I hadn't been in a cab for more than a few minutes before I got my first taste of small fried goat. "Tassot Cabrit" is the name for the dish on the menu at Le Soleil, a tiny storefront Haitian restaurant off the corner of Tenth Avenue and 57th Street. Le Soleil was the favorite haunt of Oscar Joseph, a New York cabbie from Port-au-Prince. In Port-au-Prince, the finest goat is boiled, then marinated for two days in a mix of things like garlic, lemon juice, and hot peppers. That's also how they do it at Le Soleil, and when it gets to your table, it's been fried into dense blackened chunks and decorated with a slice of onion. The meat's crisp on the outside with a hot Tabasco tang and softly chewy at its center, and it tastes smoky and oddly exotic, like a backroads delicacy from a faraway land.
Fried goat is just one of the dishes you'll encounter if you get in a New York taxicab and follow your nose. I recently spent an afternoon cruising the city, hailing cabs, asking drivers to take me to their favorite dining spots. During the course of a single afternoon I sampled flattened pork sandwiches; a plate of wet, not-so-tasty Haitian conch; and a Ghanaian stew called Egusi. I watched real Punjabi chai being poured into paper cups from a great height and drank a bubblegum-tasting Haitian soft drink called Rexy. The trip lasted about five hours, but it felt like a whirligig gastronomic tour of the world.
My first cabbie was Alphonso Campoverde, from Ecuador. When I told him my mission, he drove straight to the Havana Chelsea restaurant on Eighth Avenue. A cop stood by the cash register waiting for his lunch, and several old gents clustered around the counter dressed in guayabera shirts. At my driver's suggestion, I ordered short ribs and a toasted Cubano sandwich, containing bountiful pieces of white pork garnished with garlic salt, pickles, and melted cheese. The pork was a little dry, but the ribs were excellent, with yellow rice and black beans ladled from a steaming silver tray.
Next came the fried goat with Mr. Joseph. That was followed by a long, digestive drive up the West Side Highway, to the African Food Temple on Webster Avenue in the Bronx. Muhammad Ali was at the wheel, an eloquent gentleman from Accra, Ghana, with a college degree in economics. The Food Temple doubles as a nightclub, but by day it's mobbed with well-dressed Ghanaian cabbies, all feasting on Egusi stew. Egusi is a savory mash of spinach and crushed melon seeds with beef, tripe, or fish. You eat it with your hands, with a choice of glutinous, pounded yam or cassava or corn for dipping. Ali joined me for a late lunch and recommended the corn, which had a sweet fermented taste. The waitress brought big finger bowls to wash our hands in, but I used the bathroom, which smelled of perfume and was decorated with strings of plastic tropical flowers.
There were no cabs to be found in the Bronx, so after lunch, Ali drove me down to the Lahore Deli, a gathering spot for Pakistani cabbies, in SoHo. There were eighteen items on the menu (including curried goat), none more than $4. "Try the chai," said a very un-Punjabi-looking antique dealer wearing horn-rimmed glasses. "It's the real deal." The chai was oversweetened with condensed milk, but I tasted a pleasingly buttery samosa for 75 cents and nibbled on some rice pudding to soothe my growling belly.
Outside, it was changeover time, and cabs were hard to come by. When I finally hailed one, it was driven by Usnam Noor, from Lahore. I told him of my gastronomic adventures, and he crinkled his nose distastefully. "These curry shops are not healthy," he said. "Why not try the McDonald's on 34th Street. There's lots of parking nearby. I take you there, no problem!"
LE SOLEIL, 877 Tenth Ave., near 57th St. (212-581-6059); HAVANA CHELSEA, 190 Eighth Ave., near 19th St. (212-243-9421); AFRICAN FOOD TEMPLE, 2254 Webster Ave., the Bronx (718-933-6710); LAHORE DELI, 132 Crosby St. (212-965-1777).
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