Forgive me. I'm a college student. Thus my first reaction to my dinner at Sangam was neither textured nor articulate, rather it was merely the aforementioned expression of culinary delight.
Let me explain.
As a West Villager, I have been very lucky with certain types of foods. Two of the best sliceries (why not a word?), Joe's and Bleecker Street are both affordable and in walking distance. There's great middle eastern from Mamoun's to Moustache to Taim to Yummy Schwarmy, each with it's own cultural/country bias. There's even a surprising surfeit of good Mexican food (amazing for New York). We may have only "decent" Chinese, but it's essentially a chowish nabe and a great place to grow up.
However, the one food group, my most beloved food group, that I always lacked in the area was Indian.
By the time I had started to take food seriously in high school, Mitali West, the local "good" place had already started to struggle and decrease their food quality to the point of inedibility. Ghandi Cafe was decent but a poor substitute. Indian Taj was overpriced with small portions and Baluchi's was and always has been (in my food lifetime) pathetic. Even Surya was hit or miss and a little too "haute" for me.
All of them were also far too expensive for a consistent meal.
Even when Kati Roll Company and Indian Bread Co. came to the neighborhood, they were strange subsections of Indian food tasting nothing like the curries I had come to love (although Kati Roll made it in to my rounds as a good pseudo-burrito joint for late screenwriting nights).
I despaired. I went far and wide. Found good places in Queens, in the East Village, in Gramercy, in Times Square. But nothing accessible, and if accessible, always expensive.
It was to my surprise then, three weeks ago, when I saw a weird little hole in the wall on the journey back to my apartment named "Sangam". It was around 11 that night and I had already had dinner, but I stopped to take a look at the menu of some place that advertised itself as "Authentic Indian Cuisine".
To my bizarre shock, I saw that they only offered two entrees: Chicken Biryani and Vegetable Biryani. In my mind, Biryani had always been the red-headed stepchild of the Indian restaurant menu. The Indian answer to the "Chinese" Chicken Fried Rice, it always offered less food and less interest then say, a Chicken Tikka Masala or a Vindaloo. It was always always ten dollars, where as Chicken Fried Rice at a downscale Chinese joint would run you 4 or 5.
Here however, this was the only offering, costed at 7 and 6 dollars respectively. I was shocked at the mere existence of what appeared to be the only known chicken-fried-rice joint I had ever seen. I went in and talked a bit to the owner and told him that, while I had had dinner already, I'd be back for Lunch tomorrow.
To my chagrin, when I returned at noon-thirty the next day, the place was closed, shuttered. Annoyed, I called the number on the menu and got the answering machine, but didn't leave a message. Once again, I was amazed when later that day I got a call from the owner, saying he had seen my number on Caller ID and apologizing for the late open asking if I would come back, so I did for dinner, dragging along a companion who, incidentally had been seeking to eat Chinese fried rice that evening.
We both got the main dish of the place, Chicken Biryani, which was a flat 7 dollars, no tax. We were served, to stay, a large container each of aromatic fried rice, tossed with what seemed to be chicken tikka and topped with large, spicy fried onions. We were also given a large hockey puck of raita (cucumber yogurt sauce) on the side to place on our rice as we wished.
It was... unreal. All throughout my college experience, throughout my experience living in the West Village I had sought an Indian place that ascribed to my standard of value per cost over quality. What I was served was delicious, far better than any Biryani I had ever had, including the one I had at the fancy Indian joint (also excellent) Tamarind. What's more though, was that it was 7 dollars and enough to fill me completely without a shadow of a doubt.
My friend confided in me that this was, indeed, better than the pork fried rice he had once sought that evening.
What's more the food tasted good, tasted fresh. I met the chef/proprietress who had cooked our food for us and who was very happy to talk to me, as it was only her behind the counter and the short order cook she was training. She told me that this is what she cooked at home, that she uses her own spice mix, that she was trying to teach the chef that this was the quality she wanted.
What can I say? Maybe I'm a sucker. Maybe I'm easily taken in. Maybe it's only because I found a good Indian place I can eat at on the budget of a college student in my neighborhood. But I was taken it by this quirky chicken-fried-rice joint. With all the Chipotles and Subways and falafel joints down the block along with the less qualified pizzerias, here was a restaurant trying to do one thing well, one thing they claimed to know how to do from home, from experience and it tasted good. And it was filling.
So, what can I say? I saw my beloved 99 Miles to Philly tumble and fall out of my neighborhood, despite its quality, despite its aesthetic. Thank God they still had their other location. But now that I've discovered what is certainly the most interesting new place I've been to this year, I feel like I had to say something, that I had to inform other hounds, that maybe they'd like it and the once cursed location of "Pop's Pierogis" could be purified by Hound buzz.
Maybe I'm a sucker, but I loved it. I loved the food, loved the atmosphere, loved having a place I could eat it at that would fill me, that would give me something new and underappreciated, something I couldn't really get anywhere else. Not the same.
But you, Chowers, you are discerning. Thus I hope you try Sangam and forget my words and have your own experience with it flavored by your own food history. For then we can have a discussion and what is better on this hallowed board than a sharing of Chowhound experience?