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?