On the busy 21st street in LIC, a block north of the F at the projects by the ramp to the bridge, is this seemingly insipid and grimy food shop, plain glass front, Pakistani green awning, with words printed on in white that read "New Halal Kitchen". Having been a driver for about a decade, I've passed by this shop on many occasions. I am conscious of this because, no matter how unimpressive the shop may be from the outside, my eyes have always been drawn there, conjuring images of kitchen so filthy that a health inspection meant certain closure. Driving back to work from an errand, minutes before lunch, I made a decision to pull up behind a parked utility vehicle stationed in front of the shop. For those that know the neighborhood at least somewhat, stopping at that spot on 21st street is almost certain to earn a driver the filthiest of glares and vocalized vulgarities. Due to this opportune moment though, no more would New Halal kitchen tantalize my wary curiosity. As an added bonus, breakfast had worked its way through digestion, and the pangs of hunger started to beckon.
The glass-covered steam table was filled with what might expect from a typical halal eatery: a goat curry, a chicken dish of sorts, a chickpea stew, daal, a mélange of peas, cauliflower, and potatoes, and what seemed to be rice that had been cooked with odds and ends of a goat. In addition, there was pressed spiced beef on a vertical spit (the notorious gyro), and behind that, two tandoori style pits, of which the larger of the two was being used to cook skewered chunks of what I think was chicken. As I placed my order, the man behind the counter asked if I wanted bread; and when I asked what kind and he replied pita, I was kind of expecting to be bored by a typical prepackaged flatbread. The man then stepped back to the smaller of the two pits, found his glasses, took his glasses out of their case, unfolded them, put them on (I write gradually cascading the events, as I had been anxious about the car parked in a 'safe' spot, still illegally though, and I was due back at work anyhow) wrote up the order formally on a carbon-copy pad, and returned my attention to him following paying for the food, to a lady who had stepped up to the register. He placed a round object, that seemed to be removed from a small cheeseclothed bundle, in the smaller of the two pits. I looked around the shop, cheap reproductions depicting pilgrimages to Mecca amidst mostly barren walls, some very dull and scattered seating arrangements. Turning the focus back to the two men working beyond the counter, the one closer to the front of the shop was bagging a pita. The pita had been cooked to order, in a charcoal-heated pit. I was enthralled. As the remainder of my order was eventually being put together, a man that had been cooking further away from the counter was now approaching with a rectangular steam table pan filled with what was obviously vegetable, a light green, narrow and long; what might, without too much attention, be passed off as stewed string beans. As he brought the pan closer to my eyes, which had intently been following its contents since it came into sight, my suspicious were confirmed when the dark-skinned and thinly-bearded bearer of said pan mouthed "bitter melon". My elated joy at freshly baked pita now took on epic proportions, a helium-filled balloon transformed to a hot air balloon.
Just the day before, at a CSA-organized vegetarian potluck, a farmer had been talking about this bumpy gourd that looks like it might be a cousin of the cucumber, if it existed in a neighboring solar system. He said he had brought some, so when the lecture part ended and the lunch part ensued, I asked the farmer where the bitter melon was; he then explained he had brought some heirloom varieties back with him from Nepal, in the form of seeds. I guess my mind had been on food during the lecture. What was deprived yesterday by way of disappointment was replenished in the guise of surprise. The food was overall pleasing (most scrumptious of all the steaming morsels of pinched pita devoured on the brief drive back to work), despite the ensuing criticisms. The food was placed in flimsy thin clear plastic containers, which I doubt were heat-proof. Id go there with my own transporting containers if not for the fear that Id be looked down upon by people that escaped to the great country of capitalism to escape the plague of peasantry. The daal and mixed vegetable were served in one container, heavy on the oil, and barely distinguishable when I stirred through the contents; also, the yellow split peas were still intact (Im used to having daal made from red lentils, which tend to collapse faster than most split peas to be clear that this isnt a long list of complaints, the food was very good). The bitter melon was wonderfully bitter, a taste that Vedic and Chinese healing systems associate with blood cleansing qualities (indeed, the farmer from the day before had been talking about the underlying sensibility of eating with the seasons bitter melons come into season with other bitter vegetables, when sugar and starch-heavy hearty winter root vegetables begin to be phased out due to warmer weather), a taste which is all too often snubbed by the occidental palette; cooked a bit longer than preferred, and heavy on the oil for my tastes. Both dishes contained dill seeds and moderately spicy finger-length dried peppers. I think that seven bucks was a steal in exchange for a warm meal and satiation to a well-aged curiosity.
Update: I had lunch there again; ordered daal, an eggplant-potato dish, and naan cooked to order in a tandoori (and then placed in an individual breadbasket that might have never been washed and had a bizzare web/bacteria layer at the bottom speckled with sesame seeds and crumbs). The eggplant-potato dish was a bit on the undercooked side, which was refreshing considering the way vegetables are abused. I wouldn't get it again though; raw eggplant (especially if unsalted) is quite unpalatable, and raw potato has kind of a sickening flavor - flavor in the dish was lacking overall. The opaque color of the potato almost hinted at microwaving. Samosas were available, and decent (and heated up in the microwave unless requested lukewarm). The serving ware were glass plates and metal utensils, a rarity in casual joints. And I was able to catch up on my midday desi soap operas. A drawback though, when I asked to used the bathroom (so as to wash my hands before eating) and was shown to one in the back of the kitchen, I found no soap and no soap dispenser, not even a grimy mildew-riden bar on the sink ledge. Guess who else isn't using soap?