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.