If it’s Tuesday, grab saag sarso da with maki di roti. Penned in a Punjabi-English patois, the phrase describes a mellow dish of mustard greens accompanied by a roti fashioned from corn flour, rather than the usual whole wheat. It tastes like corn bread. This striking combo ($4.25) is part of a weekly rotation of 15 specials—many unique to New York—you’ll find at Minar.
The cafeteria started out eight years ago as a narrow den in an SRO hotel on East 29th Street. Four years later it moved to its present location in the wholesale district, and a recent renovation has left it the handsomest budget Indian in town, with subtle wall treatments and artistic color photos of chiles, dals, and biryanis posed as seductively as Playgirl centerfolds. Long communal tables encourage strangers to sit next to each other, creating a camaraderie among the office workers, hipsters, street vendors, and vegetarians of many races who pour in at lunchtime, and exchange knowing glances that they’re enjoying one of the best food deals in town.
A gleaming steam table the size of an ocean liner offers 16 entrées, twice as many as in comparable establishments; you can also order anything from the much larger wall menu and it will appear in five minutes or so. The food quality recalls Jackson Diner in its heyday, and some of the best Mughal offerings include kofta curry (mixed-vegetable balls in a zippy red sauce), lamb saag (chunks of meat mired in pureed greens), and the hopelessly rich chicken makhani (a/k/a butter chicken). All cost $5.50 or less in large individual servings, or they can be ganged up three to a plate with rice or bread for the same amount. The Punjabi orientation of the proprietors guarantees that the biryanis—their fragrant rice heavily laced with meat, vegetables, and whole cloves, cardamom, and cinnamon—will be some of the tastiest things on the menu. The humble samosa (two for $1.50) are also spectacular, with a thinner and crispier pastry than usual and a livelier filling.
Because the meat and poultry are not halal, Minar is cut off from much of its potential cabbie constituency (though the restaurateurs have installed Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim iconography to make everyone feel welcome). Instead, it encourages the patronage of South Indian vegetarians by offering iddly, uthappam, and masala dosa. Notable for their mind-boggling size, which no plate can contain, the dosai come in 12 variations ($3.50 to $6.50), many indistinguishable to the neophyte. Avoid the newfangled cheese and spinach versions and stick with the standards like masala dosa, mysore masala dosa, and, especially, special butter masala dosa, glistening with ghee.
But adventurous eaters will wager on those daily specials. Wednesday, rajmaa is a good bet. Though we don’t usually associate kidney beans with Indian cooking, this dish features them in a spicy brown gravy, reminiscent of Texas chili. Skip the bell-peppered chicken shaslik—it’s too sweet. Thursday’s fish curry is also a treat, in a piquant sauce that must contain a dozen spices. While most days feature only two choices, Friday is an orgy of specials. And whether you go for the stewed okra, shrimp curry, stuffed potatoes, black gram beans called kala chana, or the mysterious steam roast chicken, with its moist smoky flavor, you’ll leave with money in your pocket.