Late at night, there are intervals when Urdu is the only language spoken inside Haandi, a fanatically adored restaurant that may be the most popular after-hours spot in the area known as Curry Hill. It is as integral to some taxi drivers’ routines as the gas needed to refuel their cars.
Stacks of free newspapers like New York Awam and The Pakistan Post sit inside the entrance, on Lexington Avenue near 28th Street, the heart of Curry Hill. Only chai, not coffee, is served. By day, business bustles with students and office workers. At night, Pakistani and Indian cabdrivers meet to change shifts with partners, one having dinner, the other breakfast. Others stop to wash in the restrooms before prayers, and sometimes, when the restaurant is not busy, they kneel to pray on the lower level.
The white walls have little decoration. The food counter, however, is a sea of spice and color: lamb shanks emerging from oily red lagoons, rich green saag, yellow biriyani, freshly buttered naan; hard-to-find dishes like paya — cow foot soup — lack any description on the wall menu.
Haandi’s two owners, Shabbir Sial and Artaza Ali, are childhood friends from Nizamabad, a small town in (Karachi) Pakistan. They started cooking in Curry Hill in the 1990s and returned to found Haandi in 2001; a devoted clientele of cabdrivers followed them there.
Mr. Ali is an encyclopedia of his region’s cuisine who prides himself on the authenticity of his kitchen’s Pakistani and North Indian food. With a wave, he dismisses his competitors. They fail in key aspects of preparation, he says: They use the wrong cuts of meat for kebabs, they use the wrong chickpeas, and they use spices overzealously.
“If we can’t do it right,” Mr. Ali says, “we don’t do it at all.”
Haandi was quiet at 3 a.m. on a recent Monday. Two regulars, Tariq Mahmood and Shafqat Bhatti, had just capped the workday with a feast. Their taxis were parked outside. They nursed their bellies and spooned sugar into their chai.
“This is my brother,” Mr. Mahmood said, pointing to Mr. Bhatti. “Actually, he is my cousin, but we say ‘brother.’ It is our culture.”
“The only culture here is money,” he joked, speaking of America.
It was the second visit of his shift for Mr. Mahmood. He eats at Haandi almost every day, as Mr. Bhatti does; it has been a practice for years. “Ninety percent of cabdrivers are Pakistani,” he said. “The quality is best here.”
An older man wearing a traditional shalwar kameez walked in. His rich silver beard was clean and combed. “Salaam aleikum,” he said to the server behind the counter.
“There!” Mr. Mahmood said of the Muslim greeting. “You see? This is customary.”
Mr. Bhatti smiled and agreed: “This is customary.”
The older man, Mohammad Khan, sat down to wait for his order. A disheveled fellow wearing a beanie came in from the chill and gruffly asked for a handout. Mr. Khan called out to the server in Urdu: “I’m buying him dinner. Give him what he wants.”
Mr. Khan, a cabbie from Lahore, Pakistan, has frequented Haandi for eight years, he said, and was a regular of the restaurants in Curry Hill, in Kips Bay, long before that.
“This was a dangerous area 30 years ago,” he recalled. “You didn’t want to come here. But it was one of the few places to eat in the city. Cabdrivers even came then.”
The newcomer finished his food and left without thanking his benefactor. Mr. Khan paid no attention. Just before the restaurant closed at 4 am, Mr. Khan prepared to head out into the predawn cold. “I come not just to eat,” he said, “but to pray, to use the bathroom. It’s my place.” - Courtesy New York Times. Picture by Dave Sanders for The New York Times