How did we ever find good restaurants and services before the Internet? I remember the days when observations like “Mrs. Smith told me that her friend’s son’s girlfriend’s mother’s ex-husband recently opened an Italian restaurant that’s pretty decent” were considered highly useful. Based on these sole recommendations, off we’d go to the pizzeria- such adventurers- usually only to be…disappointed. Ah, back to the same old Chinese takeout then.
These days, not a whole lot has actually changed. We still discover places through word of mouth but the web of connections is definitely not single-sourced, and certainly not expressed so confusingly. Instead, the tangled web of connections is known simply as “Yelp”, “Foursquare”, or “Foodspotting”.
I’ve always been a fan of trying new places. When I reviewed food in my little college town of Gainesville, I was like Mowgli exploring the Amazon. So you can imagine what fun I’m having exploring a metropolis like New York.
Yelp and Foursquare have been my travel partners in crime. They’re like those trendy friends who know the ins and outs of the city. They are the go-to experts on everything ranging from the best peppermint cocoa in Brooklyn (Gimme Coffee!- thanks Yelp) to the cheapest salon in the area for an urgent eyebrow waxing need (thanks Foursquare).
However, amid all the plethora of choices, I’ve begun to yearn for a regular go-to place. You know, like that favorite neighborhood diner you frequent far too much? In Gainesville, that was my dear Maude’s (coffeeshop with the best cheescake). Today, I think I found the first locale to start my New York list. The Masala Wala is located on the Lower East Side just a block away from the famous Katz’s Deli. It greeted me with rich brown decor, reminiscent of the aromatic spices of India. The place is small, but that adds to the appeal. I felt comfortable whipping out my laptop and working like I was at Starbucks, even while people around me formally dined. Certainly helped that there was free wi-fi.
My first night here, the waiter gave me a free sample of mango lassi. I ordered the Masala Chai (their staple drink), which paired well with the vegetarian kofta (a pan-fried dish with carrots and beets, pictured above). I returned for the second time today not so much because the food was delicious (though it certainly was), but because of the impeccable service. My waiter last time was so attentive and I couldn’t forget the owner’s welcoming smile, a friendly Indian man who encouraged me to stay as long as I wanted for good food or even just the free wi-fi.
While sipping on Masala Chai today, I met the vision behind the restaurant, Roni Mazumdar, who emerged from the kitchen to tell me the story behind its opening just a month ago. A joint venture between him and his now-retired father, The MasalaWala is the product of years of experimenting and loving authentic Indian food. With a flair for India’s street food, it brings you fast-casual with the usual naan but also some lesser known dishes found under Chat-Pat (Street-Side Favorites). The menu is a mere two pages, not too overwhelming, which thankfully means it might actually be possible to try every dish here at least once. Deliciousness cannot go to waste.
As if I didn’t already like the place enough on taste and decor alone, after hearing Roni’s passionate recount of why he opened the business, I felt more compelled to write and share the goodness of it to all. Roni is a man of many trades- engineer by day, an actor on the side, owner of a production company, and now entrepreneur- but that’s not much of a surprise because you can see all of this incorporated into the restaurant with its sustainability (100% biodegradable tableware) and technological know-how (e-receipts and iPad point of sale!) Super impressed. This is how local business should be done.
I should mention that I stumbled upon this place through a TastingTable newsletter titled “Triply Good Chai in New York” (which by the way was forwarded to me from a friend in Florida). After reading the article, I perused Yelp for reviews (perfect 5-star rating!), Foursquare for tips, and the restaurant’s website for general information and presentation. When a place gets high marks from nearly all parties, you’ve found a gem that cannot be missed.
With the unveiling of some exciting new additions in the near future (Happy Hour with South Asia-influenced drinks, plus Indian-Chinese fusion dishes?!?!) , I am certain that The MasalaWala will be at the forefront of some up-and-coming fast yet sophisticated Indian street food movement.
In a city like New York where transactions are done in 1-2-3, connection is still key. Most customers will come back to a place for its great taste and value, but the most loyal ones are baited for far greater reasons: strong purpose translated into action, a vested interest in customers, and serving them well. Beyond the transaction, connection is key.
My experience today would not have been possible without modern social digital tools. Thanks to TastingTable for notifying, Foursquare and Yelp for verifying its legitimacy, and the thousands of people for writing, rating, and recommending, allowing places of real value to surface.
By the way, The MasalaWala hasn’t had to spend a dime on advertising. When the product is good and you have an engaging online presence, there’s no need. May the word continue to spread.