Sunday, January 27, 2008

No Más (Tacos Mexico, 32-08 38th Street)

If we weren't eating at every restaurant in Astoria, we might be eating at this straightforward taqueria more often. Even though we admire the pool table in the side room and the cattle skulls (or were they goat?), it's not the sort of place where gringos like us might ever feel entirely at home -- the TV plays soccer matches or Univision telenovelas; the jukebox blares Los Tigres del Norte and mariachi band music; the waitresses don't know much English -- but that wouldn't keep us from becoming regulars. On a recent afternoon visit, we certainly felt treated as such. The waitress gestured for us to sit anywhere, and chips and salsa were on our table before we had a chance to take off our coats. The chips came in a paper bag inside a basket; the salsa was well blended rather than chunky and leaned more toward peppers than tomatoes. But these are minor details, what's important is that they were supplied gratis without us having to ask, and we were asked repeatedly if we wanted more. In years past, when we were on a much tighter budget, this kind of hospitality would have left a deep impression.

Though Tacos Mexico offered the customary range of Mexican options, we decided to stick with the namesake. We ordered our tacos by pointing at the menu -- pollo asado, carne asada, birria (we didn't venture into lengua or cabeza territory, though these were offered) -- and they came shortly thereafter, wrapped in paper and garnished with lime and radishes and Tapatío on the side. As befitting the somewhat humble surroundings, these were not ambitious preparations: just meat mixed with onions, cilantro, and ample heaps of guacamole on corn tortillas. The birria, meat stewed in a rich chili pepper-laden sauce, was sufficiently spicy and delicious, though sloppy, and the grilled meat tacos were well above average, superior even than the beloved taco cart on 30th and Newtown Avenues.

After we finished, we lounged for a while, declining chip refills, no más por favor, and having our water glasses repeatedly topped off, until we finally realized that as far as the employees were concerned, we could sit at our table all day. It doesn't seem to be the taqueria way to bring a check to the table, so finally, somewhat reluctantly, we went to the counter to pay and were stunned to discover how satisfied we could become for so little.

Price: Cheap.
Will we go again? Has competition for taco numero uno, but the chips and salsa indicate yes.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Night With Armor (Just Arthur's, 22-08 Steinway Street)

The mute façade of Just Arthur's, at the strangely desolate corner of Steinway and Ditmars, has always struck us as mysterious. The restaurant has somewhat lavish signage and what looks to be roof-deck dining, but it always seems eerily forlorn, an inscrutable relic from a previous time, perhaps from when people like us didn't live in Astoria.

We had never heard of anyone actually eating at this Italian place, and it seemed to us plausible that it was a mob front. And the name invited questions: Why "just" Arthur? What happened to the others? Was there a falling out? Foul play? On a cold Saturday, we decided that we wanted answers, so we made a reservation for 9:00 to get to the bottom of things.

When we arrived, a sullen quiet seemed to have settled on the scene. It seemed much later than 9:00; we seemed out of time altogether. Hardly a soul in sight, just a vacant bus shelter and a dour man having a cigarette in front of the pair of windowless doors that lead into Just Arthur's, the smoke blending with the steam from his breath. He didn't smile, wouldn't even move aside to let us enter easily; instead we had to edge past him, through the door that wasn't marked "This is the exit."

Once inside, we were surprised to find ourselves deposited in a run-of-the-mill old-man bar, complete with blaring flat-screen TVs and half-drunk regulars. It had the air of a private club, and we felt like gate-crashers at a party we wouldn't have wanted to be invited to anyway. But then we were brought into the dining room by our eventual waiter, an amiable teenager who was quick to see that we received wine but strangely slow about providing us menus. At one point, we wondered aloud if it were one of those menuless places, like Elias Corner. Perhaps we would have to eat whatever Arthur in his wisdom felt like providing.

The dining room had some interesting accoutrements -- a working fireplace with whiskey decanters on the mantel, a piano with a set of foot-high jazz band figures arranged atop it ("please do not touch" read the attached sign, presumably applying to both the keys and the figurines), and, weirdly enough, a suit of armor. Apparently it was obligatory at some point in the history of American restaurateurship to procure a suit of armor, but what this was intended to signify is something we have yet to fathom. Were diners in the 1970s nostalgic for feudalism? Or was the suit of armor so patently gratuitous that it signified the kind of luxurious abandon one should feel when eating out?

Eventually we did get menus, though the Mystery of the Missing Waiter was soon replaced with the Mystery of the Waitstaff Switcheroo, as halfway through the meal the teenager vanished from our table (though he was still hanging around the restaurant) and a ponytailed, suntanned woman started tending to us. She gave us a casual but sincere eye-roll apology to us for the boisterous table across the room, and later made a mob reference that showed us that we weren't the only ones who'd had suspicions about Arthur and his ilk ("I can say that — I'm Irish," she said with a wink).

The food? We ordered the recommended Pasta alla John (for meat lovers, the first waiter said carefully, though he was unable to tell us who John was, or why John and not Arthur), and one of the specials -- the pork chop pizziola, which was a pounded piece of pork topped with cheese, prosciutto, marinara sauce, and fried peppers and onions. Neither of these were revelatory; both were satisfactory. But really, the food is beside the point at Just Arthur's. You can get better food at other places in Astoria, and probably "better" ambiance, if you're after fine dining or a down-home feeling. But nowhere else can you get its peculiar mix of jollity, frowsy elegance, and nostalgia for an era of the neighborhood we never knew.

Price: Under $25 for entrees.
Will we go again? There's better food to be found, but the suit of armor just might bring us back. And we aspire to become the sort who could hang out at the bar.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Dear Mr. Fantasy (Fatty's Cafe, 25-01 Ditmars Boulevard)

When we first discovered Fatty's, one of us was following an inherently absurd macrobiotic diet and scoffed at the name. Before we'd consent to try the place, we sniffed, "Is Fatty's really the best name for a restaurant?" picking seaweed and unseasoned tofu out of our teeth. After a few visits, however, we saw the name as it was likely intended, a jovial nickname for an old, reliable friend who you'd never give up on.

Not that there's much reason to give up on Fatty's: The food is consistently excellent, it has a better-than-average beer list (all in bottles, alas), and the mojitos are made with genial enthusiasm rather than resignation. The walls sport work from local artists, which perhaps has unfairly ensnared Fatty's in the overhyped hipsters-versus-Greeks skirmish. Fatty's is too down-to-earth to run like a well-oiled machine or boast of "service with a smile," but even during its most hectic times the staffers are genuinely friendly and make duly diligent efforts to be efficient.

Our favorite menu choices for dinner include the thick black-bean chili, served with tortilla chips that seem homemade (the meat version is equally delicious, but it's rare to find plain old black beans prepared this well); the jerk-marinated Yard Burger; and the Chofan, which even suits our foolhardy macrobiotic needs. Sandwich-wise, the Cubano (the classic pork-ham-cheese-pickles with a yummy chipotle mayo) and Chavorrayo (chicken, avocado, jack, and garlic mayo) always delight, and are hefty enough to take a half home for the next day's lunch. At Fatty's brunch, the polenta cakes are our default choice, best with the side of ham, though any of the offerings will hit the spot (except maybe La Pistola -- fried eggs on rice and beans with a tortilla, which can be lackluster). We've never asked why the side dish called Mister Fantasy is so named -- it's not described on the menu -- but we've ordered it sight unseen, and no, we won't tell you.

Like any old friend, Fatty's can get on our nerves sometimes. Our most recent visit is a case in point. The music, usually au courant club music of some sort, was intrusively loud, as it is far too often, and the beer stock was depleted. And we often wonder whether Fatty's might consider possibly making the menus readable in the bar's murky half light, so that we need not risk immolation while holding the votive candle up against the pages trying to decipher the microscopic print. One last thing: Isn't it about time that a wind shield was installed outside the front entrance, so that diners in the front of the bar don't have to eat with their parkas on? Seriously, even Gregory's 26 Corner Taverna has one now.

But these are quibbles, almost lovable idiosyncrasies to us at this point. None would prevent us, or its crowd of regulars, from frequenting Fatty's. And the manager doesn't seem surprised whenever we hit it twice in one day (which has happened more times than seems decent). And so we tolerate our pal's Fatty's occasional bouts of distracted boorishness, since we know him too well to be taken in by these feints at aloofness. We can see through you, Fatty's; we know you really care.

Price: Cheaper than bistros.
Will we go again? The best of "new Astoria." We've neglected our old buddy in order to complete our mission, but he knows we miss him.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Notes Toward a Theory of Tapas (El Olivo, 21-15 31st Street)

Provincial as we are, we'd never seen white asparagus before our trip to El Olivo, a tapas restaurant on a stretch of 31st Street where the subway dare not go. We later found out that the white asparagus is a variety preferred in Europe, but in our minds it became a metaphor for El Olivo's cuisine: limp, bloated, drained of color and life.

Not that anyone present seemed to mind -- the joint was jumping with families, including a multigenerational birthday party, and everyone seemed to be in good spirits. As were we: No matter how oily or flaccid the dishes may be, that a group has chosen to have tapas at all suggests an open readiness to have a good time. After all, you wouldn't agree to have tapas unless you trusted you were to be accompanied by people you enjoy, people with whom you can make group decisions and feel comfortable sharing with. They presume community among a group and then help reinforce it. Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss has written of the French tradition of pouring a neighboring stranger a glass of wine from your bottle, calling it "an assertion of good grace which does away with mutual uncertainty." Sharing tapas has the same effect.

So at El Olivo, we made a few of these community-building group decisions and agreed on the following: a plate of Serrano ham and manchego, oily anchovies that looked as unappetizing as they tasted, rubbery octopus, shrimp in a watery tomato sauce, that unspeakable asparagus, and assorted other forgettables. That's another social prerequisite with tapas: You must be among people you like well enough to be able to confess, after a veneer of politeness during the initial tasting, that you are united in the opinion of ick.

In America, the definition of what counts as tapas is flexible, and like most New Yorkers, we were accustomed to tapas bars with more flair, offering bacon-wrapped figs, gourmet Spanish tortillas, manchego from hand-fed cows, and so on. In Spain, the custom is to wander from tapas bar to tapas bar, cherry-picking the best at each place, and you have to be in the know to order well. We were not in the know at El Olivo, and while that was perhaps our main problem, we ordered enough food that something besides the ham and cheese plate should have meet a baseline of pleasant. Maybe there's a tapas or two that explains El Olivo's longevity -- or maybe it's the simple merriment of the place that explains the bustle and cheer, or the pleasant, prompt service. Maybe it's the obligatory items of armor that seem to grace the walls of every Spanish restaurant in the city. More likely, it was the fine sangria, which we downed in large quantities to salve our disappointment over the food.

Three quarters of the way through the meal, we started talking about getting cupcakes at Martha's Bakery, on Ditmars Boulevard. These turned out to be the best part of the meal. We tried. We really, really tried. But no matter how inauthentic it may be, we will take our Americanized bacon-wrapped tapas finery over El Olivo's insipid offerings any day.

Price: Too expensive.
Will we go again? No, unless heavily drugged.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Marigold Miracle (Malagueta, 25-35 36th Avenue)

Fresh-cut marigolds and daisies on the table seem a small miracle in mid-January, but at Malagueta, a Brazilian restaurant on the corner of 36th Avenue and Crescent Street, it was more a humble and inconspicuous token of kindness, like holding the elevator or offering a tissue to a watery-eyed subway stranger. On a cold Tuesday evening, on the far frontier of what we've decided to call Astoria, it was a much appreciated gesture.

The same subtle spirit of discretion was palpable in all things at Malagueta -- the subdued lighting, the intimate yet uncrowded cluster of small white-clothed tables, the guileless mix of contemporary paintings and framed Coney Island caricature drawings hanging on the muted walls, the proprietor (okay, our waiter, but his quiet pride suggested he was the master of all we saw) refraining from forcing a wine list on us. It was as if the place was aware of teetering on the edge of pretension -- there were banquettes, for goodness' sake -- and was taking deliberate care to skirt the charge. That the Cranberries, of all bands, played over the sound system didn't hurt either. We will say no more of that, other than it prompted in us some quizzical looks.

On the waiter's recommendation we ordered for appetizers acaraje -- described on the menu as "a mashed black-eyed peas cake with a spicy cream of fish and dried shrimp and sautéed shrimp" -- and the soup of the day, a piquant chicken and corn chowder. We weren't sure if it was in keeping with good table manners to share a single soup spoon, so we may have inadvertently scandalized some of the other diners, but the soup was delicious and we regret nothing.

Our entrees were Peito de Pato, a sautéed duck breast in a tequila and lime marinade, and Moqueca de Camarão, a shrimp stew (as if we hadn't had enough shrimp already, but one of us believes she is developing an allergy to shellfish and wants to load up before she can eat them no more). The duck defied easy description: At times it had the texture of a hot dog, albeit one that was exquisitely dense with meaty, slightly smoky flavor, but then you would come upon a bite that was a touch more sinewy, like a tender morsel chicken, to remind you that this was not ground up meat reconstituted. This was no sausage, all right. The shrimp stew was basic and not as surprising as the duck -- large shrimp in a coconuty broth dotted with peppers and onion -- but flavorful enough to make us soak up every last drop of broth with the accompanying rice mound.

Forced by full bellies to skip dessert, we accepted the mix of mints and root beer barrels that came with the check with delight. We looked back at the gleaming icicle lights and drawn curtains of Malagueta, gave a nod to its integrity, and wandered home in a cozy waterfowl-crustacea haze.

Price: Under $20 for entrees
Will we go again? The kind of gem that keeps us going through mediocre pizzerias. Happily.

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.

Happy Orange (Ukus, 42-08 30th Avenue)

At Ukus, one of a handful of Balkan establishments curiously clustered around an otherwise nondescript block east of Steinway on 30th Avenue, we asked the server what he recommended, and without missing a beat he said, "You need spinach burek and cevapi," then took the menus from us without giving us any of the usual "Or if that doesn't suit your tastes...." None of that namby-pamby crap here! He knows what Ukus is about. It seemed that he was Ukus (though we later saw several shower-capped women scurrying in and out with pots and pans; they came to and from the basement via the outer cellar doors): He seemed to perform much of the behind-the-counter grill work and was also the lone waiter, which was fine for the 24 seats inside. With his brusque efficiency and decisiveness, he exuded what we delicately term "big-dick confidence" (though not as much as the soccer player we saw earlier at Astoria Park -- a twentysomething striker who wore under his shorts pink pajama pants decorated with little soccer balls).

Waiter knows best, as it turns out. The spinach burek, a savory Balkan pie, is the finest burek we've had. Its perfectly crisp and flaky layers of phyllo surrounded the appropriately thin filling of spinach graced with feta, and the inner phyllo layers were just soft enough not to be soggy while supplying a suitable contrast in texture.

The Balkan sausages, cevapi, manage to be both meaty and fluffy. The moist, tender links come inside a piece of horizontally sliced tangy flatbread and accompanied by chopped onions, sour cream, and ajvar, a spicy relish made with eggplant, red peppers, and chili peppers. We weren't sure of the proper way to eat the dish, so we just ripped off pieces of the bread, layered it with the condiments, plopped a sausage on top and enjoyed our delicious miniature sandwiches. All this was washed down with a bottle of Jupi -- "Happy Orange" flavor.

Ukus isn't as, shall we say, austere in ambiance as some other Balkan restaurants in the neighborhood. In fact, it features a couple of downright (if unintentional) quirks, like a elf-size storage door mounted high on the wall, as if the ceiling were the floor. Also, hanging on the exposed brick wall at the back of the place, a little carved-wood "ukus" sign (with the letters all lowercase, in a Cooper Black-ish font) that seemed like someone's junior-high wood shop project.

When we asked for our check, we complimented the waiter on his recommendations. He looked at us the way Warren Buffett presumably would if you praised his investment prowess. This is what I do, his expression said. And he did it well.

Price: Under $10.
Will we go again? Ukusno means delicious in Bosnian, and we're not ones to argue.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Eating at every restaurant in Astoria

We decided to eat at every restaurant in Astoria. Why? Because, like Everest, they are there? Maybe. Or perhaps it remains a mystery, even to ourselves.

These are the ground rules:

1. For the purposes of this exercise, Astoria is defined as the area bounded by 21st Street to the west, 20th Avenue to the north, 48th Street to the east, and the combination of Northern Boulevard and 36th Avenue to the south.

View Larger Map

2. Only establishments with tables at which patrons can eat on the premises will be included.

3. Only two Chinese restaurants per subsection of the neighborhood will qualify for inclusion. We are, after all, only human.

4. No restaurants that are part of national chains will be included.

5. The meal need not be a full dinner -- breakfast, lunch, and snacks count.

Recommendations are welcome.