Tuesday, November 18, 2008

For George's Sake (Petey's Burger, 30-17 30th Avenue)

If this were Nevada, Petey's Burger's conscious mimicry of In-N-Out Burger might seem a cheesy rip-off. But the nearest In-N-Out is time zones away, leaving New York open to quality-burger-chain colonization. D.C.'s Five Guys has taken its stand in the city (including Queens -- College Point), and despite our determination to go local, we'd probably have welcomed a Five Guys outpost in Astoria. Our neighborhood has a handful of good burgers (Sparrow, Blackbird's, Cronin & Phelan, even Sanford's) but nowhere that specializes only in quality burgers, presented without the fuss and formality (and extra expense) of waiter service.

The brother-owners of Petey's Burger (George, who was there on the night we went, and Petey himself) are native Astorians, but this is their first venture in the hood. The cartoon-font logo and ketchup-and-mustard-colored walls give Petey's an easily extensible trademark look, ripe for franchising, but in designing their brand the owners also gave a quiet nod to this particular location -- the only decor on the walls is a comic-style illustration of a skateboarder, just generic-looking enough to be any of the scruffy skateboarding boys just across the street in Athens Square Park.

Petey's entrees are priced reasonably for said crowd -- starting at $4 for a basic cheeseburger and going up to $13 for a triple cheeseburger combo -- but also offer top-notch ingredients appreciated by the professional crowd (well, us). The frying oil was a cut above standard fast food; the beef, while simply promoted as "USDA beef" (that doesn't mean much), was flavorful without being too fatty; we even spotted bottles of Fox's U-Bet syrup behind the counter, which came into play in our black-and-white $4 milk shake. The burgers, presented in little paper bags, are an actual serving size -- satisfying but not monstrous -- and the Petey's Melt is served on a buttery toast round. The "sauce" mentioned on the menu is nothing secret or proprietary -- right now, as the cashier freely admits, it's Russian dressing.

The atmosphere at Petey's manages to speak to the teenage and thirtysomething set: Exposed brick, New York Times copies with duct-tape proprietary "PETEY'S" labels, and incandescent lighting don't prod the diner out the door after wolfing down a meal. It's fast food, to be sure -- your number is called out from the counter; the menu offers nothing but burger variations, fries, shakes, and the like; the staffers wear red T-shirts bearing a big "P" logo. But it's slower than it could be -- in the right way.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Make Ours Mamey (Tulcingo, 25-26 Broadway)

Tulcingo is less restaurant than catch-all. Convenience store? Check. Bar, with jukebox and beer? Check. Place of worship, with Virgin Mary shrine? Check (albeit with little privacy for prayers and offerings). When we ordered at the counter, we weren't sure if we were even welcome to sit at the freestanding Formica tables or if they were temporarily gathered there for a meeting of some sort that hadn't yet begun. (The woman behind the counter, who also acted as waitress, saw our confusion and knowingly nodded toward the table cluster.)

We can be fussy about our Mexican food, sticking to mundane choices like pork tacos. The most adventurous we got at Tulcingo was the mamey shake, which was thick and lukewarm, allowing the distinct flavor of the mamey (it tastes like . . . mamey) to come through. (We're of the ice-cream-fountain school of milkshakes, however, so this subtlety went unappreciated -- probably not Tulcingo's fault, though.) A more thorough examination of Tulcingo's menu shows that our timidity in ordering was a mistake, or that at least we should have come on a weekend, as that's when the not-often-found goat platter is offered, along with a special mole dish and other assorted delicacies. The specials, handwritten on neon signs taped onto the front of the counter, were beyond our grasp of Spanish -- but next time we'll brush up so we can take full advantage of the unlikely breadth of Tulcingo's offerings.

Our conservatism is our loss, yes -- but what we did have was far from a write-off. The tacos at Tulcingo were seasoned lightly, letting the quality of the ingredients speak for itself. Moist chicken; spicy pork with smoldering, not blistering, heat; flavorful (free) salsa and (not free) guacamole -- in all, we found a keeper in this weird little joint.

Price: Tacos $2; nothing on the menu over $13.
Will we go again? It's cheaper than a vacation to Puebla, with many of the same offerings -- yes.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Love of Strangers (Philoxenia, 32-07 34th Avenue)

We've repeatedly bemoaned the fact that neither of us really loves Greek food -- O the grand irony, living in the largest Greek expatriate community (outside of Cyprus, which doesn't really count)! Woe is us! The trial, the tribulation! But somehow, most of the occasions when we manage to steel ourselves for a Greek meal, we realize (temporarily, of course) that we've tightened our boxing gloves for no reason and the meal is serviceable, even tasty.

So we're not sure what to make of Philoxenia. Rather, we know what to make of it -- it's splendid -- we just don't know why other Greek restaurants can't just copy what they're doing. Why did it take a relative newcomer to the scene (it opened in 2004 and has been in its current location for less than a year) to prove that Greek cooking can stay true to its roots and still showcase the strong savory flavors that characterize the cuisine? It's hard to believe that none of the spate of Greek restaurants opened in the wake of the mass immigration of Greeks to Astoria in the 1960s relied on their grandmothers' home recipes (or were run by the yayas themselves), but our taste buds tell us differently. The difference between Philoxenia and its competitors is the difference between your mother's meatloaf (assuming your mama made kick-ass meatloaf) and the loaf at a trusted diner: It's not that the latter is bad; it's that the former is so good as to render the other irrelevant. In the first half of the 20th century, restaurants were a matter of economic survival for Greek immigrants, not a matter of a yearning to re-create recipes from back home. Perhaps the predominantly financial motives of those initial Greek restaurateurs prompted them to take advantage of a hearty native cuisine that's hard to get wrong while leaving the good stuff behind.

The dishes at Philoxenia aren't much different than what's available at others of its ilk. You've got your priced-per-pound fish, your salty spreads, and your charcoal grilled meats. But nothing in the description of the Greek meatballs prepares you for the ethereal oregano-laced puffs of meat encased in a crispy browned shell and drizzled with a zesty tomato sauce. They were among the best things we have ever tasted anywhere. The pork special -- chops with a savory dried fruit compote -- veered from the classic Hellenic menu but not wildly, and though its standout characteristic was the marriage of flavors, the meat was prepared with care, making us think that the straight-up pork chops would similarly please. (We'll find out in future visits.) The tomato-cucumber-olive salad was nothing special, the only mild disappointment from our leisurely dinner. Our assorted appetizers, wine, and dessert all surpassed expectations shaped by lesser restaurants. The ambiance lacked nothing, managing to be both rustic and nearly spare, with just enough kitsch-free knickknacks, tastefully displayed (and beautifully lit), to serve as a reminder of the hardscrabble roots of Greek cuisine.

We still don't love Greek cuisine, we admit. But we love Philoxenia.

Price: Entrees $13-$25; in line with other Greek restaurants but less expensive than the "occasion" spots like Akti
Will we go again? With those meatballs, need we pose the question?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What's Ponzu? (Bistro 33, 19-33 Ditmars Boulevard)

On a trip to Paris several years ago, one of us struck an acquaintance with a Frenchman who said he knew just the place to go. We wound up eating hamburgers and drinking Cokes from paper cups in an "American diner," replete with lithographs of Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart on the wall -- Johnny Rockets, essentially, priced in francs. It wasn't that he thought the place had the best food in town; it was that he thought we'd be comfortable there. So when two Guest Diners -- seasoned Brooklynites who follow the dining beat and who have guided us through delectable meals in places like Momofuku Noodle Bar -- joined us on our mission, we followed the Frenchman's cue and swept them away to an approximation of what one might find in, say, Park Slope or Carroll Gardens.

And in that regard, Bistro 33 didn't disappoint. It's out of the way, on a stretch of 21st Street that's a bit of a walk from the subway and other stops on the Astoria scene, but this allows its sidewalk dining to be truly pleasant. (What the attraction is to dining outside on 30th Avenue, breathing in bus exhaust and being ogled by passersby, we're unsure.) Its airy space and mood, combined with its chic, compact design and pleasant service matched point for point the attraction of downtown eateries that are never too crowded and always a good experience.

The lure of chef Gary Anza, formerly of the highly regarded sushi restaurant Bond Street, didn't hurt either. Our neighborhood doesn't have a deficit of good sushi -- JJ's Fusion and Tokyo continually satisfy -- but neither does it have an enormous array of choices. Bistro 33 serves French-Asian fare, and the French Culinary Institute pedigree of its cooks promised to please.

So we drank our way through the well-selected beer and wine list, nibbled our way through pork shoulder, tuna tataki, crab cakes, and a variety of sushi, and came to the conclusion that Astoria may have found its best sushi -- but it is either still seeking a good French-whatever restaurant or just doesn't need one. Both the simpler rolls (we tried the tuna and yellowtail) and more imaginative offerings (most notably the fuzzy tuna roll, with mango, spicy tuna, and crunchy strips) were expertly done. Other Asian-themed offerings matched the sushi's quality: The pan-fried pork dumplings were lightly crisped and delicately flavored, with a thin garlic-citrus sauce ("garlic ponzu sauce," to be exact) that offset the moist pork without clashing.

Other items on the menu left us wondering why reviewers have been giving unanimously good reviews to Bistro 33. Not that they were...bad...but the pork shoulder was paltry in taste and overcooked, even making us wonder if someone in the kitchen had forgotten to drizzle a sauce of some sort over it. Other entrees prompted nothing but a faint "this is nice" from all diners.

Bistro 33 is a far cry from the diner in Paris: It's not bad food; it's low-key; it's taking a stab at the "new Astoria" demographic and not falling too far from the mark. But just as the Frenchman didn't show his guest what his city does best, we wonder why we fell prey to the idea that as unwitting members of the new Astoria demographic, this is what we want after all. We've found a handful of places in the neighborhood that feel like a culinary home, and none of them had brand-name chefs, triangular plates, or ponzu anywhere on the menu. (Nor were they spotted by Ugly Betty's locations team -- an episode of the sitcom was filmed there in July, and we're curious to know if it will be posed as a Manhattan eatery or if the writers are daring to show Betty's native Queens as a borough that has food other than sausage heroes.) Astoria has room for Bistro 33 alongside its older establishments, and we wish it well -- but we don't want it to have too much company.

Price: Not crazy, not cheap. Between $15 and $25 for entrees.
Will we go again? We have no intention of returning, but wouldn't outright refuse if others invited us there.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Our Life in Bacon (La Vita Mia, 28-01 24th Avenue)

Bacon makes everything better. We made bacon baklava last year in an effort (successful, we'll add) to prove this hypothesis, and we are now at work on an ice cream involving bacon (a fellow Astorian, Ice Cream Erik, has cornered the market on sausage ice cream). Given this, we're not sure why bacon pizza is not on more pizzeria menus. It's bacon! It's pizza! You can't go wrong!

La Vita Mia ("My Life"), a typical neighborhood place on 24th Avenue, has recognized the bacon hypothesis, offering a pizza topped with strips of bacon and believing in it enough to sell it by the slice. We can't say whether it's better than any other bacon pizza in the neighborhood, as this was our first foray into the territory, but it was tasty and seemed like second nature. Maybe we're tickled because this was our first (of dozens? hundreds?) of pizzerias on our mission; perhaps we'll be yawning over bacon pizza come June. But for now, the offerings! Chicken Cheddarella! Philly Cheese Steak! The Vita Mia Special, featuring no chicken, bacon, or basil! Choose you are crust!

Unfortunately, we didn't get to sample La Vita Mia's signature slice, the Grandma, with fresh mozzarella, garlic, and organic tomato sauce ("organic" is in red type on the menu), as they had already sold out. We're guessing that the name of this pizza is not some clever marketing ploy -- La Vita Mia, which is as utilitarian as pizzerias come, didn't seem especially cognizant of such things -- but is actually named for someone's grandmother, who probably suggested the recipe.

Left to choose from the more quotidian slices, we found that the pepperoni and plain Sicilian were passable, aided by the rack of condiments thoughtfully supplied at every table. The slices had clearly been sitting for a while, but apparently if you want fresh ones after 8:30 in Astoria, you better order a whole pie.

It's not "our life", we know, but we can't help but think that this is mistake, as is closing so early. (La Vita Mia closes at 10 during the week.) The pizzeria is missing out on serious drunk traffic from the beer garden down the street, which stops serving food early, leaving patrons with a belly full of beer and nothing greasy to sop it up with. (The winner in this scenario is the Neptune diner, which is open 24 hours and attracts a decent amount of stumblers from Bohemian Hall.) We're no businesspeople, but it seems it would be a winning proposition for all involved were they to extend their hours a bit.

The staff gives the impression that they wouldn't mind dealing with a rowdy, beery bunch, either: The main counterman dealt with our queries about the absent Grandma slice with matter-of-fact bemusement, spinning paper plates for the slices we ended up having with panache and offering chocolate wafers for a bag to the (curiously) large number of assorted co-workers coming through the door. At one point, they shared a laugh with a regular customer, who they claimed was "always stoned." (Admittedly, he was wearing sunglasses, it was dark outside, and he wasn't Corey Hart.)

Don't get us wrong: La Vita Mia isn't spectacular in any area, and the slices are only what you'd expect (save the bacon! always the bacon!). But it's a handy beer garden soak-up if you finish (or begin) your drinking early enough, and there's enough quirk to make us regard it with fondness.

Price: It's pizza.
Will we go again? Yes, but mostly because the next closest food option to the Beer Garden is Number One Chinese Restaurant.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

For the Love of Fish (Tokyo, 31-05 24th Avenue)

We once ate at a vegan place in the East Village that had the best veggie burger ever. The ingredients didn't seem to be unusual, nor was the presentation -- there was something else going on that we couldn't identify. We asked the waiter what made the veggie burger so good.

"Love," he said. "If a cook comes to work angry, we send the cook home. The energy goes into the food -- food made with love tastes like love." Then he asked us if we'd like to "come upstairs for the service," and when we realized we were in a Hare Krishna den, we rama-ramaed outta there. But the lesson stuck: In our own home, we take care to prepare food with love (or at least not anger), and when a restaurant appears to do the same, we notice.

Tokyo, with its red-sheathed paper lanterns quietly heralding its location on the other side of the tracks from the Beer Garden, made us take this sort of notice. Its interior is that of a surprisingly old-school sushi restaurant -- surprising because we sort of assumed that pretty much every sushi restaurant in Astoria came about with the turn-of-the-millennium influx of Japanese students residing here. The worn posters of the Japanese landscape, the faded laminated sheets offering photos of what the different types of sushi are, the exceedingly polite waitstaff -- such things point to a restaurant that simultaneously needed to educate as much as appeal in order to survive.

Tokyo might never approach the technical levels of sushi mastery demanded at Manhattan restaurants that treat sushi as a competitive sport. Even in Astoria, Tokyo might take a technical-points silver to JJ's or Bistro 33, the latter of which boasts a minor brand-name chef. But -- jai guru dev om, everybody -- you can taste the love at Tokyo.

Which is not to say that its offerings are subpar on a technical level: They're not. The standard sushi offerings are all prepared well, but the house specials, the best of which are on the placards at every table instead of on the menu, are where the restaurant really shines (try the Jimmy roll, trust us). Even the warm sushi rolls, never our favorite, go down easy. What makes the sushi special is not the it's-swimming-in-my-mouth standard that seems to be prized by sushi lovers. It's Tokyo's creativity, care, and gentility that sets the restaurant apart.

And, yes, the love. One of us was to meet a friend for dinner once, and confusion about what "my sushi place" versus "your sushi place" (then the dearly departed Shima on Broadway) ensued. Our friend ran from Broadway to 24th Avenue in the February chill to meet us, arriving drenched in cold-weather sweat. Wordlessly, the waiter brought over a warm, damp washcloth for him to wipe his brow. It was a small gesture, but one that leaves a lasting impression.

Price In line with sushi; special rolls about $8.
Would we go again? Happily. We've never thought of sushi as comfort food until now.

Under Ditmars (Frankie's Pizza; 22-56 31st Street)

The location of this pizzeria is not the most opportune. It's right between the stairwells coming down from the Ditmars Boulevard station platform, so if you're getting off at that stop, it's never on your way, despite being right there. And something in the mind rebels at the notion of eating right there, where the elevated tracks assure the sun can't shine, where so many trains are idling, where so many transients congregate.

That being said, once you are inside Frankie's, you enter a different time -- the early 1960s perhaps. You are back in that era when tables equipped with bright orange bucket-style seats instead of benches -- that dining-room innovation specific to the fast-food-restaurant revolution that post-war suburbia engendered -- seemed somehow of the future rather than simply inconvenient. Frankie's is very much of that period and hasn't been substantially remodeled since, though in the past year, they did expand their counter into a L-shape that now extends toward the front entrance. This was not warranted by their having more goods to display; perhaps it's meant to make the space more inviting. If that's so, they might also consider taking the "Absolutely no outside food and drink" sign down. Not only does the bluster seem petty and off-putting, they don't even try to enforce it. We came in for a couple slices after a run carrying a few water bottles we bought at the deli, and no one at Frankie's said a word about it.

As for the pizza, we can say with confidence that we prefer it to Pizza Palace, which is up the street, and Alba's, which is nearby. But it bears no comparison with the neighborhood's finest.

Price: Average for a pizzeria.
Will we go again? Probably, but not from any special desire to return.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Family Style (Zenon Taverna; 34-10 31st Avenue)

The menu at Zenon, a homey Cypriot place waitstaffed by the owners' daughters with homespun folk-artish frescos on the walls, is loaded with tapas-style appetizers, so we held off eating here until we could coax some Guest Diners into joining us for mezedes. Each person pays $19, and then waves of small dishes are brought out. There are three combo options: the Cyprus meal, the fish meal, and surprisingly enough, the vegetarian meal. Zenon is probably the only taverna in Astoria that's thinking about that demographic, though they haven't entirely figured it out -- the vegetarian meal includes fish.

We ordered some wine (all the selections are Greek; we had retsina) and deliberated over our options. Thankfully, our waitress cooperatively permitted us to go with a combination of the Cyprus and vegetarian meals. Then the food came out in waves. First they came with the cold appetizers -- mostly dips for the grilled pita: tzatziki, scordalia, tahini. There was also beet salad, a seafood salad, potato salad, and a Cyprus salad (basically a Greek salad with feta and olives). All of these were solid if unremarkable; what was notable was the sheer quantity and variety of food on the table. There wasn't room for it all, and the meal quickly became a delicate dance of plate passing and polite requests.

With all that food out, it was easy to forget that a second wave was coming. These were the hot dishes: calamari, grilled halloumi, two kinds of meatballs (keftedes and sheftalia), some sausages, and quail. This was all delicious stuff, but we did not pace ourselves well and were mostly too full to really enjoy it. We started to feel a little sheepish about how much we would probably leave behind, though we felt comfortable enough at our table to tarry until we finished most of it.

Our multiple but infrequent visits to Zenon always find us saying that we should order more casual meals from them -- drop in for a gyro or souvlaki. Somehow, though, we never do. The meats are all prepared well enough for us to trust that a gyro would be worthwhile, but there's something about the rustic, cozy atmosphere atmosphere that makes us feel like we're doing the whole idea of Zenon wrong by stopping by for a to-go bag. The wooden beams hold a sort of energy that Aliada, the nearest Cypriot competitor, might mimic now but won't be able to achieve for another twenty years or so. They invite you to linger, eat more food than you maybe want, drink more retsina out of a ceramic pitcher. They invite you to stay.

Price: Entrees $13-$20; mezedes, $19 per person.
Will we go again? We say we should go more often but will probably only follow through on special occasions.

Old-School (Omonia Café; 32-20 Broadway)

We had time to kill before a movie, so we decided to do something we had been putting off and pay our obligatory visit to Omonia for the purposes of this blog. Perhaps the most quintessential of the dessert-and-coffee Euro cafes in the neighborhood, Omonia is actually pretty staid relative to the scene on 30th Avenue. The requisite ambient techno isn't blasting, and the neon backlighting is kept to a minimum. On the night we went, Tropical Storm Hanna was threatening outside and the humidity outside was extreme, so the window wall beside our table on Omonia's outer perimeter was sweating and the view to the street streaked and foggy. The curtailed visibility was probably hurting business -- the main point of the cafes is protracted people watching -- but it made the atmosphere less intimidating for us.

Omonia's menu is surprisingly extensive -- you could actually eat dinner there if you were so inclined -- but the core lies with its coffee drinks and its pages-long list of desserts. When asked for a recommendation, our waitress, an artificially friendly Eastern European who attempted to upsell us to a bottle of wine, demurred and told us to go up to the counter and inspect them ourselves. This wasn't much help; it's the kind of display in which everything looks practically shellacked in its slightly sterile perfection. In the end we ordered the caramel cake and a piece of baklava along with two booze-enhanced coffees, each topped with a pile of whipped cream. We were somewhat embarrassed by our perplexity at the mountain of cream; we had a hard time figuring out how to even drink them without making a huge mess. (The carousers at Athens Café make it look so easy!)

The desserts were okay but not good enough to make us forget about how self-conscious the place made us feel. They're thoroughly European in their approach, with mathematical precision in the layered desserts, pristine clarity on the glazed desserts, and mounds of cream (are Europeans less prone to lactose intolerance than Americans?). This means that whatever you get will be good, but nothing will be great unless you want a by-the-book approach to whatever you order -- reliably sweet, expertly done, uninspired. As the Alpha Astoria ladies wrote of the phyllo-encased custard, the taste isn't worth the calories. (Plus, the baklava was soggy, but we're willing to blame Hanna for that, as it seems unthinkable that the original Greek cafe would have anything but crisp phyllo on the national dessert.) In the unlikely event we ever return to Omonia, we'll like get our goods to go.

Price: Consistent with other cafes, which is to say, overpriced. Two desserts and two spiked coffees set us back $29.
Will we go again? If eager non-New-York friends with outdated guidebooks visited Astoria and insisted on going to get a "taste of the boroughs," sure. Otherwise, we'll pass.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Wanna Be Eatin' Somethin' (Locale, 33-02 34th Avenue)

We approached Locale with a hint of trepidation. Astoria seems maxed out on Mediterranean restaurants -- both the old-school tuxedoed waiter kind and the supposedly chic places with blaring music and insider attitude -- and we wondered what this new cafe-restaurant tucked away on a quiet corner of 34th Avenue would add to the mix.

What we found wasn't earth-shattering: Locale won't necessarily go on the list of Astoria must-trys. But its atmosphere and menu collide to create what Cafe Bar strives, and fails, to be: a restaurant offering Astoria's Mediterranean heritage to its influx of younger, non-European residents, without alienating the Euro crowds that populate the more established cafes on 30th Avenue.

The largely Italian menu features well-selected glimpses of personality beyond red sauce: chicken with fontina and figs, pasta with red beet mascarpone. Its standard dishes please -- we've tried a variety of salads at Locale, and the gnocchi, a dish often overcooked and made gummy even in supposedly schooled hands, was toothsome without being chewy or mushy. Vegetarian options abound on the pasta panini menu (and the salad menu too, if you're content with goat cheese, which Locale heavily relies on to bulk up the salads). We stuck with a (slightly overpriced) bottle of wine, but the cocktail list is primed to please -- pineapple mojitos and martinis abound. (We'll forgive Locale the unfortunately named "Panty Dropper.")

More than the food, though, Locale is the rare place that allows one to feel like you're out on the town without being thrust into a crowded joint with thumping music and attitude. Sure, the large-scaled images of nudes in the fetal position are a bit much, but they're not really in-your-face, and the rest of the glass-and-wrought-iron decor is low-key and classic enough to make up for it. Best of all, we could hear both our conversation and the music, which on our recent Friday night visit included the greatest hits of Michael Jackson.

Locale's website claims the restaurant reflects "the neighborhood's modern yet multicultural chic aspect, which has become a signature of present-day Astoria." We wish more places had a clear-cut mission statement, perhaps printed on their business cards -- not so much so we can evaluate them based on the description, but on how close the proprietors come to achieving their goal. In this case, it's a match.

Price: Entrees in the mid-teens.
Will we go again? Seems to suit our mood when we want to go out for a low-key night on the town.

Right Next Door to Vibe! (Gaudio's, 40-13 30th Avenue)

Though it occupies a newly rehabbed building on 30th Avenue that includes among its storefronts the now failed Paparazzi Café (soon to be Cafe Boite, not "Mama Salsa" as originally reported) and Vibe, a dubious Eurolounge of recent vintage, Gaudio's Pizza is something of a neighborhood institution, celebrating its 50th year in Astoria. The frequency with which we see empty Gaudio's boxes out on the sidewalk on recycling-pickup day is a testament to the pizzeria's popularity (though that may be an illusion furthered by the other nearby places using generic boxes without their names printed on them). The inside is newly remodeled, like the building, but still the restaurant feels deeply rooted. Queens accents were thick in the voices we overheard. There was an old Italian waitress -- perhaps the proprietor's wife -- wearing a tuxedo shirt and black vest and serving the tables toward the back, while the booths up front appeared to be reserved for people who wanted somewhere to eat their slices without any fuss. There was also a counter with stools beside the traditional pizza counter, but we couldn't imagine sitting there -- you'd likely feel too much in the way.

We got slices, about which there is little to say. They passed muster. Pizza toppings were available on every table, a touch of generosity we always appreciate. Having to put parmesan and/or garlic on a piece of pizza while under the watchful eye of the counter man or an impatient fellow customer seems an arrangement designed to discourage you from fixing your slice the way you like.

Regulars filtered in the entire time we were there; one joked with the counterman about coming in yet again. In all, it had a cozy timelessness that no amount of change outside in Astoria could disturb.

Price: $2 a slice.
Will we go again? Why not?

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Dry-Erase Dining (Akti, 34-19 30th Avenue)

Astoria has many Greek seafood restaurants, and it can be hard to keep them straight. We're a bit overwhelmed by them, actually, and have been dragging our heels on trying them. How do you pick one when there are so many? Before we ate at Akti, which opened in March, we knew it as the one with a waterfall sculpture -- a thin plate of illuminated glass with water coursing through it -- positioned prominently in the front. At night, when the restaurant is closed, there is something melancholy about the waterfall; turned off, with the unlit water puddled at the bottom, the sculpture becomes just a window without a wall, a porthole onto nothingness.

Inside Akti there were more aesthetic touches -- some nautically themed objects decorated the walls, like captain's wheel and what looked like a stunted oar, as well as a stucco rectangle with a neon glow hanging up behind the bar. The architectural detail, too, demands comment. The roof is paneled with bamboo stalks and the pilasters look as if they are barnacled with small white stones. The sum effect of all these niceties is hard to articulate; the atmosphere seems vaguely elegant and distinctive though you might be embarrassed to admit you felt that way.

The most peculiar thing about Akti is its procedure for ordering. Each table receives one menu (what is it with Greek restaurants and menus? Elias Corner won't even deign to give you one) and then each diner marks what they want directly on it with a dry-erase marker. Inevitably, this leads to some discussion of sharing items and requires coming to an explicit consensus. It makes the negotiations of any meal much more definitive, which may or may not be a benefit, depending on how effective you are at getting to yes. Sipping wine and munching down grilled pita slices, we managed to to come to terms with each other.

Our waiter thoughtfully gave us advice about how much to order -- one entree and a few appetizers for both of us -- and we took his advice and got grilled swordfish, a beet salad, and a delicious grilled haloumi appetizer (a mellow cheese grilled and placed on a tomato slice and pita). Everything tasted good. The beets were earthy and the fish was fishy, etc., but nothing struck as absolutely outstanding. What was better than ordinary was the attentive and unpretentious service, which was far more down to earth than the decor would lead you to expect. Everyone seemed at ease with what they were doing. A man who seemed to be the owner came by our table several times with encouraging comments, and it never felt uncomfortable or intrusive. When we were finished, the bartender brought out slices of watermelon for dessert.

When we were through at Akti, we left wondering why we are so resistant to try such places. The experience was effortlessly pleasant, enough to make you forget the elaborate effort that went into the design. The next time we pass the sad waterfall, it will probably seem less a symbol of Akti's trying to hard and more like the corny indulgence of friend whose vainly searching for a dignified way to express his effusiveness.

Price: If you order as you should -- appetizers, shared entree, wine -- it's about $100 per couple. That's on par with the other Greek restaurants nearby, and worth it.
Will we go again? We would if there weren't so many others of its type that we need to try.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Mystery of Merguez (Little Morocco; 24-39 Steinway Street)

We hadn't taken much notice of this takeout counter at the north end of the hookah-smoking district of Astoria until recently, probably because it has no indoor seating and therefore doesn't meet our ground rules. But come summer, they set up ad hoc outdoor seating (plastic tables and chairs), put in place a maître' d/waiter (a genial teenage boy with a questionable grasp of English), and re-create themselves as a sit-down restaurant.

Further piquing our interest in Little Morocco was its sign proclaiming that the New York Times had declared that the place has the best merguez sandwich in the city. It didn't matter that neither of us knew what merguez was. We had to try it. So on a Saturday night we braved the shisha smoke and made a visit. We enjoyed a pot of Moroccan mint tea, calmly deflected the stares of the gaggle of men sitting with us at the café out on the 25th Avenue sidewalk, and we waited in the cool summer evening to have the mystery of merguez solved for us.

We ordered the merguez platter, which came with salad and rice (rather than couscous, which might make more sense), and the sandwich, which was basically the platter, minus the rice, served on a soft Italian roll. It turns out that merguez is a kind of long, skinny sausage, not all that unlike the cevapi served at the Balkan places, but spiced somewhat differently and with a more granular mouth feel. Instead of ajvar to dress it, there is harissa, an unbelievably delicious hot sauce. According to the Times article, both the merguez and the harissa are made fresh on the premises by the chef-owner, who was born in Casablanca and emigrated to America in 1985.

The merguez was nothing special until we got the harissa involved, which the teenager brought over almost as an afterthought. As far as we're concerned, the merguez is merely a pretense for the harissa, which would enliven any dish, though it does complement the sausage well. The platter wasn't worth the extra expense, and we probably would have gotten more out of the sandwich if it didn't come with the salad rolled into it, so you could opt to have the sandwich without, say, the salad dressing or cucumbers. But it was still satisfying and worth having again, and it left us wondering: Why don’t the halal-chicken stands around the neighborhood add merguez (and harissa!) to their repertoire?

Price: Under $10. Cheap.
Will we go again? Probably for takeout. But worth sitting down outside for the tea.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Conjuring a Neighborhood (Stove; 45-17 28th Avenue)

We didn't expect to find a restaurant like Stove back in the highly residential, mostly ignored part of Astoria -- east on 28th Avenue, out toward Boulevard Gardens. We went for brunch and found it surprisingly busy but not overwhelmingly so, and pleasingly peaceful. We were delighted; nothing can ruin brunch like noise or waiting. A few tables were occupied in the backyard garden, and a smattering of couples were inside with us among the sparsely decorated white walls and the white-linen-bedecked tables. Up front was a small fully-stocked bar, with a few beer taps and stools that seemed mostly for show (or for the staff when business is slow). The restaurant is somewhat narrow, no wider than the storefront, and it can get a little cramped at the two-tops along the right side, where we were seated, especially considering how big the plates were when they were brought out. There was barely room to lift up our coffee cups from the saucers amid the toast basket and the juice glasses and the side plates and the entree plates. We did, however, like that that the table was set with a spreader utensil along with knife and fork.

The offerings on the set brunch menu were the usual suspects -- Eggs Benedict, omelets, et cetera -- along with some vaguely Irish-pub-themed options. The dinner menu, too, is partially publike, though the interior design of Stove seems purposely contrived to negate the suspicion that the restaurant might be a pub in disguise. It's spare, with vaguely Japanese ink drawings framed and hanging on the wall. The music, on Sunday morning at least, is a nonstop stream of 1960s pop hits -- "Lazy Day," "Summer in the City," "Groovin'," etc. The contrast between the setting and the menu's eclecticism has the happy effect of annulling any potential pretentiousness; it seems like the chef is just making what he or she feels like making.

We bypassed the shepherd's pie and went for corned beef hash and eggs, poached eggs royale, and a chicken Caesar salad. The serving of corned beef hash was ample to the point of absurdity but had us wishing we could actually finish it. The poached eggs royale (smoked salmon makes it royale, apparently) perhaps fit best with the ethos of the restaurant: prepared simply and cleanly, but with solid character and a deft touch. The same was true of the chicken Caesar salad, though it was the most generic of all the dishes we tried.

The restaurant is entirely out of character with what one might think is happening in Queens neighborhoods, especially away from the subway line. We have a hard time imagining who its patrons are, despite being among them. It would make no impact in a well-off corner of gentrified Brooklyn, but here it seems a radical innovation, almost unthinkable -- a place confident enough in its approach to refrain from selling it too hard, as so many of the would-be scene-y, date-y places in Astoria do. (The place's website, though, is a different story.) Still, Stove seems to exist to serve the neighborhood, not perhaps as it is but as it should be, full of the sort of people who appreciate basic food, well-prepared and served in a quietly dignified atmosphere. Rather than try to compete for the attention reserved for flashier bistros in more accessible locales, the restaurant adheres to a palpable, near impossible modesty. If only Stove could succeed in calling into being a neighborhood in its own image.

Price: Under $20 for entrees; brunch is about $12 per person.
Will we go again? Totally. We plan on becoming regulars.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

It's a Cafe! And a Bar! (Cafe Bar, 32-90 36th Street)

Cafe Bar was one of the handful of establishments that prompted Time Out to proclaim Astoria "The New Bohemia" on its cover in 2000. Regardless of the truth of that statement, the consciously quirky Cafe Bar back then was a sort of outpost for the young hipsters who were said to be slowly populating the area.

When we first went there, around the same time as that cover story, we felt like we were missing something. Sure, the Mona Lisa rice curtain and retro couches spoke to us more than the surly, nicotine-heavy outdoor tables at, say, Athens Cafe -- but the menu wasn't much different. It was Euro-style cafe fare: Greek salads, light sandwiches graced with feta, and frappes. Maybe the odd nutella crepe as well. But we were willing to chalk it up to us, not them -- surely we'd just overlooked a page of the menu.

Now that Astoria has a handful of places that could prompt another Time Out cover story (yet again touting Astoria's arrival on the desirable neighborhood list), it's clear that Cafe Bar was never quite lived up to what the boosters were so eager to claim for it. Once you have absorbed the "zany" rummage-sale decor, there's just not a whole lot, menu-wise, to set it apart from any other Greek or Cypriot cafe in the neighborhood, though the fresh-juice bar is a nice variant from the long coffee lists at those other establishments. The vibe is indeed funky in its own way, with 1960s-style chandeliers, pop wall decor, and a one-of-a-kind Salinger-themed bathroom (this alone makes it worth one visit). But any college town in America has a place with this feel: the objets d'art carefully selected to feel whimsically random, the DJ nights, the friendly but not particularly efficient waitstaff. Salads, sandwiches, crepes -- all well-priced, all fitting our nutritional needs, all tasty enough to make us clean our plates. But Astoria has many places that go above and beyond the basics of just-fine food preparation.

Reviewers on other sites claim to feel "at home" at Cafe Bar. But it's hard for us to feel at home amid such forced quirkiness. We feel as though we're at the apartment of a twentysomething struggling to find her identity, sitting among a bizarre array of hard plastic chairs and overstuffed couches. (It should be noted, too, that we're not a fan of dining on couches. You're so sunken that you can't talk to anyone other than who is beside you on the couch; you have to keep leaning over to pick up your drink or food -- essentially, you're more uncomfortable than you would be at a plain old table with chairs. So what then is the point?)

We understand Cafe Bar's appeal. It's more or less fairly priced, the food is fine, it doesn't have a problem with patrons nursing a drink on one of those infernal couches. In these respects, it's a quintessential cafe, and maybe that's what makes it problematic for us. Cafe culture isn't eating culture: It's for people who wish to see and be seen. We appreciate that this can foster a sense of community, and perhaps the perpetually arriving new bohemians of Astoria have found their home at Cafe Bar. (It serves as a pickup spot for the Astoria CSA, so that's fully possible.) Maybe we're just not "new" enough, or bohemian enough, to gel with the Cafe Bar vibe -- but we suspect that those who are hoping to find something truly bohemian here will be disappointed.

Price: Fine. Not crazy like some of the other tavernas.
Will we go again? We'd prefer a cafe or a bar to this Cafe Bar.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Aloysius Pie (Cronin & Phelan; 38-14 Broadway)

You would think it wouldn't be all that hard to find a place in Astoria that serves basic pub food and a pint of Guinness -- neighboring Woodside probably has a dozen such places -- but it is surprisingly challenging. It's as though all the Mediterranean-style Euro cafes have the bite-and-a-sip market cornered, so many of the Irish bars in the neighborhood just don't find it cost-efficient to serve food. Cronin & Phelan is one of the few exceptions, so we find ourselves there more often than two people hell-bent on eating at every restaurant in Astoria should -- repeats don't come without thought. But craving a pint of Guinness can simplify our decision.

Cronin & Phelan doesn't do anything spectacularly right, though their burgers are satisfying, the fish and chips light and tasty, and the shepherd's pie a few notches above par. (We're particularly fond of how the mashed potatoes on top are sculpted like frosting and ever-so-lightly browned.) But that they are serving these things at all, and not Greek salads and Nutella crepes, goes a long way with us. And the service is always warm and matter-of-fact, as it should be at such places. They have always acted as if they remember us, even on our first visit.

Despite the faint warmth of the staff, the atmosphere inside Cronin & Phelan is not what you'd call especially cozy -- it's not a snug, hardwood-and-fireplace sort of establishment. There's a jukebox, but no one plays it much; maybe it comes into play later in the evening after the kitchen closes (way too early). It's the kind of bar where you can't be facing a direction without having a good view of a large flat-screen TV showing the Yankees game. It's also the kind of place where you can watch horse-racing simulcasts, which means (a) inebriated old men and (b) exceedingly odd conversations with said old men. For instance, on a visit before Easter, someone who introduced himself as "William Aloysius" told us all about the city's gyms and the days we'll find cooked turnips (his favorite) on the menu. It seems like a place where every evening, someone will be embarrassingly incoherent, and no one will pay them much mind -- which makes it a haven of sorts, and perhaps one to look forward to in case things go horribly wrong for us years down the line.

Price: Around $12 for entrees. In line with pub menus.
Will we go again? Cronin & Phelan ties for the record for our number of repeat visits since beginning this mission. At this point we're forced to alternate which of us gets to be Cronin.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Pizza Thinners (Rizzo's; 30-13 Steinway Street)

Best-slice-in-Astoria discussions don't follow the pattern of best-slice-in-New-York rumbles. Astorians come away from such talks with a list of six or so recommended places but no clear winner, not even two or three that stay in constant rotation at the top à la DiFara's, Grimaldi's, and John's. You're as likely to hear "this place on Ditmars and 23rd" as you are the coal-oven pies at Sac's. There's no consistency; it can seem like random prejudice. So it took a few conversations in which Rizzo's was mentioned as the best slice in Astoria before we took it for a whirl.

Rizzo's is cleaner than other pizzerias -- immaculately so -- and bright with fluorescent glare, but the standard-issue plastic booths and floor tiles are exactly what you'd expect. The mirror-walls were heavily dotted by Ikea-style floating frames featuring shots of the restaurant back in Astoria's Italian-American heyday, lending an air of nostalgia without going over the top in any attempt to mark its territory in the neighborhood's hallowed pizza ovens. Yes there are a few framed clippings from newspapers and local magazines touting their slices, but these don't distract from the modest, neighborhood feel of the place. The only ostentatious touch is the old neon sign above the entrance, which we consider a touch of class, even though it is out of keeping with the rest of the block.

The proud but restrained approach goes for the pizza too -- as well as the service: The genial fellow behind the counter, recognizing our red, sweaty faces as those of people coming off of a jog, offered us a to-go cup of water upon our departure without us having to ask. The regular slice, carefully called the Neapolitan slice on the chalkboard menu, is indeed closer to what one finds in Naples than other New York slices: a thin, toasty crust without too much char, luscious savory-sweet sauce, and just enough cheese to make it, well, pizza -- no strings of mozzarella dripping off. Rizzo's Sicilian slice is what is usually heralded , though, and for good reason. Unlike the oversize, doughy Sicilian pizza found elsewhere, this postcard-sized slice had a thin crust with a carefully placed rectangle of mozzarella placed right in the middle. They're self-conscious about its daintiness -- the non-mirrored wall had a recognizable caricature of the Sicilian pie -- but with good reason, as it's worth coming back for.

We're happy to keep Astoria's best-slice discussion democratic. There's never a real winner in those chats anyway, which is why it makes such constant fodder for about-town publications. But we'll be happy to proffer Rizzo's from here on out.

Price: Normal pizza prices.
Will we go again? Just may be the best slice in Astoria—absolutely.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Tweet (Sparrow, 24-01 29th Street)

Back in the days when this corner bar at 29th Street and 24th Avenue was Silenus, we never had the nerve to go in, no matter how long the kielbasa line at the Beer Garden across the street would become. But when Silenus was taken over by the owners of the late and lamented Tupelo and converted to Sparrow (the name seems to have been chosen because they could convert the Silenus awning into Sparrow without having to replace it) we had some hope for an alternative.

It seemed inevitable that a bar would thrive in that spot once the Beer Garden started to be overrun by douchey frathouse types, but at first the Sparrow didn't really bother much with food; it was content with the hipster crowd it drew with its divey ad hoc interior and consistently good music (a recent visit we heard Os Mutantes, the Zombies, the Small Faces and the Creation). But they could only let the opportunity their prime location across from Astoria's lone nightlife attraction from non-Queensian provided lay fallow for so long. Out went the ragtag couches, in came some two-tops and a menu heavy with offerings like herb pesto and speck.

The brunch is a welcome change from the standard neighborhood offerings: croissant french toast, juicy "brunch burgers," brioche and egg sandwiches with goat cheese options. Nothing has left us wanting. The staff was kind enough to point out which offerings were too heavy for a sunny Saturday afternoon begging for outdoor activity, and was apologetic on a nighttime visit when they were slammed with an outpouring from the Beer Garden. Those nighttime options are easy on the palate too. We had what was essentially a croque monsieur with cheese and cured ham, and we've also partaken in their simple meat, cheese, and olive plates, which were well priced and with an international selection. The beers and wine are well-chosen, offering no more or less than what you need in a restaurant-bar of this size (Sparrow would comfortably seat about 24) -- no throwaway choices, and nothing ostentatiously esoteric either.

We like it. Really, we do. It's just that in Sparrow, we feel like we're in lower Greenpoint. This isn't a bad thing, but it's not exactly a compliment either. It's designed, priced, and occupied by and for people who aren't entirely dissimilar to us: under-40 imports from other parts of the country who work in semi-creative fields, have cash to blow on brunch every weekend but not enough to nonchalantly assume a Manhattan (or Williamsburg, even) lifestyle, and a certain appreciation of food and music without being too precious about either. We appreciate Sparrow for understanding and catering to our general lifestyle. At the same time, what has made Astoria so dear to us is that it serves as a respite from workaday life replete with, well, under-40 imports from other parts of the country who work in semi-creative fields.

Sparrow has been around long enough, and its owners clearly committed enough to providing well for its clientele, that we're nowhere near eschewing it out of some principle based on "old Astoria" -- we recognize that the neighborhood has shifted over the years, and we're not totally unhappy about that. But the conversation that led us to our first brunch at Sparrow involved the phrase "I'm in the mood for a twee brunch." We know where we'll go -- and be satisfied -- when we're in that mood (we recently did a double-header and had both brunch and dinner there). For other moods, we have a whole neighborhood to choose from. And we often will.

Price: We can't quite remember, so it couldn't have been that expensive.
Will we go again? Our tribe congregates here, and we do have to attend the annual meeting, so yes.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

New Moon on Thursday (Luna de Juarez, 25-98 Steinway Street)

A Mexican restaurant like Luna de Juarez seemed to us to be a bit of a tough sell at first. Not that there's a dearth of folks with an appetite for the cuisine, in Astoria -- 28 percent of the residents self-identify as Hispanic, and many of those are Mexican. But in a part of the neighborhood that's largely Balkan and Middle Eastern, a Mexican place seems oddly out of place (no one is smoking a hookah inside) and its somewhat more upscale offerings (compared with the taquerías that line several avenues south of 30th) make it a would-be destination spot, only it's not centrally located to anything -- it's a bit of a hike from the subway. And when we first walked by, the prominent bar was brightly lit, making it appear more like a sports bar than a date-friendly nook.

But when we went there one Thursday evening, the lights were dimmed, giving the light ochre walls a gentle glow, and it was clear that couples of Astoria had taken to the restaurant -- seven pairs were scattered about, with no families to be found. It wasn't exactly romantic, nor did it evoke the moonlight of Juarez, but everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves, and we followed suit.

The waiter recommended the New York strip steak, but we wanted something a little more...Mexican (the menu also features spaghetti -- we suppose they wanted to cover all bases), so we went with the steak fajita and enchiladas suizas. The enchiladas were made with good Mexican farmer's cheese (not cheddar, thank goodness) and had a mild green tomatillo sauce that was flavorful if not spicy. The fajitas are Tex-Mex, of course, a term that's frequently accompanied by the wrinkled, upturned nose of a foodie. But as a "native foreign food," as termed by noted food writer Waverley Root, it's a legitimate cuisine that can tastily exist outside of Chili's. We didn't expect to find it at a local restaurant in Astoria, but we're glad we did -- the peppers hit the crispy-tender spot that they should, the marinated steak was juicy and flavorful, and it was all encased with lovingly foil-wrapped flour tortillas. (We admit to being a bit disappointed that it didn't arrive sizzling, a la Chili's.)

Our mildly confused waiter bumbling with the menu matched the mood of the restaurant: a bit unsure of its choices, trying to hit the balance between casual-fine dining and down-home service. Like the neighborhood as a whole, Luna de Juarez is in flux between rooted but growing ethnic communities and a sudden surge of diners who want oversized margaritas along with their "authentic" cuisine. The opening and apparent thriving of Mojave near Ditmars, an offshoot of Agave in the West Village, shows that there's room for the latter. Luna de Juarez may be trying to supply a bridge between dining styles that no one was particularly looking to cross, but we wish it the best.

Price: Around $15 for entrees
Will we go again? We immediately said we would—and haven't thought of it since. Maybe.

Luna de Juarez on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Stop Licking Your Lips (John's Pizzeria and Restaurant, 23-39 Astoria Boulevard)

• Pinwheels (pig rolls? Counterperson's enunciation unclear): Mini bird's-nest pizzas the size of a pig's nose
• Counterman not used to waiting on nonregulars; evident in shifty stance and uncomfortable speech pattern (not unfriendly, however)
• Elvis impersonator prominently advertised in front window (a relative of John's?)
• Tables closer in size to card tables than restaurant tables. Sitting across from one another, we felt very far away (purchased in bulk at unclaimed freight auction?)
• Takeout menu full of braggadocio ("100% Satisfaction Guaranteed Stop Licking your Lips Call Now")
• Pizza as per usual

Price: Like every other pizzeria.
Will we go again? Unlikely. Though we do need an Elvis impersonator.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Mexican Food as Authentic Kitsch (Las Margaritas, 38-01 Broadway)

Laws surrounding New York nightlife confounded us when we first arrived. Instead of being able to put a few songs in the jukebox and dance in the back of our favorite bars like we did in other towns we've lived in, we suddenly had to pay covers to throbbing, exhausting dance clubs that were anything but fun. We're still confused by when it's kosher to BYOB. And it's strangely difficult to find a place that serves actual Mexican food alongside margaritas, unless you count the wave of nuevo Latino places (which we won't, at least not until we visit Mojave on Ditmars). Astoria has no shortage of Mexican restaurants, but so few of them have liquor licenses that what seems to us to be a natural marriage of burritos and margaritas instead becomes a rare prize -- that prize being Las Margaritas.

Las Margaritas seems like the kind of place that towns with few to no actual Mexican residents -- say, Pierre, South Dakota -- would herald as an authentic Mexican restaurant. Flowing pitchers of margaritas, curtains resembling Mexican zarape blankets, the patrons largely devoid of Latin blood, even the name all form the idea of what a Mexican restaurant should be. But where the restaurants in those places fail -- the food -- Las Margaritas holds its own. Which is not to say that it's outstanding: It's not. But like Astoria's gyro joints, the quality of the neighborhood's Mexican food tends to be solid as a result of competition.

Nothing on the menu blew us away, but it was all eagerly devoured. The seafood quesadilla had a light tomato-based sauce that nicely tempered the briny meat. The simple mango-avocado salad, sprinkled with chili powder, was a refreshing antidote to the heavy enchiladas, burritos, and other standard Mexican fare that comprise the bulk of the menu.

We'd visited Luna de Juarez not long before Las Margaritas, and they seemed to be two sides of the same coin. They had similar menus, though Las Margaritas sticks closer to taqueria fare while Luna de Juarez attempts to break out into broader Mexican cuisine too. Luna de Juarez achieves intimacy through small attempts at elegance, while Las Margaritas gets there with dim lighting and an overall darker appeal. But both have a largely non-Latino clientele in a heavily Latino neighborhood, and both please.

Price: Not as cheap as other places, but not a rip-off; entrees between $9 and $18.
Will we go again? We've already made one repeat visit, and there could be more—pass the pitcher, please.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Goya the Greek (Zorba's Souvlaki Plus, 29-05 23rd Avenue)

In the realm of Greek takeout places in Astoria, Zorba's, in many ways, stands at the other end of the spectrum from Ditmars Gyro Place. Rather than tiled walls and harsh lighting, there's exposed brick (much like Ukus) and an almost genteel outdoor seating area. At the Gyro Place, the TV typically plays foreign soccer matches or Fox News; Zorba's TV was tuned to the Greek equivalent of MTV. The Gyro Place tends to have surly waiters; Zorba's (on our visit, at least) had a jovial waitress. There was even a couple at Zorba's who appeared to be on a date.

But the chief difference is embodied in their names; the Gyro Place highlights gyro meat turning on spits behind the counter; Zorba's Souvlaki Plus gives top billing to its grilled skewers of lamb, chicken and pork. Not that you can't get souvlaki at the former or gyros at the latter; it's just that at the Gyro Palace you won't find lamb souvlaki, for instance. At Zorba's you won't be able to choose from among several different rotating meats.

Admittedly, the casual consumer of Greek fast food wouldn't notice the difference, but when you have committed yourself as we have to eating at all of the myriad gyro restaurants in the neighborhood, you train yourself to spot small differences.

As befit the name, we both ordered lamb souvlaki sandwiches, which were wrapped in fluffy authentic pitas. Zorba's had hummus on its menu -- something you don't often see at Greek places -- so we made the unusual request of having it added to one of our sandwiches. How unusual? We saw one of the kitchen staff smuggle in a few cans of Goya Garbanzo beans shortly after our order was hung. (This made us wonder why we don't make our own hummus, considering this place was whipping it up in two minutes just to fill our order.)

Lamb souvlaki is not for everyone; it can be sinewy at times and takes sharp teeth to enjoy comfortably. Otherwise you end up with a hunk of meat in your mouth that is too large to chew. Softer meats are a safer choice for those unwilling to risk the chance of having to make an unseemly expectoration into a napkin. But the grilled lamb repays the courageous with a succulence lacking in the other choices, and Zorba's does the lamb like it should be done.

Price: No more expensive than any other souvlaki joint. Under $10.
Will we go again? When hungry and on 23rd Avenue, happily. Otherwise, we'll go to one of the four gyro places within the two-block radius of All Astoria Eats HQ.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

More Sitting (Bangla Garden; 29-14 36th Avenue)

We were surprised to discover that this cabbie pit stop, an Indian buffet in the Little Dhaka section of Astoria on 36th Avenue, has a website. The photo is somewhat misleading: the bunch of dudes lounging at a table, looking as though they are in no particular hurry, with the TV playing the Bengali station from Canada in the background (it featured peaceful chanting and singing while we ate), seems very representative. The two women superimposed in the corners -- not so much. And it was not exactly what we would call a "party hall," though we did not investigate the basement. (A sign pointed down a narrow, precipitous stairway: "More Sitting.")

When we arrived at Bangla Garden, it was hardly a party. In fact the restaurant was hardly populated at all, and no one seemed to be working there. Eventually we had to take the initiative to just grab a plate and start piling on food from the buffet urns, which were lined up along the front window. (A man in a baseball cap, who had been sitting at a table watching the chanting, then quickly confirmed that we were doing the right thing, gesturing that we should help ourselves and sit anywhere.) On the buffet, the usual suspects were available: yellow dal, aloo saag, a mixture of green beans and okra, chicken tikka, what looked like chicken makhani, a lamb curry and a goat curry (Why is goat meat so bony? Goats have no more bones than sheep, right?). A side table also had some unappetizing salad (99 percent iceberg lettuce), what may have been rice pudding, and a pitcher of tea.

It didn't look especially appetizing, and it certainly wasn't Jackson Heights caliber, but it was quite good, when we finally settled in to eat. The spinach selections in particular were flavorful, though we wish the buffet had naan available to help us soak up the last of the sauces in the saag (and other) dishes. The most frequent complaint with Indian food is that it's oily and heavy; this was heavy enough to fill us up but skipped the layer of orange grease that came with our last order of Astoria Indian food.

For the apparent number of people from Bangladesh and India that now live in Astoria, you'd think that the neighborhood would boast better cuisine from the region -- and you would be wrong. Other place in the neighborhood are known to us as "the really bad place," "the place I will go to if pressed," etc. Bangla Garden is, if nothing else, a relief.

Price: Under $10 for all you can eat. You do the math.
Will we go again? It's among the only reasonable Indian food options in the hood. Do we have much of a choice?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Club Med: 30th Avenue (Grand Café; 37-01 30th Avenue)

We had always been somewhat intimidated by Astoria's innumerable Euro-style cafes, where the emphasis seems to be more on supplying patrons with a table on the sidewalk at which to relax and drink iced coffee than anything having to do with food. To be sitting squinting in the sun amid bus exhaust and gawking passersby isn't our idea of an appealing way to fritter away an afternoon, and moreover, the culture at these places seemed to us insular and inhospitable. If you aren't of Mediterranean extraction, or aren't to the manner of al fresco lounging born, then you are likely to stick out and feel alienated at these cafes, waiting for some insight into their appeal that never comes.

We were so generally freaked out by the Euro cafes that we considered crafting a loophole that would exempt them from our campaign, but we decided that this would be against the spirit of the mission. After all, we would grossly distort the nature of the neighborhood if we left them out. So on the first warm day of the year, we thought we would ease into the scene with a brunch at Grand Café, a recent addition and seemingly one of the more approachable of the places. The interior was dark and vast. Behind the bar, at which little red-velvet ottomans were lined up in lieu of bar stools, was an enormous aquarium with tropical fish. The thumping music was a little nightclubby for brunchtime, but the early-afternoon baseball on the big flat-screen TVs mitigated the Euro vibe.

After a brief, disorienting moment, we were seated in a liminal space at the edge of the interior, next to a retractable wall that opened out onto the sidewalk. We were close enough to feel a breeze and believe we were part of café society, but not close enough to be choking on fumes and the stares of bystanders. To our delight, we were immediately brought water, in a corked liter bottle that the busser pulled out from his apron, and better still, mini-muffins, surprisingly moist and warm, albeit a little greasy. And different flavors too -- some were raisin bran, some were apple, some blueberry. The coffee, when it came, was served with a chocolate-filled rolled wafer, a welcome touch that left a positive impression well out of proportion with what it probably cost them.

We ordered eggs benedict -- a good brunch benchmark -- and the caprese frittata. The eggs benedict were what you'd want, well poached and not overly slathered with Hollandaise, and more important, they were brought promptly. The frittata was mostly indistinguishable from the omelet we ordered on a subsequent visit, which was indistinguishable from slightly overcooked scrambled eggs with various items thrown in. But to find an actual omelet or an actual frittata in most places (Astoria and elsewhere) is a high order -- the dish tasted good and was served with a mesclun salad that was more generous than it needed to be to please us.

So there was nothing to be afraid of after all. The truth is, the prevalence of the cafes makes them extremely competitive, meaning the service is attentive even if the food is not particularly distinctive. Sitting amid the Euros, we felt a little as though we had gone on vacation and were making the best of a resort amenity. Reclining in our semi-chaise longues, we felt like we had finally arrived.

Price: Good value for brunch, $10 per person.
Will we go again? Currently tied with Cronin & Phelan for repeat visits. We often have to remind ourselves there are other brunch options, because this place is just so easy.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Mama Paparazzi (Paparazzi Cafe, 40-17 30th Avenue)

Paparazzi Cafe is case in point as to why we embarked on our mighty (dare we say noble?) mission to eat at every restaurant in Astoria. We've been conspicuously avoiding the many cafés lining 30th Avenue, expecting the wilted salads and half-hearted sandwiches meant only to stave off caffeine jitters that the denizens of these espresso hangouts undoubtedly acquire. And Paparazzi Cafe, from the outside, seemed to be the worst of the worst. It heralds itself with tacky plastic blue pop-out lettering. It's on the same block as another unpromising cafe, Vibe. It's called Paparazzi Cafe, as if you were supposed to pretend minor royalty or a Spears sister were going to wander in at any moment. We figured we'd go there for brunch (how hard is it to mess up eggs?) and cross it off the list. It couldn't be any worse than Time Cafe, right?

Once inside, we immediately knew we'd misjudged. For one, the menus read, "Paparazzi Cafe, soon to be Mama Salsa." The smiling waitress greeted us eagerly -- we were the only patrons in the place, as the other two people there were hanging out at the bar as employees waiting to go on shift frequently do -- and the brunch-time sunlight was streaming in, highlighting the geometric light on the walls and plants rooted in vases layered with what appeared to be seeds and beans. This wasn't a Greek frappe joint; this was a Colombian restaurant in a transition that we hope is less precarious than it appears.

The waitress quickly brought us two mugs of lightly frothed cafe con leche, then left us to peruse the menu. We were there for brunch, though it seems that Mama Salsa does a proper breakfast, and the dinner offerings were more extensive than the short but complete morning fare. In an effort to not meat-load as we did at Tierras Colombianas, one of us ordered the scrambled eggs with tomatoes and scallions; the other went for the full plato tipico of rice and beans, chorizo, and steak topped with the obligatory egg. Both were served with an arepa, which appeared to be formed by hand, topped with melted cheese.

And both were delicious. The red beans and rice seemed to have been prepared with a meaty stock of some sort and were seasoned with a spice melange that was unidentifiable but beautifully rounded, elevating the staple and making us wish more restaurants followed Mama's lead. The egg dish, which could have been carelessly prepared and still satisfied us, was fluffy without skimping on the veggies. The chorizo was spicy but heralded no gastronomic troubles, and when you get steak with breakfast for under $10, we're always delighted.

The improbability of the whole experience endeared the Paparazzi Cafe to us perhaps more than it would on the basis of the food alone, but the food alone certainly makes it worth a visit. Add in the absence of a crowd and a genuinely friendly service, and it becomes an excellent brunching option in a neighborhood full of them.

Price: It was a good deal.
Will we go again? We wish we could, but it's now closed, and the Mama Salsa renovation plan has given way to a French cafe.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Way to Blue (Blue Restaurant, 40-09 30th Avenue)

Since we started this project, we had been reluctant to try the Blue Restaurant (aka Blue Coffee Shop, if you go by its arrow-laden billboard on the corner of 30th Avenue and Steinway). The color blue isn't something we associate with food -- at least food that's not rotting. And most times when we've walked past, it seemed dismal inside, like the proprietors had lost hope in the notion that sprucing things up would make any difference. And we didn't believe for a second the sign in the window that claimed Blue Restaurant had "Largest selection of food in area."

But one morning, we ventured over to the Mini Star on Steinway for breakfast and it was packed. The elderly couple waiting for a table in front of us were looking at each other with dread and resignation. We knew what they were thinking, because we were thinking it too. Sure enough, we found ourselves trailing them over to Blue.

As you'd expect, much of the décor of Blue Restaurant is blue: blue walls, blue seat padding in the booths, blue plastic cups, blue-patterned plates. And it was pretty dismal: like a sad bachelor apartment that had been inhabited by the same lonely guy too long. The paint job was faded, there were splotches of spackle here and there, and the drop-ceiling tiles were still nicotine stained from the time you could smoke in restaurants. The decorations were also slightly off -- prominent were the posters of 1950s icons collaged together clumsily in generic scenes: Elvis, Marilyn, and Bogie carousing at the pool hall, for example. (What gives? Can someone's nostalgia really become so indiscriminate that they're content to lump all their memories together in one incoherent tableau?)

Most bizarre, though, was the flat-screen TV displaying a loop of digital photos of some of Blue Restaurant's offerings, randomly chosen and indifferently styled -- just plates of food photographed in bad, yellowy light: There's a gyro sandwich. There's a cheeseburger. There's some scrambled eggs. And there's a Cobb salad (Cabb Salad on the menu). The photos are weirdly mesmerizing though, and once the entire group had been cycled through, each image would then be tiled across the screen, as if to overwhelm you with their allure through sheer multiplication. You thought that tuna melt looked good? What about 32 tuna melts?

The menu, which was set entirely in Comic Sans, had some quirks; the Wraps sections featured nine options: Blue 1, Blue 2, Blue 3, etc. (Sadly, Blue 7 was not conceived as a tribute to Sonny Rollins.) But as we suspected, it was not the largest selection of food in the area. In fact, it was a lot like the selection available at any diner, but scaled back. Rumor has it that there is a secret "taco menu" available on request, and Blue's takeout menu suggests that the place also masquerades on certain occasions as a restaurant called Taqueria Mango. Why the secrecy? We can't even hazard a guess, nor have we decided if we will need to revisit Blue Restaurant in its Mexican guise.

But no matter how odd Blue Restaurant is -- and it is decidedly odd -- it remains an altogether suitable place to get breakfast. Service was prompt and friendly, and our (blue) coffee cups and (blue) water glasses were kept filled. The broccoli-bacon omelet was overcooked, but that's par for the course at any diner, barring ones that are more "eatery" than "diner." The over-easy eggs were prepared competently, the bacon crisp but not overdone, and the chunky, orangey home fries were adequate, cooked with onions, paprika, and maybe a hint of green pepper.

So there was nothing really to be afraid of, after all, which makes us wonder why Mini Star is always so crowded and Blue is consigned to its spillover. Maybe it really is all about location.

Price: Diner prices. Not as cheap as Mini Star.
Will we go again? It's not that we wouldn't. It's more, Why would we?

Paul Bunyano (Tierras Colombianas, 33-01 Broadway)

We thought we were hungry when we ventured to this Colombian restaurant late on a Saturday night, but then our food came. Keeping things simple, we ordered the first two entrees listed on the menu, the bandeja campesina (the country plate) and the bandeja montañera (the mountain plate). We were warned about the mountain plate's dried shredded beef -- not to be confused with a steak -- but we were undeterred.

For around $12 each, we got steak (shredded or solid) topped with a fried egg, rice, pinto beans, fried plantains, and a chicharrón, basically a huge hunk of fried pork -- think of it as a really thick piece of bacon, or a pork rind for Paul Bunyan. These were meals, no doubt about it, served with astounding promptness, as if they had a stack of grilled steaks in the back, waiting to be ordered. Maybe anyone with any sense who patronizes the place gets what we ordered, so it's always kept ready. (Or maybe it was because the place was about to close for the night, which we hadn't realized.)

Though everything we were brought was appetizing, there was no way we were eating it all, and hacking away at our mega-pork rinds, we wondered if overabundance was meant to be part of the experience. The shredded beef worked well, especially when the yolk spilled from the egg, binding the meat with the rice and beans in a delicious protein-packed mélange. The hammered steak of the country plate, though less exotic, was just as successful (and just as filling -- it came with an avocado wedge, which sadly went untouched in the midst of all the other food).

Tierras Colombianas tends to be mentioned by non-Astorians as being among the pantheon of neighborhood restaurants that are worth crossing the river for. And it is, don't get us wrong, but foodies seeking transporting cuisine may want to go elsewhere. The food is exactly as it should be, but don't come expecting perfect seasoning and tip-top preparation, or even the down-market ambiance that adventure eaters look for. It's not really a dive, not a place where you just sit and stuff your face, and it lacks much substance for sustaining a hearty Anglo ethnocentrism. ("My, isn't it quaint how these ethnic people eat? I believe I understand these Colombians now.") You sit yourself down at one of the pastel diner-like booths, you pick at that has come from the country and the mountain, you look around at the bustle -- whenever we've walked by, the patrons seem nearly manic with meaty delight, as opposed to stuporous after all that food -- and you eat, unadventurously but with earnest satisfaction.

Price: Cheap for what you get. Entrees are around $10.
Will we go again? We're still too full from last time, but could be persuaded.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Strip Mall Parmigiana (Porto Bello, 43-18 Ditmars Boulevard)

It likely would have taken us a lot longer to discover Porto Bello (the Pretty Door?) were it not for Leo, the diminutive Italian barber on 21st Avenue that one of us goes to now and then for a haircut. Leo has been practicing his trade in Astoria since well before either of us were born, back when the neighborhood was much more Italian than it is now. Figuring he'd be able to sort out which was the best of the many old-school Italian restaurants in the area, we asked him what his favorite Italian restaurant was. He recommended not one of the storied (and possibly mobbed up) places, but Porto Bello, a relatively new restaurant in the shopping center on Ditmars at 48th street.

It's not what we would have expected. Because it's in a strip mall and has a parking lot, Porto Bello is like something out of suburbia, the kind of run-of-the-mill pizza restaurant you'd find in any small town as a staple option. It would be easy to lump Porto Bello (Port-O-Bello on the shopping center's sign) in with those often-unimaginative places and expect mediocrity. Perhaps aware of this, though, it seems to work harder, making none of the little mistakes that can creep in when expectations are low.

Porto Bello is larger than you'd expect inside, and this helps make it seem like more than a glorified pizzeria. The uniformed waiters help too, though ours -- lumbering, bulky, and brusque, yet not at all incompetent -- seemed like a moonlighting high-school football player. We asked for recommendations, as usual, and he was a little too generous, naming so many different dishes that he may as well have used the time-honored cop-out and said, "They are all good."

But that said, everything we tried was good. How Porto Bello executed the typically humdrum chicken parmigiana was indicative. There was nothing adventurous about it; it was just well done. The dish was made not from a prebreaded cutlet but instead a chicken breast lightly coated with a fresh layer of peppery bread crumbs, supplying texture without giving the grease somewhere to collect when the meat was fried. Mozzarella cheese was not piled on indiscriminately, but was applied with a knowing artistry, to complement rather than overwhelm. The marinara sauce was rich and flavorful without being too acidic, sweet or lumpy. And the pasta was properly cooked; it wasn't limp or waterlogged, and the portion was not wasteful. All and all, an unimaginative plate of comfort food was made entirely respectable. Our pasta dish, the Rigatoni Fiorentina (Porto Bello's most popular entree), was similarly pleasing. Tender chicken, spinach, and mozzarella in a creamy pink sauce, much like a vodka sauce (we can't be sure if there was any Finlandia action happening backstage), was perfectly sweet-savory, and filling without being belly-achingly heavy.

With Astoria's depleted Italian contingent, it's easy to stick to the standbys: Trattoria l'Incontro, Piccolo Venezia, and the like. But Porto Bello shows that a restaurant doesn't have to have known the neighborhood way back when to get it right.

Price: Reasonable. Good value for quality.
Will we go again? Yes, and we'll feel smug the whole time that we're getting a good meal in a strip mall.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Mag Loading, Family Style (The Original Stamatis Restaurant, 29-12 23rd Avenue)

Where we grew up, family restaurant meant Perkins, Friendly's, Bob Evans. Parents could bring in the kids, there would be something on the menu for everyone, the tab would be reasonable, and the staff wouldn't blink twice when six-year-olds would slither under the table or toddlers would toddle into the aisles. (At least they kept their annoyance behind the swinging doors, rather.) But had we grown up Greek in Astoria, "family restaurant" would likely mean Stamatis.

Toddlers, six-year-olds, grandparents, birthdays, nonplussed staffers, big portions were all a part of Stamatis when we visited on a recent Friday night. (Note: The official name of this place is The Original Stamatis Restaurant; apparently it is not affiliated with the Stamatis on Broadway, and it may not meet a technical requirement for "original," as it recently relocated from across the street.) We didn't feel out of place at Stamatis as adults, and neither did we feel as though our waiter had more important things to tend to (e.g. six-year-olds). If anything, we felt, for this night at least, we were part of the scene, the backdrop to somebody or other's birthday dinner. We didn't belong to the celebration, but we felt like a part of the larger community simply by sharing the vast dining-hall-like space.

The food is dining-hall-like too, which is not to say it was bad, just plain and handled well. Staight-up Greek cuisine like you find in Astoria isn't especially known for delicacy or intricacy, and Stamatis isn't out to break the mold. We started with octopus, spurred by a Harold McGee piece detailing the difficulty of preparing this cephalopod without rendering it fibrous and rubbery. Stamatis accomplished this, though the octopus managed to be mealy instead, hopscotching from one undesireable texture to another. The saganaki was saganaki -- you can't really go that wrong with fried cheese -- in this case feta. The entrees fared better: The waiter suggested the lamb chops, and we happily ordered them with no regrets. Rich, moist, meaty -- what a chop should be, with just enough crispy fat around the edges to make them worth picking up with our hands. We were surprised by the complimentary honey-drenched semolina cakes, mealy in the right way this time and serving as a perfectly weighted sweet to a full dinner, putting us to bed for sweet dreams.

Which leads us to mag loading. We'd heard that ingesting large amounts of magnesium before bedtime leads to fantastically bizarre dreams. One of us had been having a disappointing streak of "administrative dreams" (checking in with coworkers on routine matters, computer problems, etc., with nary a matter-of-fact talking cat or ascendancy on a golden rope to the palace of the gods to be found), and the other rarely remembers any dreams at all, so we decided to give it a shot. Before going to Stamatis, we took the RDA for magnesium -- 400 mg -- then took another dose during the meal, one immediately following, and two more doses before retiring, so 2,000 mg in seven hours.

We'd been hoping for more intense dreams, ones that simultaneously entertain, illuminate, and elevate us to that plane of unguarded consciousness that only seems accessible in slumber. Instead, we both had flipbook dreams -- a series of moments without any narrative, not even one as incoherent as "and then John Oates and I went target-shooting for some reason...." For those who might want to try this at home, note that magnesium induces both deep relaxation (it's a good thing the host seated the two of us at a four-top, as at one point we were practically draped over the tables) and some digestive difficulties. So we're not going to blame them entirely on Stamatis, a restaurant that we probably won't dream about either.

Price: Like many Greek places, seems more expensive than it should be. Over $15 minimum for entrees.
Will we go again? The cruel irony of us undertaking this task is that neither of us really loves Greek food. Probably not. We have to go to the other restaurants named Stamatis.

Short Ordered (Tastee Corner, 30-20 30th Avenue)

Let's just acknowledge up-front that we hate cute spellings. We hate mad skillz, kountry korners, and anything kwik. Ye olde shoppes somehow fail to impress us as quaint or nostalgic. Grrrls gets a pass, barely, because it can sound onomatopoeically fierce if pronounced gutturally, but that's about it. So the Tastee Corner was handicapped from the get-go, but we do our best to not hold poor nomenclature against food and service.

The Tastee Corner -- it hurts just to type it -- doesn't have to do much more than be serviceable to meet the expectations of its diners, though, and it did just that. It's located just below the 30th Avenue subway stop, so it's a convenient spot both for eaters catching a bite before going into the city, and for those sitting by the window to people-watch. We were there at prime breakfast/brunch time -- noon on a Saturday -- so we weren't surprised by the crowd. But we also know that Astorian diners aren't hoodwinked into patronizing substandard places merely for convenience -- the rapid succession of shoddy restaurants occupying 30th Street and 30th Avenue, just a short block away from the same subway stop, points to this. (The new 7-11 in the spot put an end to the corner's dining mediocrity, ushering in its own particular brand of unwanted crap.)

Don't get us wrong: It's not that Tastee Corner is some sort of quiet treasure, whispered about by possessive locals as the best diner in Astoria. One of us ordered bacon, eggs over easy, and toast; the other got a tuna melt. The only remarkable thing about either was the harried attempt to dress up the tuna melt with a spring of parsley, which looked ridiculous on the barren plate too big for a mere sandwich.

But you don't go to the corner diner for anything other than bacon, eggs, and a tuna melt, so who cares? The service was efficient, our water glasses never went more than half-empty, and the bill was cheap. Combine that with enough staffers to keep morning-commute crowds ankle-deep in coffee without creating a long line, and you've got yourself a corner diner worthy enough of its name, even if it's spelled ridiculously.

Price: Like other diners.
Will we go again? No compelling reason to. But everyone's really friendly there.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Locker-Room Lamb (Ditmars Gyro Place, 33-01 Ditmars Boulevard)

It may have been an effort to compensate, but in mid-March, the desultory Valentine's Day decorations were still hanging up in what has to be in the running for the least romantic restaurant in Astoria. Ditmars Gyro Place has all the ambiance of a locker room: the bathroom-tile walls, the bright fluorescent lighting, the muscular dudes loitering around with a vaguely menacing attitude. Even the cards with big numbers printed on them that were stuck in wire stands on each table suggested the impersonality of the gym. (The purpose of this numbering system remained entirely opaque, but maybe it helped out the waiter, who seemed responsible for all the dozen or so tables.)

But despite the antiseptic air, the place remained busy for the duration of our visit, after eight on a Sunday evening when most everywhere else in the neighborhood is dead. So they must be doing something right. And it's not like they are without competition; gyro and souvlaki places are everywhere. But in some ways, this is almost a guarantor of quality: To survive amid all the other Greek takeout places, a restaurant has to do at least a reasonably good job, and Ditmars Gyro Place clears that hurdle by a far stretch.

Gyro sandwiches are sort of Astoria's equivalent of the Philly cheesesteak. You can get gyros in just about any neighborhood, but outside of Astoria, they tend to suck, and for the same reasons cheesesteaks suck anywhere outside of the greater Philadelphia area. The bread has to be just right -- Amoroso rolls in the case of steaks; the thick, fluffy pocketless pitas for gyros -- and the meat needs to be sliced and prepared properly. It's not rocket science, but only in neighborhoods where a lot of pride is taken in the local staple will restaurateurs bother to make the cherished cuisine correctly.

Ditmars Gyro Place definitely did things right. As far as rotating meats go, they were taking no chances, with three different kinds spinning on their spits. The cubes of chicken in the souvlaki sandwich were moist without being chewy, and one could bite through them without having to wrestle with the pita and make a mess of things. The combination gyro, ordered at the suggestion of the waiter when we couldn't decide between lamb and beef, was made moist not by tzatziki but by slow, careful roasting of the meat. And to top it all off, $3 bottles of Mythos, a bargain for the not-bad Greek lager.

We know we have many gyros to come, and we expect them to all be pretty reliably satisfying. The similarity may tempt us into worrying about peripheral things -- the atmosphere, the demeanor of the cooks, whether our pronunciation of gyro gets corrected. But our experience at Ditmars Gyro Place should serve to remind us that gyros sell themselves. We need not worry about the window dressing too much with these places; instead we should think only of the meat and the pita, and enjoy the small miracle of the combination of the two.

Update (8/10/08): This restaurant may have improbably renamed itself "Aphrodite Cafe."

Price: Like other gyro places. Cheap.
Will we go again? Perhaps, but we have 487 other gyro joints to work our way through, so it'll be a while.

Tea for Two (Himalaya Teahouse, 33-17 31st Avenue)

We were both under the weather and were in the mood for maybe a restorative tea and some good hot broth. It seemed a tall order to find these both at the same restaurant, until we remembered the Himalaya Teahouse on 31st Avenue, which seems to exist to expressly cater to such a combination as we desired. Quaintly decorated outside with bamboo where you'll often find aluminum siding, the tea house inside is spare, with a few rugs hanging on the walls, which are painted a solid, soothing blue.

On the afternoon we visited, the teahouse was a two-woman operation, one cooking and one preparing the teas and waiting on the tables. This didn't make for the most efficient arrangement, but it certainly made things feel homey, and there weren't enough patrons in the restaurant for anyone to become truly neglected. The tea selection, as one would expect, is elaborate -- and the menu copy is full of inexplicable names for the teas but mercifully light on mystical mumbo jumbo.

To eat, we had thukpa, which was the yearned-for broth with what appeared to be hand-shaved noodles and boiled beef (we had ordered chicken, but alas), and momos, which are tasty Tibetan dumplings, also in broth. We may have found these a little bland under normal circumstances, but (a) the food of the Himalayas is meant to fortify, not enchant, and (b) we couldn't taste much through the late-winter cold plaguing our sinuses. What the food was lacking in pep, it made up for in delicacy, a feat considering we were eating beef with noodles and dumplings.

Where Himalaya Teahouse shines, unsurprisingly, is the teas. One of us was further along in our shared viral infection than the other, prompting one order of the Black Velvet, a mint-licorice tea that's supposed to encourage recuperation; the sicker one between us went with Fellini's Folly, a rooibos-mint blend designed for those in the thick of a cold. Andrew Weill and the FDA can battle it out as to whether the teas actually helped us recuperate, but they tasted good regardless of their health benefits. (What the "Really Goethe" lemon myrtle-jasmine-gunpowder blend is supposed to do, we have no idea, but we're not up on our Sturm und Drang.)

We've seen the restaurant floated on Astoria message boards as a late-night hangout, as they serve a handful of international beers and wines. We understand the impulse to have a beer in a setting other than a bar, but we can't imagine coming here to kick back a brewski. Forgive us for painting the Himalaya Teahouse in shades of Orientalism, but we prefer to come here for a sense of calm, a pot of Fellini's Folly, and the best momos in town.

Price: Under $12 for food. Around $5 for pots of tea.
Will we go again? Where else would we get our momo fix? Yes, especially when befallen with illness.