Make no mistake: The food in Neerob, a canteen-style eatery in the Bronx, is Bangladeshi—not Indian.
The Parkchester restaurant first opened over three years ago, spurred by owner Mohammed Rahman’s frustration that numerous “Indian” restaurants actually served dishes native to Bangladesh, and were staffed by Bengalis. “When you say that the food in a restaurant is Bangladeshi, no one wants to come,” said Rahman, who first came to the U.S. 20 years ago as a student. “But when you say it’s Indian, people are familiar with it. They know what to order.”
He refused to comment on Indian food, saying only that although the basic principles of Bengali cooking are similar to Indian styles, Bangladeshi cooking uses different spices. For his dishes, Rahman uses less garlic and omits curry leaves—a vital ingredient in southern Indian cuisine that imparts a strong, slightly bitter flavor.
“My dream is to make Bangladesh’s food mainstream,” said Rahman, whose family worked in the food service industry back in his hometown of Dhaka. “It’s authentic Bengali food.”
The hole-in-the-wall establishment is located in the heart of a Bengali community along Starling Avenue, and it’s evident by the clientele who drop in for some deep-fried pakoras (South Asian vegetable fritters) and spiced milk tea. Neerob attracts a varied range of diners from all five boroughs of the city, plus more from upstate New York and New Jersey, but its regulars are by and large, Bengali.
Rahman, a jovial, stocky man in his late 30s, shakes hands and exchanges a few words with every customer who comes in. Although Neerob means “quiet” in his native tongue, the atmosphere of the restaurant is anything but. Space is limited; lunchtime tables are inevitably filled with groups sharing banter over large platters of curried meat, wiping up traces of mustard oil and sauce with pillowy triangles of naan bread. Even deep in the afternoon on a Sunday, the restaurant is never empty.
Fish, the staple of the Bengali diet, stars prominently on the menu. Pan-fried in mustard oil, minnow and catfish are covered with onions, chili, and cilantro, and doused with sauce. Prices don’t go over $10, so it’s a common sight to see blue-collar workers tucking into bread and curry, as well as a steady stream of professionals toting takeaway cartons of food for their families.
Meat curry and a saffron-hued pilaf cost about $7.50-9 for the combination; a $1 piece of naan and a $4 dollop of bharta (a mashed dish of vegetables sometimes mixed with seafood) is a meal on its own, although $1 portions are available for curious diners who want to try different varieties. Pakoras are three for a dollar. Desserts are limited, but shôndesh, a creamy ball of cottage cheese soaked in syrup, ends the meal on a satisfying note.
Customers come for the food as well as the cozy atmosphere. Taxi driver Khandoker Huq, who comes in at least twice a month for some chicken or fish curry, said, “He’s a fantastic guy and cooks good food.”
Bani Chodhury, a physician from Bedford Hills, often makes the trip from Scarsdale to Starling Avenue to purchase food for her family. “During the week, I can’t always cook,” said Chodhury. “I even have Neerob cater my parties, and the best part is, they always provide a surplus of food so there’s no shortage, no matter how many guests come—and in Bangladesh, people take home food from parties.”
Rahman doesn’t hesitate to pass on recipes to customers, some of them American-born Bengalis yearning to learn more about their culinary heritage. “I always tell the recipe,” he said. “I’m not losing anything. When you help somebody, they will come again.”
But don’t ask him what’s in Neerob’s signature tea, a fragrant mixture of milk and spices. “That’s my only secret,” he said, winking.
Neerob, 2109 Starling Avenue (Olmstead Avenue), Parkchester, Bronx; (718) 904-7061
By subway: Castle Hill on the No. 6 train