Adventures of a Taxi Gourmet
We’re talking with: Layne Mosler
Occupation: food writer and blogger at taxigourmet.com
Current home: Berlin, Germany
In 2007, food lover and avid traveler Layne Mosler thought of an ingenious way to explore the best eats in her city: hop into a taxi and ask the cabbie to take her to his or her favorite place to eat.
Mosler started the Taxi Gourmet blog to document her adventures, which have taken her through Buenos Aires, Argentina; Berlin, Germany; and New York City. Mosler even did a brief stint as a New York City cabbie herself in 2010. Though she’s currently based in Berlin, Mosler is always looking for the next city to take her project to.
Epoch Times: Tell us more about that transformative food experience that set you on this journey.
Layne Mosler: It all happened by chance. I was coming off a terrible afternoon at a tango club [in Buenos Aires, Argentina]. I was starving, it was raining. I wanted to find something special to eat, just to take me out of my doldrums. I had been having conversations with taxi drivers in Buenos Aires, I had been living there for two years already.
One day, everything converged, and I just decided to get into a random taxi cab and ask the driver to take me to his favorite place to eat, which turned out to be this wonderful neighborhood steakhouse on this side street that I ordinarily wouldn’t have wandered down. There were people who helped me go through the menu and pick out the best steak for me. It was a really beautiful meal that took me back to why I came to Buenos Aires in the first place and the magic, if you will, of the city.
After this first taxi adventure, I decided that I wanted to keep trying this and see what might happen—not only from a food perspective, but also the perspective of meeting people I wouldn’t otherwise meet in my day-to-day life and having conversations with these taxi drivers.
I had many interesting rides, one with a taxi driver who moonlighted as a priest, but he is a Protestant priest, so he didn’t work much in Argentina, so he drove a taxi to support himself. He drove me to this place called La Americana because I’m American, for empanadas. I thought that was really hilarious.
Epoch Times: How did you decide to move to New York?
Ms. Mosler: Toward the end of my time in Buenos Aires, 90 percent of the recommendations I was getting from taxi drivers there were for steakhouses. I do love steak, but I was running out of adjectives for beef, and I wanted to see what would happen if I transplanted the project to a great food city, like New York City, because it is a city with a really well-developed taxi culture.
Epoch Times: How are cabbies in New York? Were they willing to help you with your request?
Ms. Mosler: Initially, I had some difficulty.
In Buenos Aires, if I asked a taxi driver to take me to his favorite place to eat, maybe he would be disoriented for 30 seconds or so, and then he would say, oh, I know just the place. In New York, to get into a taxicab without a destination is not a good idea. It’s not that people were unfriendly, I think it’s just that people were disoriented. To ask a person where his favorite place to eat is in a city like New York, it’s like an infinite question.
So I had to come up with a new strategy, a new approach to the taxi adventures in New York. What I started to do, after a series of failed attempts, was, I would get into a taxi, say at 59th and Lex, and I would ask him to take me to Union Square, straight shot, down to 14th Street, more or less. The idea was, I wanted to give them a destination, didn’t want them to think too much about where they were going, and I hoped in the span of those 40 blocks, we could enter into a conversation, and at some point, once we were relatively comfortable with each other, I would slip into the question of food. Eventually, it started to work and I started to get some really wonderful recommendations.
Epoch Times: What kinds of recommendations did you get?
Ms. Mosler: Where a cab driver eats on duty is usually where he or she can park, say like, the Famous Halal Guys. But I would also get recommendations for places taxi drivers would go off-duty, and in some sense, those were the more interesting recommendations. Most of the time, those were places that were pretty far-flung and far out in the outer boroughs, places like The Door in Jamaica, or Papaye in the Bronx, or Cherry Hill Gourmet Market in Sheepshead Bay, all of which are worth a long trip on the subway, with excellent, excellent food, which I probably wouldn’t have found on my own.
Epoch Times: Do you have a favorite borough?
Ms. Mosler: Queens is absolutely my favorite food borough. You can pick almost any neighborhood, like Astoria or Elmhurst, and there’s all this diversity. And it’s not just the diversity, but the quality of what you’ll find. It’s really an extraordinary place to eat, not just in New York, but in terms of the whole world.
Epoch Times: What are some recommendations that you suggest people definitely try?
Ms. Mosler: Balkh Shish Kabab has really excellent lamb. There’s a particular dish called qaw lamb meat, which they slow-cook in their oven. It is really spectacular. I would say curried goat at The Door is well worth the trip to Jamaica. The dosas at Ganapati Temple canteen in Flushing are some of the best dosas in the city. My favorite baklava in New York is from this place called Gulluoglu. They have a store on 52nd and Second.
My favorite place to stop when I was on duty for a caffeine pick-me-up was Cafe Grumpy on 20th Street, because there was a taxi stand right around the corner, and really wonderful cappuccino.
Epoch Times: Why did you decide to eventually drive taxi in New York and how’d you manage the traffic here?
Ms. Mosler: I didn’t know when I moved to New York that I was going to drive a cab. It was January 2010 when I first drove a cab. It was not something I had planned or ever imagined. And then I met these two women who were drivers. As you know, it’s not common to meet a woman driving a cab in New York. I found these ladies particularly inspiring, and also, there was the fact that I studied cultural anthropology.
There’s this idea in anthropology that there are limits to your understanding if you’re only observing something, a culture, a people, a city. At some point, you need to step up, step in, and participate. I was seeing that I was reaching the limits of my understanding of cab drivers and cab driving.
And I also needed another job, quite frankly. I thought that driving a taxi was the next logical step. I had never driven a car in New York City. I grew up in L.A., so I have some sense of driving in traffic. But the traffic in New York is something I compare to driving in a video game.
It’s almost surreal how dense, how compact, how aggressive, how many different things are going on at once when you’re driving a taxi. But the interesting thing was, it all somehow flows together. You need to figure out what the rhythm is, how things are moving, and you begin to know how to anticipate, even though it’s so chaotic and stressful to drive in New York.
Epoch Times: Did anyone ask you for a recommendation when you were driving a cab?
Ms. Mosler: Yeah, it was one of my first shifts. I had this couple, I picked them up at the Waldorf Astoria and they were on their way to brunch on the Upper East Side. They said, do you know of a good bakery where we can pick up some pastries on the way to bring to our hostess? And I had no idea. I was so embarrassed and ashamed. It was really a lesson because I realized I had been asking a really difficult question for the past three years. It was a nice irony, a nice poetic lesson.
Epoch Times: What are some interesting stories from driving a cab in New York?
Ms. Mosler: I happened to get into a cab with a man from Ghana. He told me he had spent the past five years driving 18 to 20 hours a shift to save enough money to get his own taxi medallion, and he had done it. He got it a couple months before I got into his taxi and we were driving in his taxi, which is a really rare thing to happen. If you get in a yellow cab in New York city, the person driving is usually leasing the cab for the day, week, or month.
And he was so proud that this was his taxi. And he told me the only times the value of a taxi medallion went down were during the Korean War and after 9/11. And he was so excited about what he thought at the time was a foolproof investment. It was a remarkable conversation. One of the things he pointed out was, you know, in America, if you work hard, anything is possible, but you have to work hard. I was very moved.
Epoch Times: How does the cabbie and food culture in Berlin compare to New York?
Ms. Mosler: Neither the food culture nor the mix of people driving cabs is as diverse as it is in New York. We had in Berlin a big wave of Turkish immigrants, that was part of a guest worker movement that started in the ’60s. So there is a pretty large Turkish population in the city, and a lot of Turkish people driving taxis, and a lot of wonderful Turkish food.
But the food scene in Berlin is changing quite a bit, because we have more and more people coming from different parts of the world, and more and more people having high expectations and wanting to have Vietnamese food and sushi and Scandinavian food. So the food scene is really in a moment of flux. But it still doesn’t approach the diversity of New York.
In New York, people are so sophisticated and knowledgeable about food. Food is more front and center in New York than it is in Berlin. In Germany—I think it’s something left over from World War II—oftentimes people are not eating for pleasure, but for satisfaction. That goes back to after World War II, when the city was for the most part destroyed, and people were starving and ate whatever they could get their hands on. Some of that is still ingrained.
Epoch Times: Why did you move to Berlin?
Ms. Mosler: I had been driving a cab for about six months in New York, and I knew I had to take a step back, and take a pause, take stock. I was not a very good cab driver, and I was taking a break at the New York Public Library, which is one of my favorite places to go just to relax and regroup. I found this old Lonely Planet from 2006 for Berlin. I flipped to the section on taxis and it said that the taxi drivers know as much about Nietzsche as they do about sausage. I thought that sounded so interesting, and I thought, I would like to see if this is true. I started a Kickstarter campaign for a series of taxi adventures in Berlin. I came to Berlin hoping to find taxi drivers who knew about sausage and philosophy, and I found that and more. I felt a sense of possibility in Berlin that I hadn’t felt anywhere else. Even though the food might not be as impressive as New York, I felt this was home. So six months later, I moved here.
Epoch Times: What made Berlin feel like home for you?
Ms. Mosler: There’s this word in German, “Lebenskünstler.” There’s no quick translation in English, you could translate it as life artist, but it doesn’t go far enough. It basically means a person who wants freedom above all else, and does a series of things in order to get by and be free to do what they want to do. There are a lot of people driving taxis in Berlin whom you could call Lebenskünstlers. For example, I met a taxi driver who comes to Berlin in the spring and summer to drive a cab, and the other six months of the year, he goes to Brazil and paints. The first taxi driver I met in Berlin was this taxi driver who works half-time as a taxi driver and half-time as a homeopath. To this day, she’s still doing the two things. There’s just people who are living creatively, artistically. I found that really fascinating and nurturing as a writer.
Epoch Times: What kind of food do you miss the most from New York City?
Ms. Mosler: A slice from Patsy’s in Spanish Harlem. You cannot find anything like that in Berlin. I desperately miss that. And I miss Indian Chinese food. There’s this place in Elmhurst called Tangra Masala that makes Indian Chinese food, and those really in-your-face, aggressive, intensive flavors are something you have to look long and hard to find in Berlin. It seems like you can walk 10 steps in New York and find something outstanding if you’re paying attention.
Epoch Times: Any plans for future taxi adventures?
Ms. Mosler: I would really like to try some taxi adventures in Athens, Naples, and someday hopefully in Tokyo, because everything I’ve read about food culture in Japan is fascinating to me. I’m working on getting my taxi license in Berlin. But it’s quite an involved bureaucratic process. I think I might have to wait two years before I get my taxi license here.
To read more about Mosler’s adventures and misadventures, check out her book, “Driving Hungry” (Pantheon, 2015).