All five boroughs of New York are densely scattered with a variety of cultural pockets holding strong ties to the old country of its generations of immigrants. Queens leads the pack as the most culturally diverse county in the country. When we think of Astoria, we are quick to think Greek (or of a certain Czech Beer Garden), but the stretch of Steinway Street between 28th Avenue and Astoria Boulevard is rich with North African, and more specifically, Egyptian and Moroccan culture.
East Villagers may be familiar with hookah bars, but it’s a different story on Steinway. Here, the hookah experience is brought to a whole new authentic level. In the North African take on bodegas, every storefront displays a collection of water pipes. Even the butcher has hookahs for sale in the window. Along the street, middle-aged men recline in lounges enjoying their pipes and chatting with friends. It’s not the Euro-dance-club-meets-caravan vibe of the East Village; it’s the food that’ll keep you coming back.
Sabry’s Seafood (2425 Steinway St., 718.721.9010) focuses on whole bone-in fish entrées. There’s a station filled with ice and whole fish ready for preparation in a variety of Egyptian methods. The atmosphere is casual, well lit, and clean. The product is fresh and expertly prepared. A few doors down, Little Morocco Restaurant (2439 Steinway St., 718.204.8118) displays a banner boasting “Best Merquez Sandwich” according to The New York Times. I tried the lauded specialty and enjoyed the Lamb Platter even more. A laidback, hidden gem, Little Morocco is a lunch counter with minimal seating but delicious, inexpensive fare.
The one true destination restaurant on the strip is Kabab Café (2512 Steinway St., 718.728.9858). With such an unassuming name, one might only imagine a Halal street stand moved into a diner with fast-food décor. Yet this quaint and personable restaurant has become a foodie target the world over. Kebab Café came to wider attention on an episode of No Reservations. Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain showered Chef Ali El Sayed with more praise than you normally see these food lovers put out. Ali has been serving up Northern Egyptian meals fit for a sheik since 1989 and is willing to lend his skills to whatever you are in the mood for. On a recent visit, I tried a whole fish platter of Corby, a vegetarian platter of baba ghanoush, hummus, fava beans (ful) and adorned with fried Bok Choy, sliced apples, and quite possibly the tastiest falafel I’ve ever had. The difference, Ali said, is that most people are familiar with falafel made from chickpeas, where as these fried delights are made from fava beans. Close the meal with Hibiscus tea or Egyptian specialty coffee and baklava, if you have room.
Just up the street, Ali’s brother, Mustafa mans the ovens at Mombar (2522 Steinway St., 718.726.2356). Slightly more ornate in decoration but equally personal, Mombar specializes in Southern Egyptian Cuisine. During my last dinner there, we tried Braised Lamb Cheeks, Glazed Duck with Egyptian Molasses, and a Lamb Tagine. Each dish was cooked to perfection with thought-provoking spices and a dynamic balance. Save room for a dessert called Om Ali, a combination of puff pastry, milk, and nuts. It’s a sweet and heartwarming Egyptian rendition of bread pudding and is the ultimate comfort food.
There are myriad places in Queens that can add exotic spice to your life. Steinway in Astoria is a good place to start if you’re craving something a little different.
How to get there: Take the N/W trains to Astoria Blvd. and walk east to Steinway St. Or take the R/G/V/E trains to Steinway Street and walk North to 28th Avenue.