Monday, January 14, 2008

The Madness of Monte Cristo (Neptune Diner, 31-05 Astoria Boulevard)

Though one of us is convinced that a Neptune burger once brought on food poisoning, where else were we to go after staying out late at the Beer Garden? (If only Club 23 served food.) We were hungry, but we were particularly bent on having cocktails as well, and the Neptune is one of those diners with a desultory bar and drinks on the menu alongside the Roumanian skirt steak and the spanakopita. Though the menus had lately been updated to incorporate the magic of clip art (the menu is currently aquamarine and has on the cover a cartoon rendering of the eponymous god wielding his trident), the cocktail list was probably last revised when Ladybird Johnson was still living in the White House.

We ordered a Rusty Nail and a Pink Lady, and the seasoned waitress -- as always, punctiliously uniformed in black vest and tie -- did us the favor of not sniggering. Surely we weren't the first to demand kitsch cocktails when already past our limits. She maintained her gracious dignity, even if we hadn't. The drinks themselves were mixed indifferently, and we couldn't tell you if they were even what we requested. It served us right.

We ordered a fried egg sandwich on a roll -- food poisoning be damned! -- and a Monte Cristo, though it wasn't listed anywhere on the menu. But like any diner worthy of the name, the Neptune would make one nonetheless and whimsically invent a price for it when the time for the check came.

The fried egg sandwich was nothing worth mentioning, which is probably how it should be, but the Monte Cristo sandwich demands a moment's contemplation. No one knows where it came from, or why; some view it as a perversion of the croque monsieur, some hold a Disneyland restaurant accountable for its spread nationally. We prefer to regard it as divine inspiration of some improvisational genius whose name has unfairly been lost to us. The Neptune's version was ham, turkey, and swiss cheese on french toast, and was served with maple syrup as a condiment. The Monte Cristo is a study in contradictions: Its sumptuous succor of sweet with savory was almost absurd in the existential sense; it blurred opposites, it made us fear for the distinction between right and wrong, between right and left. That is to say, it was deliciously disordered, and our taste buds responded riotously to the chaos.

Repeat visits have proved that the Neptune makes a mean "dieter's plate," knows how to toast bread, stacks its club sandwiches appropriately high, boasts an intimidatingly silent line of stiff-backed waiters in the main dining room, and cannot poach an egg. We are not entirely sure how the Neptune was voted the "#1 Diner in Queens," as per its perennial blue banner outside, but it is a diner, in Queens, and that is enough.

Price: Comparable to other diners.
Will we go again? It's ubiquitous, so we abstain from judgment.

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