Like an epidemiologist studying the distribution of diseases, I plot clusters of great restaurants on a big map. Long ago I noticed that many of the best cheap ethnic places hide in the shadow of elevated subway lines. Perhaps the periodic clatter of trains and the sun's permanent eclipse depress the value of real estate for more lucrative uses. And the noisy crowds periodically hurrying up and down the rusting metal steps certainly provide another requisite of a long-running establishmentwarm bodies.
Whatever the cause, one of my favorite clusters radiates from the intersection of Lydig Avenue and White Plains Road in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx, directly beneath the IRT 2 and 5 trains. This area of gracious multifamily residential architecture hosts one of the city's most diverse populations. Moving outward from the corner, there's a Jamaican vegan lunch counter, a Russian bakery, a Chinese restaurant that also serves Mexican food, an Albanian burek joint that dispenses the best Italian espresso in the city, a Mexican bakery that recently replaced an Italian one but still manages to generate good butter cookies, and numerous diners and pizza parlors. These one-offs compete with franchise spots, and, judging by the eager crowds, are winning the battle handily.
Newest of all is the profusely alliterative Rawal Ravail Restaurant, just west of the corner. A long steam table greets you upon entering, with a humming kitchen visible behind that. The walls are extravagantly mirrored, the tables covered with marble-like Formica an intense shade of green, and the tall chairs much more comfortable than you'll find in other curry houses. Inevitably, you've got to wonder who the previous tenant was in this glitzy, sprawling space. You don't have to look fara painting of a tile-roofed Italian village has been removed from the walls and stood on its end in one corner as a tribute.
A woman in a handsome green sari and the convivial proprietor wait on our table as a team. We don't so much order from the menu as negotiate a full meal (average cost: $8 per person). The other tables are occupied by men single or in pairs who sit and enjoy tandoori snacks and breads, or by extended families dining on great platters of meat and veggies. The highlight of our first meal was a pungent curry with big chunks of goat and a gravy that didn't glue our lips together. Another time it was a freebie of the Pakistani favorite haleem. Though this name can be applied to a range of dishes, in this case it was a saucer of beef that had been pulled and smashed almost into a paste. Our host revealed the secret of the quivering puddinglike consistency: corn flour. Thanks again, Columbus.
While you wouldn't normally go to a Pakistani place for vegetables, Rawal offers a decent selection. We marveled at a dish of spinach and lentils, a green slurry dotted with crunchy white urad dahl that managed a convincing imitation of Rice Krispies. Breads are another strong point. Though alu paratha normally functions as breakfast, you can order it anytime and enjoy the potato-filled bread. The usually boring paratha turns out to be lacha paratha, a buttery layered bread good enough to be eaten alone.
Though there'd never been a menu before, the proprietor handed us one as we left on a recent rainy evening, warning us: "There are mistakesit's our first try." The typos shouldn't bother anyone. You want spelling, go to McDonald's.
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