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Little India in the East Village: a Thumbnail History

A look at the brightly lit Bangladeshi restaurants on 1st Avenue

Two restaurants ablaze with tiny colored lights stand at the top of a steep staircase. Perched above on a platform like characters from Shakespeare, two gentlemen in ties and waistcoats launch into their dialog as soon as they spot someone passing at the foot of the stairs. "This place is the very best, greatest Indian food," one guy croons, pointing at Milon. "No, my place is much better," brags the other, gesturing toward Panna II and descending a couple of steps, as if to grab you and pull you up. This wonderful scene is enacted every night near the corner of 1st Avenue and 6th Street, and generations of East Villagers have stopped and gawked at the spectacle.


Milon (on the left) and Panna II (on the right) are two of only six restaurants and one grocery store remaining from a neighborhood once known as Little India. More properly, it might have been called Little Bengal, since most of the immigrants that ran the restaurants hailed from Bangladesh, even though they called the food Indian and cooked in a style devoid of mustard oil and other important Bangladeshi ingredients. For decades the neighborhood was famous for its extremely cheap eats, giving many diners their first taste of South Asian food. That taste proved addictive.

It started in the 1970s, when a few Bangladeshi restaurants appeared in the tiny and largely subterranean storefronts of East 6th Street between 1st and 2nd avenues. The earliest included Shah Bag, Purbo Rag, Kismoth, and Anar Bagh. But soon more ambitious establishments appeared with more enticing monikers, some establishing citywide reputations. Passage to India and Taj Majal were among the first to popularize tandoori cooking in the city; Mitali eventually spawned a West Village branch; while Haveli became known for a more nuanced and pricier take on the cuisine.

By the turn of the millennium, there were 26 Indian restaurants along the block, and trailing off onto the adjacent avenues. Nearly all served the brown-gravied curries and masala-laced vegetable pairings often associated with the Punjabi and Mughal fare of northern India. But trouble was on the horizon, as the East Village gentrified and the tiny storefronts began to command higher rents. While the food served on East 6th had once seemed exotic to many customers, it began to feel old fashioned. Regional and gourmet Indian fare had become popular throughout the city, including fast food such as kati rolls and chaats. And the menus along East 6th Street couldn’t keep up.

Trying to compete, some restaurants developed slightly upscale trappings, including plusher decor and the placement of turbaned sitar and tabla players in their front windows. The street became an open-air concert, with the strains of Indian music floating through the air. Less salubriously, touts appeared in front of many restaurants, haranguing passersby and causing some pedestrians to detour around the block. Now most of that lively scene has disappeared. Which is why Milon and Panna II are worth revisiting. But which place should you pick?

Milon

Through a cramped doorway lies a deep and narrow room. It takes awhile for your disbelieving eyes to adjust, because the space is hung with thousands of tiny colored lights. Some are Christmas lights, but others are stars, hearts, and red-hot chiles. These descend from the ceiling, as do dozens of banners for seemingly every nation on earth, like a United Nations on acid. Decorations hang at eye level and below, so as you make your way deeper into the room, beckoned by waiters, you have to keep ducking, while also weaving around the closely spaced tables. Once seated, you feel like you’re sitting in the cockpit of a very small fighter plane.

The menu of Milon is longwinded, but at the heart of it are a series of set meals of four or five courses, priced from $16 to $19, with discounts if two people order the same thing. The Milon Special Dinner ($18), includes a welcoming papadam with a couple of chutneys; a mulligatawny soup with a lemon wedge; a small plate containing up to three appetizers (usually featuring a samosa, a banana pakora, and an onion fritter); a main course served with naan, rice, red onion chutney, and steamed cabbage dotted with caraway seeds; and dessert, in this case a small scoop of mango ice cream.

Appetizer plate and chicken vindaloo.

The choice of entrée in this special meal is limited to a curry masala, a bhuna masala, or a kurma, with a choice of beef, chicken, or lamb. For an extra dollar you can range more freely over the entire menu for your main course, shrimp and lobster excepted. (A slightly more expensive dinner is named after Shah Jalal, a 13th-century Sufi saint born in Bengal.) Of the cheaper dinner choices, the kurma is creamy, though it tastes little of coconut or almonds, while the curry is mild and thin, and the bhuna is a little heftier, with a hint of heat.

A vegetable curry one evening was dull as dishwater; not bad, just dull. Paying a slight upgrade for a vindaloo results in a recipe shot with spinach and only half-hot. It’s clear that a limited number of curry bases are available in what must be a small kitchen, and these are adapted as necessary to whatever order you place from a very long bill of fare. Upside: The food is wholesome and voluminous. Downside: It’s too unassertive. One of the best aspects of Milon is you can carry in your own alcoholic beverages: Big Indian beers are available at Dual Specialty Store, a few doors down.

Panna II

Panna II was founded in 1990, while Milon dates to 1982. Yet, Panna II can claim it was the first to invent the tiny light décor. "Going pagol (crazy) with the Christmas tree lights and red hot chili pepper lights," the website boasts, "worked because it was original." Nevertheless, Panna II is even more cramped than Milon. "This place gives me claustrophobia," my companion noted one evening, as a birthday party of 12 sat down next to us and began whooping it up. Nevertheless, she thoroughly enjoyed her meal for its entire 90-minute length.

Above: Chicken balti. Below: Panna II and the special for two.

The special dinners here appear to be about a dollar more than those at Milon. The apps are not quite as good; the entrees significantly better. Also, substitutions are more readily accepted. When I attempted to order the goofy-sounding pineapple poori, just out of curiosity, the waiter made it part of my appetizer assortment with no extra charge. Gooey with cheese and canned fruit, it wasn’t half bad.

"What is the most Bangladeshi main course?" I asked the waiter one evening. "Chicken balti," he quickly replied. The dish came in a special serving container that looked like a metal mortar, it was tomato-intensive and quite delicious, outshining the lamb vindaloo that was our other entrée. Side dishes were identical to those at Milon. Really, it would takes dozens of meals at both places to determine the best choices on each menu.

And the Winner Is…

Based on several meals, I’d have to say my current favorite is Panna II. But to be fair to those battling waiters up there on the platform, I’d say you should divide your time evenly between both places. And someday I promise I’ll try Royal Bangladesh, the restaurant downstairs.

Little India Directory

  • Dual Specialty Store, 91 1st Avenue, (212) 979-6045
  • Haveli Banjara, 100 2nd Ave, (212) 982-0533
  • Malai Marke, 318 E 6th St, (212) 777-7729
  • Milon, 93 1st Avenue, (212) 228-4896
  • Panna II, 93 1st Avenue, (212) 598-4610
  • Royal Bangladesh, 93 1st Avenue, (212) 674-6209
  • Taj, 310 E 6th St, (212) 505-8056

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