And you'll want to eat at the restaurants, trust me.
I arrived on Thursday, after a chaotic series of events that made it so it took me almost as long to get from JFK to the hotel as it did for me to get from Austin to JFK. Some of it was my fault: at one point I was steps from the hotel, mis-read the street numbers, turned around, and walked a mile, with my computer bag and my suitcase. But here's the point: at least I got there.
The Haiban isn't going to make anybody's list of luxury hotels, even in Jersey City. In fact, it's barely a hotel. The current owners bought it ten months ago, rid the property of its bedbugs, and started renting out rooms with an eye towards long-stay Indian guests in town to do short gigs in the tech sector. For around a hundred bucks, I got a big room with a bed, another room with a sink, a fridge and a microwave, and a bathroom. No furniture except for a little chair that looked sad that the rest of the dinette set had walked off and left it, no glass to wash your mouth out after brushing your teeth, no desk at which to set up your computer (the wi-fi was great), and nothing much else. The walls are paper-thin and there's a chance the businessman in the next room is using Skype in the wee hours to make a deal. In the morning, basic breakfast is provided: tea, bread to toast, cereal. The people running the place are extremely friendly. And you can't beat the location:
These are just random grabs of the block of Newark Ave., a long street that starts downtown and winds its way until just past Little India. You will notice the huge number of restaurants. We will return to this, never fear. What's not a restaurant is probably a shop selling saris, a money-transfer operation, or a superette or meat market. I would have gone nuts in the superettes were it not for the fact that I have two well-stocked Indian markets right near my place in Austin. Not even they sell curry leaf (neem) plants, though. Gotta get me some of that.
Of course, my never-ending quest for great Indian food, and particularly south Indian food, would bring me to stay in a place like this, but there was another factor as well: PATH. This is a small subway system that connects places like Newark, Hoboken, and Jersey City with Manhattan. Really: in very little time at all, I was able to walk to the Journal Square PATH station and, with a regular New York City Metro Card, ride as far as a block from Penn Station. This proved to be amazingly convenient, and, in terms of getting where I needed to go, not much different than staying at a non-midtown hotel in Manhattan. Except for the price.
And Navratri. I got in about 10pm, thanks to the screwups, and heard the music coming from the parking lot across the street. The enthusiastic young man at the hotel desk told me it was the most important festival of the year, nine nights long, and many Hindus spent the entire nine nights praying, not bothering to sleep. I figured that was okay as long as they let me sleep. In fact, it appears to be a festival that's been celebrated since prehistoric times, as the excellent Wikipedia article hints. I was unaware of Navratri before this trip, but the whole world's currently aware of it as a result of the Indian Prime Minister's announcement that he's happy to have dinner at the White House with the Obamas, but he won't eat. It's also a fast, you see.
Well, I didn't want to fast, so I headed up the street to a promising-looking place called Deccan Spice with over-the-top encomia from the Village Voice food critic Robert Sietsma in the window. It was a very strange, but wonderful, experience. I was with a friend from Malaysia who'd, unfortunately, just eaten. (Well, you can't expect people to wait for you when they're starving and you're two hours late). Overwhelmed by the menu, I ordered something called Special Pakora to start. This was described as "paneer and cashew mixed with spices and gram flour and deep fried." We've all had pakoras: they're bits of vegetable coated in spiced chickpea (British: gram) flour (besan) and deep fried, so I figured this would be hunks of paneer, that amazing chewy Indian cheese, treated similarly. What I got was a big plate of crunchy tidbits, a bit like a bar snack for the beer they naturally don't serve here. (I had a Limca, an allegedly lime-flavored soft drink made by Coca Cola India which contains no juice at all, just some kind of unspecified "acid," and tastes sort of like lime-scented disinfectant. I have to order Limca once a decade to remind myself how little I like it). It was, its form notwithstanding, delicious, and I had to watch myself because I am all too aware how besan expands. Next up was the house specialty, Natu Kodi Vepudu, described as "spicy country chicken cooked with poppy seeds, coconut and curry leaves," which sounded astounding. It was. It was also not boneless. My Malaysian friend said there's a very similar-tasting dish back home, also not boneless. You're supposed to suck the marrow, crunch the cartilage, and, of course, eat the meat. The spice mixture was out of this world, and I'm going to go looking for it so I can treat some boneless chicken this way. As it was, my current dentition found it challenging, especially when a bone shard got under my denture and found its way to where my teeth had been extracted. I asked the waiter if I could have some rice on the side. He said, and I quote, "No."
Bizarrely enough, this didn't keep me from returning two nights later. I went with a Jersey Citizen of my acquaintance who'd never eaten in Little India, but who is somewhat spice-averse, which is okay because I suspect the Deccans are all too willing to blast you out if appropriate. For appetizers, she ordered samosas and I ordered chilli paneer. Her samosas were definitely southern Indian style (the restaurant advertises itself as Hyderabadi) and the filling, although it contained potatoes and peas, also contained other stuff that made it sublime. No sticky sweet chutney accompanied them, because really, nothing else was needed. For a main course, she got charminar ka murgh, "boneless chicken cooked in spinach gravy and spices," and I got a goat curry from a new state that had split off of Hyderabad and isn't listed either on the takeout menu I lifted or on line. The goat wasn't boneless, either, which was okay, because I'm used to Jamaican goat curry, which isn't boneless, either. It was pretty good, although, again, dentally challenging for me. My friend lucked out with her chicken: there was far more than spinach in that thick green sauce, including mint and fenugreek and cilantro. I do have one of those little Indian cookbooks back in Texas that claims to be Hyderabadi, and I'm going to look for it. Oh: how was my chilli paneer? No idea. It never came, despite two reminders to the waiter. Finally the manager showed up and my friend allowed as how the white rice she'd ordered hadn't come, either. That, at least, was produced post-haste.
In sum, I suspect that repeated visits to Deccan Spice would reveal a bunch of superb Indian cuisine of the sort I, and probably most gringos, have never had. There would be service problems, and if you order the "goat fry" you'd have to remember it's goat brains you're eating there. They're opening various new locations, and if they'd like a tip on a strip-mall property just down from an Indian grocery on William Cannon Boulevard in Austin, they should contact me. I promise to deliver customers if they promise to deliver the full order.
(Deccan Spice, 771 Newark Ave. Jersey City, NJ, 201-604-1772. www.deccan-spice.com. Open 11am-1am Mon-Thu, Sun, 11am-5am Fri & Sat. Other locations, check website).
* * *
The next day, not having had enough, I went to a place across the street and around the corner from the hotel for "pure vegetarian" food. Sapthagiri is another burgeoning empire that can have that space down from Man Prasand Grocery if Deccan Spice doesn't want it. It was lunchtime and I was, again, hungry, and this place's menu had a bewildering number of items on it. It also had a rabbinical certificate declaring the food Kosher. It serves both northern and southern Indian vegetarian stuff, but I was going to stick to the south, since that's less familiar and, if you make it at home, more labor-intensive.
I started out with rasam idly, two little puffs of rice flour left to ferment and rise overnight and then steamed, then soaked in that deceptively fiery thin lentil soup called rasam (which I have made, and loved: it's not hard). I don't have an idly maker, though, so here it is:
|Prepare to sweat, gringo|
The coconut raita, the white stuff, was exquisite. And those little puffs kept puffing when they got inside.
Which made my next choice a little prolematic: a dosa. Some day someone will teach me how to eat one of these mammoth pancakes, which are folded like a crepe over a filling that only makes a bit of a bump in the overall dish. Mine was a Mysore masala dosa, whose description on the menu says that it's "spread with spicy home made sauce and filled with mash of potato & onion and green peas and cashew nuts." I attacked this so fast I didn't have time to photograph it until I pulled up with the certain knowledge that a stomach ache awaited me if I ate another phenomenal forkful:
|Coconut raita, amazing rasam, three killer chutneys and that filling...|
I kind of ripped open the dosa to show off that filling. Man oh man.
That did me for the day, despite a trip into Manhattan and back and very good intentions to visit one of the biryani joints that was open late. But I noticed that Sapthagiri offered a breakast buffet on Saturdays and Sundays. My Malaysian friend was all ears at that -- and stomach, too. Saturday morning we were there:
There was excellent masala tea and less excellent masala Nescafé. This is the way to start the day, boys and girls!
(Sapthagari, 804 Newark Avenue, Jersey City, NJ, 201-533-8400, open seven days 11am to 10pm. Another location in Franklin Park, NJ).
* * *
There are many, many other restaurants on the block. I want to try one of the biryani joints, myself, specialists in what might be termed South Indian jambalayas, which can be fiendishly difficult to make at home, or not, depending on how complex the recipe you're making is. (I once made one with the rice in three layers, orange, white, and green, the colors of the Indian flag, each layer with different stuff in it. I almost died before I got it on the table, but, unbelievably, it was amazing. I'm not sure where the recipe is and am disinclined to go looking for it). Up the side-street from Sapthagari is an egg-based Indian restaurant, probably the only one in the US. I need to check that out; eggs aren't much eaten in India, from what I can tell. Another Jersey Citizen tells me that Dosa Hut is good, while another remembers going there -- or was it Dosa House down the street? -- and getting a dosa with a frozen center due to bad microwave technique. There are a couple of places obviously catering to a younger crowd with names like Chutney's that deserve a visit. Am I going to check back in to the Haiban when I get back on Monday so I can continue to investigate? Stay tuned.
* * *
Of course, each night starting about 8 there was dancing in the streets, big ring dances with men and women and loud live music, although the shenai and santur and sitar and other instruments were all synth presets played by one guy. There were, however, several drum kits to keep people shaking. There was a shrine in the parking lot, one by the stage, and another down the street in the front of a travel agency.
|The main shrine|
|The travel agency shrine|
People started dancing about 8, but things went on, with various vocalists, one of whom was a boy about 4 years old (who kept going flat, as kids do) singing pop-ghazal until about 1:30.
|Live music! Except for the presets. (Kid not shown: he came up later).|
|Only gives a hint of the chaos. Later: roman candles.|
Even on Thursday and Sunday, when there was no band, recorded music blared out. I was, amazingly, able to fall asleep to it, but unless you're going to celebrate, this might be a nine-day window to not stay in Little India. Of course, from Manhattan, it's the cost of one ride on your Metro Card, and the food won't break your budget at all.
I'm writing this in a considerably different hotel in Montreal, and the second chapter of this adventure has started. I will not be eating Indian food here, although I understand it's on offer...