It is a fact that Queens is an incredibly diverse place in terms of culture—more languages are spoken here than anywhere else in the country. What, perhaps, isn’t as well-known is that the families who make it so have also created an extensive network of stellar restaurants helping them grow roots and serve the community. As a Queens native, I was the Armenian boy playing tag downstairs with the Punjabi kids across the street from the Korean baker occasionally seduced by the wafting smells of my Dominican neighbor’s kitchen or the Halal market around the corner. Dinnertime was a veritable feast for the olfactory sense. And there are six family-owned establishments that continue to provide a particularly regal trove of culinary treasures.
My mother used to cook fava beans on Sunday mornings. It sounds odd, but foul, she called it (pronounced “fool” with a roll of the tongue on the “l”), was something that everyone ate back home. Fava beans, lemon, onions, tomatoes, garlic and oil. Quite a way to wake up and feel the holy spirit.
When I found that “foul” was on the menu at Wafa’s, I was excited but not yet blown away—there are several Middle Eastern/Mediterranean restaurants in the metropolitan area that make the dish. But when I saw the labneh (strained yogurt homemade like almost everything in the place) and fattoush, the makdous and kibbe, I knew something special was going on. What drove me over the edge was the friendliness with which Yusef answered the phone and told me how “mom was in the kitchen cooking up everything right now.” I was hooked. The Kefte (a ground lamb and beef combo, mixed with parsley, onions and spices) with potatoes and rice took me back to the “children’s table” at dinnertime during the family party where a taste of the old country was the first history lesson for us, the American born. Food is inextricably linked to learning; let there be no question about that.
“Mom” is Wafa and she’s a stellar chef. Lebanese food is not unlike the cuisine of its Middle Eastern neighbors. It’s heavy on the oil and meat, but there is a heartiness that is, in my opinion, unparalleled by anything in the region. It is a great joy. Wafa’s recreates the taste of home because it imports lots of spices and sauces, not to mention a flavorful Lebanese wine and the punchy 961 Pale Ale, a delicious micro brew charged with sumac, wild thyme and other exotic bursts of love for the palate.
And then the baklava and kanafeh, two bright stars pointing the way home high above the Arabic coffee sky in which the Beirut night flies.
Astoria has always been known for its Greek community. It is not uncommon to see the blue and white flag raised around Steinway and Ditmars and to hear the sounds of the bouzouki from open storefronts and backyard festivities. Of all the tavernas in the area (and there are many), one clearly has come to be known as the best in the business.
Taverna Kyclades is so astonishingly fresh it is possible to believe the Mediterranean sea bass was caught just hours before ordering. Now the truth is that even though some of the menu is indeed imported, much of it is selected locally (clams from LI!), bright and early before most of the world gets up. What makes it so authentic is the manner in which it is prepared. I’ve come to understand that there are two basic essentials to Greek food besides the aforementioned freshness component, and Kyclades has them all covered…
1. The Lemons
Before you even sit down, before bread or water, you get lemons—five or six generous slices to festoon over the food and drink to come. The lemon is the zest of life. It cleanses the palate and stimulates the chi. Its little membranes are the neurological core of the Greek diet. Its wisdom enhances everything it’s poured over when squeezed.
2. The Cheeses
A block of gorgeous cheese rests atop my salad. Feta is important. Feta is key. Its salty nature is part of the reason we dream of the sea when eating Greek food. It’s “almost a brand,” the waiter said, which made me consider just from where and how this heavenly meal has made it’s way into my world. One part worldly and another part otherworldly. Feta transports.
Kyclades is, itself, becoming a kind of brand. And it’s taken its lemon potatoes and horta and headed west to the East Village. The city won’t be the same. But we’re not concerned about the future. For now, eat heartily young (wo)man. This diet will make you immortal or at least feel like a god at Olympus after a titanic feast, legs propped up on a scar contemplating how all that he’s made is full of such damn beauty. Eat Greek, you’ll live longer.
eep in the diagonal nexus of streets that spin off of Roosevelt Avenue in Woodside is SriPraPhai. If your parents are Thai, they or some of their friends know about this place. If your grandparents are Thai and you haven’t eaten here with them, you’re clearly the bad grandchild and your future may be filled with terrible fortune. Babies are crying, dishes are clattering and tvs are blaring at SriPraPhai, but the noise becomes a slow hum, sound taking a back seat to scent as the nose blossoms with the thousand woks sizzling in a concerto of peanut and curry and pea shoots and everything else gets out of the way of this nirvana.
The Panang curry is outrageous as is the garlic and pepper pork. Even the pad Thai, which has become a staple in most Thai places, has some new skip in its step. The service is a bit slow and it really isn’t a great date spot, but who really cares when the food is this delicious? Because the prices are sane, it’s easy to assume that the dishes are sort of small and that the Thai are into tapas-style micro eats. This will lead to having plenty to take home. And oh how lucky you will be dear reader, for SriPraPhai is just as good the next day. And the day after. And the day after that too.
In Spanish, rincon means corner, but it’s not necessarily the place where children are relegated when they misbehave. Instead “corner” here is a place of intersection—a street, a community…even a family. These connotative interpretations take on all sorts of symbolic meanings when considering the rich history of Cuba and how it has been a place of confluence for people and culture and great food for a very long time even if, up until recently, we were kept in the dark about it.
On a busy street in Corona, the Acosta brothers and their family have been serving authentic Cuban food criollo style (“Spain’s way”) since 1976. The original Rincon Coriollo was a famous spot in a small town just North of Havana for twelve years until the turns of life and government stimulated an eventual emigration. Cuban food is significantly different from the food that is associated with Cuba’s other latitudinal counterparts. For one, it’s not really spicy. The Cuban meal is made to linger over and drink beer (or freshly squeezed lemonade) and hang around for coffee and great conversation. It’s packed with flavor and generally all about the meat, although calling it a churrascaria (à la Brazil) would not be accurate. The ropa vieja (“old rags”) is a heavenly concoction of shredded flank steak and peppers and sauce poured over white rice and black beans. Then there’s the gigantic pizza pie-sized hammered pork filet smothered with onions and served with rice and beans and caramelized plantains. The popular arroz con pollo comes made to order at Rincon Criollo. This is not a big deal though, because the staff is so charming and knowledgeable and, well, apt to consider you part of the family from the moment you sit down that the time spent waiting passes easily.
While sampling the picadillo (a delightful ground beef stew) and perusing the thousands of Cuba-related ephemera on the walls (including some candid shots of starlet Celia Cruz and other notables dining at these tables), you will most likely feel transported. And when that moment happens—the providence of the slight din of horns blasting melodies in unison and the crooner crooning in Spanish—there is nothing more lovely than a moment in time and space, a little corner to visit when the belly cries out for something real and honest.
Two young women, sisters maybe, are having a heart to heart with their mother or aunt. I think they’re talking about career plans and the complex dynamic between family members, but I’m not entirely sure. I get little bits of English phrases here and there, but otherwise I’m flooded with Korean. Korean words float through the air, and Korean characters dance on the menu. We’re the only people in the place on this early Wednesday evening, pre-crowd and noise and bustle. Soon the sun will go down and the restaurant will fill up with life but for now, it’s me and a little slice of Korean-American familial drama.
It’s a gift, really, being here in this way, far from the restaurant’s East Village counterpart with the same name (and higher prices). I get the attention of not one but two waitresses while some muted Korean soap opera tickles my periphery. I’m immersed in another culture minutes away from the Murray Hill LIRR stop. There is no agenda, but the pork belly and kimchee soup are a definite first in line because the look and smell magnetize me when I enter. It winds up being enough though, because several tiny dishes arrive with lots of strange ingredients for magical potions (bean curd, fish cake, sprouts, etc.), which will be wrapped up, it seems, by lettuce or white radish.
I exclaim, “like a fajita!”
“Yes,” the waitress says, though I’m not sure she understands me.
It’s basically “yes” or “no” to all of my questions including inquiry into the type of fish—a long sardine-like tasty thing—served with the meal, which was cooked on a crystal grill. This little detail is part of what separates Han Joo from the pack. The crystal grill, which is basically a solid rectangular block of crystal set over a high flame, is supposed to make the meat taste better and reduce the fat somehow. I’m a little suspicious of the latter.
By the time I’m both supremely delighted by my meal and utterly lost in translation, the family next to me has resolved a serious issue. As they walk past me they say, “You don’t speak Korean, do you?” “Absolutely not,” I beam with the satisfaction won only from walkabouts in a funhouse or dining at a genuine, bona-fide, family-owned Korean restaurant in Flushing, NY, USA.
ournesol is conveniently located seconds off the LIE near the 7 train in the heart of LIC, steps away from the East River and Gantry State Park. It’s where the borough bustles and breathes and then simultaneously slows and hurries like an excited little brother full of nervous energy for a night out. And in the middle of all this stimulation is Tournesol, a semi-farm-to-table establishment, kicking back and putting its feet up, chilling away the evening in classic French bistro style.
The restaurant has slowly ascended to regional stardom in a quiet and steady manner over the last few years. It is operated by a delightful French family who seems to care deeply about the work it does: The menu is not as much about options as it is about specific and targeted French staples and a few little inventive digressions.
You will have some unbelievably authentic onion soup (if eaten after a wedding, as it’s done in France, it will raise the authenticity bar that much more) and, of course, the delectable escargot before thinking about the duck. Yes. Snails have descended on LIC and Tournesol prepares them in a wonderfully understated tarragon splash. Dishes like niçoise salad with tuna and anchovies or beef bourguignon with pasta are served with this and that, rather than bombastic advertisements meant to impress the patrons with a turn of the phrase or trendy nomenclature. That is how Tournesol rolls. Understated, slow and steady (not unlike said snail), bringing its devotees back for much more.