alley as a local cuisine phenomenon. The associated myths and opinions (that they all share the same kitchen, that what they serve isn't true Indian food, that the uptown cluster of Indian restaurants is much better, etc.) are as exhausted as any other bit of local folklore, but I wanted to take this opportunity to namecheck Sonali if only because it was, for years, my 6th Street destination of choice.
Before they emerged under new management about three years back, a good friend and I were weekly patrons for enough of the 90s to keep my innards burpin' and chirpin' for the rest of my life. The advantage of dining on this internationally feared block is that it's cheap, it's near a lot of other things that you might want to visit, and anybody in the city you might end up there with will have an opinion on which place is the best. Very few 6th Street regulars are willing to randomly choose a restaurant, in spite of the barkers who stand poised outside of every last doorway, tempting passers by with the promise of tantalizing delights within. One could think that the exotic flavors of the Far East had never been more within reach.
6th Street dining experiences are heavily steeped in tradition, and I'm not just referring to the barkers. Since few of these eateries have liquor licenses, a visit to one of the local Indian delis is a manatory pre-dining pitstop for some exotic Indian beer. I generally take the un-adventurous route and get King Fisher, but the quick poll I just conducted with the known beer-snobs on WFMU's office staff has illuminated that Bill Zurat's favorite vindaloo-cutting spirit is Taj Majal, whereas Scott Williams soars regularly high atop the Golden Eagle. Regardless of your preference, you'll be sure to find a smiling waiter at whichever restaurant you choose, armed with a trusty bottle opener, and ready to pop your top to the tune of a fizzy Indian buzz. (Important aside: Another popular Indian brew, Haywards 5000, should never be referred to as "Haircut 100", even in jest.)
Another crucial 6th Street tradition is establishing which breads and appetizers will be ordered and shared by the assembled diners. Before refining my taste for a good garlic Naan, I was fascinated with Poori, which is a big puffy bread that inflates like a balloon and which I once drunkenly re-christened "UFO bread", much to the amusement of our exceedingly polite and patient waiter. So taken was I with this light and flakey delicacy, I once tried to make it at home and very nearly started a three alarm grease fire in my kitchen. Fair enough. I now leave it to the professionals.
* The "How Was Our Service" card found on the tables at Sonali throughout the 90s were a mind-numbing excursion in hilarity. The checkable options to describe the food were as follows:
* The flight of stairs that ascends to and is shared by two competing restaurants right around the corner where 6th Street empties onto 1st Avenue. One of the restaurants is called Panna II and is a firetrap of exemplary detail, what with its 40,000 strings of Christmas lights which are left on all year round, and cast a peculiar, otherworldly color on one's food. Even if you didn't order the Tandoori, those lights are going to make it look like you did. One time, while walking by that staircase, I witnessed the two restaurant's competing barkers get into a fistfight with one another -- kicking and punching eachother and rolling out into the street. A crowd gathered and broke them up, and it was then that I witnessed one of the most peculiar New York moments of my entire life: a lengthy and stern lecture by random members of the crowd to both men about how they needed to figure out a way to settle their disputes with civility and get along. They sheepishly took their community scolding and resumed their posts, bruised and bloodied to the last.
* I'm not sure if anyone else has noticed this, but there seems to be a gradual price increase in the restaurants' menus if one traverses the block from east to west. Beginning at the bottom of 1st Avenue, we find the aforementioned Panna II, which is really cheap. Round the corner and start heading up 6th towards 2nd Avenue, and things start getting a bit more pricey, with menu items going up in 25 cent increments for every twenty paces. In the middle of the block, we (up until recently) had Sonali -- a mid-priced venue for the budget-minded curry enthusiast. Head further west, and you'll pass the open-air joints and a few restaurants that feature regular live music from Sitar-wielding old guys. (Which translates dually into a more lively dining experience, and additionally hiked prices to cover this extra staffing.) At the top of the block, make a left and just two doors down you will find Haveli, which was for years regarded as the fanciest joint of its sort in the neighborhood. (Although as of last night, it was still sporting the same bullet hole in the front windowpane that's been there since last summer.)
Haveli's prices are far above what you'll find on 6th Street. A request for water will earn you a query as to whether you prefer "bottled" or "tap". And although I haven't been there in years, I seem to recall that they have their own liquor license and offer the accordant full bar. Strangely, with all of these amenities, it is also the only restaurant in NYC where I have had a many-legged critter scamper across my table, and it happened there twice, which is a large part of why I haven't been back.
* Back when the WFMU Record Fair was held at nearby Mary Help of Christian's Church, 6th Street was probably the most popular post-digging destination in the neighborhood, especially given that most Record Fair attendees had little money left over after a day spent in search of Hasil Adkins 45s and Sun Ra rarities. The excited banter of WFMU listeners who'd just scored long-wanted vinyl treasures was a nice complement to the sitar renditions of songs by Prince, Abba, and Rick Springfield that routinely boomed through tinny ceiling speakers.
* Two words: Lemon pickle. Every Indian restaurant has it on their menu, yet no one seems to keep it in stock. Try ordering it sometime and then watch your waiter pull on his coat, step around the corner to the deli for a moment, and then cast you an annoyed glance as he sets a bag down on your table.
Previously on Beware of the Blog: Kip Winger Emerges Victoriously from Chicken Tikka Masala