Almost unbelievably, a full-blown Uighur restaurant appeared a few weeks ago just uphill from the South Street Seaport, in the space that was formerly Chubby Princess, an innovative Chinese restaurant from the MaLa Project people. The new Uighur café is evocatively named Caravan, reminding us that the Silk Road winds through Xinjiang, the homeland of the Uighurs. The chef and owner is Abdul Ahat Bakri.
Previously, acquiring a complete Uighur meal in NYC meant training to Flushing or Brighton Beach. Uighurs are China’s persecuted Turkic minority, and 11 million live in the far western province of Xinjiang, while a million more are dispersed across China and Central Asia. We are lucky to have an estimated 5,000 here, which meant a half-dozen Uighur cafes and food court stalls, mainly in Queens, before the pandemic hit and food court locations closed.
As Café Kashkar demonstrated when it debuted in Brighton Beach nearly two decades ago, Uighur cuisine centers on such dishes as savory lamb pilaf (termed “fried rice” on its menu), bulging meat dumplings flavored with onion, cumin-scented kebabs, pickled salads, and “big tray chicken,” a showy dish of chicken and potatoes in chile oil with Sichuan peppercorns served over broad wheat noodles, popularized here at a Henan Chinese restaurant, Spicy Village.
Though the address of the restaurant places it on Water Street between Fulton and John, the actual entrance is around the corner on Pearl. A couple of tiny tables are thrown out onto the sidewalk for outdoor dining, but you can request an extra table or two if you have a larger party, or if the tables are occupied. Since the sidewalk is broad and nearly empty of pedestrians, there’s plenty of room to spread out. Inside, a bar offers American sodas, Turkish bottled nectars, and Chinese herbal drinks, plus tepid black tea, served as an all-around beverage and more refreshing than you might imagine.
Behind the bar lies a rectangular window through which a pair of cooks can be seen. One, wearing an apron over a flowered dress, extrudes lagman, spaghetti-shaped noodles native to Central Asia often used in stir fries and soups. She pulls the noodles longer and longer with her fingers, occasionally rolling them between her palms. The other cook threads morsels of meat onto metal skewers. To the right of the bar is a deep dining room holding perhaps 30, now darkened and blocked off.
The menu posted outside the door is a large one, showcasing chicken, lamb, root vegetables, rice, wheaten noodles, dumplings, and barbecue. The last ($2.99 to $4.99) consists of meaty kebabs dusted with cumin, chile flakes, and salt, done over charcoal. As with Uzbek restaurants in town — the menus of which Caravan’s partly resembles — lamb rib is queen, prized for the fattiness that allows it to absorb maximum smoke. While chicken and plain lamb are nearly as good, mild and crumbly lamb kidneys are likely to be relished even by those who don’t habitually seek out offal.
Two signature Uighur dishes shouldn’t be missed, both Silk Road classics found on menus throughout Central Asia. Lagman ($11.99) is a stir fry made with the same noodles we saw being made through the kitchen window, tumbled with sweet and hot peppers, with a faint taste of Asian cumin, enlivened with a squirt of red chile oil. Uighur pilaf is a more subtly flavored dish, sweetened with carrots, and not spicy in the way most dishes are at Caravan.
There are pastries, too, including the standard lamb-stuffed samsa ($2.99 each), with the meat in big gnarly and chewy pieces rather than finely ground. Both black and white sesame seeds cover the top. These round hand pies are handed over the counter still warm. Other pastries involving meat are listed on the menu, including a round flat pie stuffed with lamb and onions, which wasn’t available on my two visits.
Want a salad? Well, forget it! Vegetables play an important role in Uighur cuisine, but they are mainly root vegetables and peppers both sweet and hot; they just don’t get combined into anything resembling a salad. This is a lettuce-free cuisine. But a splendid plate of shaved daikon is available (“sour radish,” $7.99) tinted brown from its pickle, or get simple stir-fried cabbage, slicked with garlic and sunflower oil, and dotted with two kinds of dried chiles. What a wallop this dish delivers of both flavor and heat.
Don’t expect anything like the dumplings sometimes called manti we’ve become familiar with at Central Asian and Uighur restaurants in the city; instead there are small dumplings in soup that might be mistaken for Siberian pelmeni, with the same dill-driven flavor. With many soups and stir fries, leafy bok choy is a frequent ingredient.
The most astonishing listing on the menu is fire-pit roasted lamb, which set my mouth watering thinking about it. Unfortunately, it’s priced at $800 and requires a pre-order, not to mention summoning every one of your friends to properly enjoy it, which just wouldn’t be possible during the pandemic. 200 Water Street, between Fulton and John streets, Financial District