Nothing gets in the way of a satisfying South Asian restaurant meal like hidden fat and unfamiliar names.
What was that dish you ordered the last time, the one that took the skin right off your lips? A biriyani or a korma? And while you may no longer remember its name, can you ever forget how, hours afterward, it was still reminding you of the vast quantities of stomach-clogging ghee concealed in the folds of its tangy sauce.
Enter Desi Shack, a tiny, welcoming restaurant that offers a casual take on the region’s culinary specialties. Rather than a menu of myriad categories of fancifully named dishes, it offers about a dozen building blocks — most with familiar names — and lets you compose your own meal.
A desi (pronounced day-see) is someone from South Asia, a region that includes India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, although just one of this restaurant’s founders is a desi, from Pakistan, while the other is Egyptian. But the Desi Shack does not fit into the traditional South Asian mold.
Striving for ‘healthy’
The food retains the essence of the region’s spices and flavors, but bends heavily toward a modern New York ethos. It may be hard these days to get away with calling lamb and cheese “healthy,” but the menu here is certainly relatively light and healthy, particularly compared with your typical curry joint.
Desi Shack is open for lunch and dinner, though lunch is the main meal here. Most customers buy their food to go, but there is limited seating at a picnic table plunked down in the middle of the restaurant as well as a half dozen stools facing a counter that runs along the wall, facing busy Lexington Avenue.
The restaurant is small enough that when you walk through the door, you are already in line to order, a task carried out in the form of an assembly line, a format that seems to be growing in popularity. The various building blocks are laid out for your inspection in a row of stainless-steel trays, and servers ready to progressively lay out your meal, in a plastic platter, in layers according to your wishes.
To make things easy, there are just four main “dishes”: minced lamb, chicken and paneer (a farmer’s cheese), each cubed and grilled, and a mildly spiced potato-heavy vegetable stew known as aloo. The chicken, lamb and paneer are cooked on long skewers over a big gas grill a few yards behind the counter.
How would you like that?
Your first decision is whether to have your main dish strewn across a bed of greens, arrayed on basmati rice or rolled up in a round flatbread called a paratha. If placed on a rice or a salad foundation, your meal is going to cost $8.25 to $8.75. The rolls are $5 to $5.50 each, but if you have a hardy appetite, the management suggests two of them to make a meal, shaving $1 off the total.
Then you pick toppings, as if for pizza. For the rice and salad plates, you can have as many as you like: sautéed peppers and onions, corn salad, shredded lettuce, shredded purple onion and minced green chilies. For the rolls, you choose just two of these.
Finally, you get to top all that with chutneys ranging from “mild” (cucumber yogurt) to “extra hot” (red chili), although they are not that hot. (But they do moisten up the somewhat dry grilled meats.) And if you’re still hungry, you can order an extra flatbread or a smallish deep-fried pastry (samosa) stuffed with aloo for $1.50 more.
To drink, Desi Shack offers the usual Midtown soft drinks with excellent alternatives. The best is the mango lassi ($3), a thick, luscious mix of yogurt and mango juice. There’s also a warming masala chai tea ($2.50), a milky broth enhanced with aromatic spices.
‘The paneer rocks!’
While most restaurants offer menu blather on how green they are, Desi Shack concentrates instead on what it calls its “ethos,” doing good while working hard to provide its customers with high-quality food. The “good” in this case is “giving back to the community” through charitable giving.
“We wanted Desi Shack to be our way of helping those around us who have not been as fortunate as we have been,” the Web site says. So for every meal sold, “we will donate 5 cents straight to charity. The numbers add up!”
The owners also encourage customers to post comments on a bulletin board in the restaurant. “Mango lassi — yum!” states one. “The paneer rocks,” says another. “Extra hot = extra good,” says one more. Going by the feedback, these are satisfied customers.
Desi Shack is open Monday through Friday from 11 am to 9 pm. It is located at 331 Lexington Avenue at 39th Street; (212) 867-3374.
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.