Probably few people know about the tiny neighborhood of Little Egypt, nestled within the much larger neighborhood of Astoria, Queens. To say Little Egypt is tiny, is actually quite an understatement; it consists of one block of Steinway Street, between 28th Avenue and Astoria Blvd, excluding, of course, the two thirds of that block occupied by non-Egyptian related businesses. So, when we say that Little Egypt is a tiny neighborhood, we really mean to say that it’s a collection of seven hookah bars, three restaurants and a store that sells phone cards and Moroccan pop music.
When I first moved to Astoria, many years ago, I took frequent trips up to this block. It was right after 9-11, so the idea of exploring a predominantly Muslim area carried with it a mystique of being accepting of other cultures and taking full part in the brotherhood of humanity. Sure, those back in Georgia might fear or hate the swarthy Middle Eastern immigrants, but here I was ready to buy cigarettes in their delis and sample their cuisine. This soon stopped. Not because I wasn’t interested in promoting the brotherhood of humanity, but because traveling to Little Egypt left me feeling like a black man at a lunch counter in Selma, Alabama circa 1952.
Let’s just say that these Middle Eastern men were not interested in serving white Americans, or treating them with the simple respect due a money-laden customer looking for hot falafel and kafta kebobs, or with looking me in the eye, or acknowledging my existence. Let’s just say they were about as interested in serving me some food as a laid-off Detroit auto-worker is interested in the new line of Toyotas. Dutifully, I would go up to the counter, ready with my order, only to be completely ignored. Arab men, in their over-sized Yankee jerseys and saggy jean shorts would show up after me, and would be served instantly. A few times I would just get frustrated and leave, other times I would stick to my guns and insist on being served my food, only to stand there sheepishly waiting while others came in after me, ordered, took their food and left while I still stood waiting for my lamb goodness.
Finally, and that is to say after about three months of this, I never bothered going in to those shops again. Yes, I voted with my dollars and took my business elsewhere; explored the Columbian, Brazilian, Greek and Eastern European fare to be had. It actually gave me a little satisfaction to see one dining establishment that had snuffed me, El Manara, closed one day as I walked by. And thus, for years, I ignored that block, ignored Little Egypt, and what might have been of its culinary offerings.
Until yesterday, when I was persuaded to give Kebob Café a chance. I’d probably walked by the place a thousand times, but I assumed it was like the others and never bothered to go in, try it or even give it a second chance. Yes, I was horribly, horribly wrong.
To say the Kebob Café is small is another one of those understatements, like saying the universe is ‘roomy.’ There’s enough room for about twelve people to enjoy a meal, though only for six of those to sit comfortably. Other than the size of the place, my first impression was of the smell; exotic and unearthly spices for the highs, heavy with frying meat to the lows, with just a hint of pounded dough and fruit to round out the middle. Secondly, I noticed the numerous pieces of figurative art on the walls, tucked in between antique lamps, esoteric decorations and quietly hidden iPod playing traditional Mediterranean music. Wait a second. Figurative art? Must not be too strict of Muslims I thought. This thought was seconded, voted upon and passed unanimously when the Chef came over and offered us something to drink, pointing out the numerous wines and beers he had on hand.
Barely had I begun to notice how different Kebob Café was from the run-of-the-mill places, the Chef came over, sat down with us and began to go over some of the various menu items he was preparing that night. Not through rote memory, but rather on a journey, he recited the various dishes he was capable of preparing.
Now, I’ve been to places that had the gimmick of not having a menu. Either they offer only one or two entree choices, or they force you to just kind of guess from the waitress’s speech. But, this was different. There’s no menu at the Kebob Café, because I think the Chef doesn’t like it being so clinical. He, and his helper, are the only staff, there are no waiters or busboys or dishwashers, no hostesses or line cooks. And with so few diners per seating, it’s an intimate atmosphere. So intimate in fact, that after he gave us a few options, he saw our bewilderment and stated quite plainly “I have to go prepare someone else’s meal right now, you drink your beers and then we’ll talk through this, find something you’ll like.”
After a few minutes he did come back, returned to his seat and plainly asked “What do you like?”
We rattled off a few notions and he took the bait, hook, line and sinker. Immediately, he began to prepare a meal in his head and describe it to us “First we’ll get you some falafel and some hummus, and a salad. What do you like better: beets or artichokes? Beets? Okay, we make you a beet salad with some peppers and onions- you don’t like onions, it’s okay I know the Chef, we put in some other stuff then, mix that up with a little oil and vinegar. Then you need something like a main course; you like meat, are you vegetarian? Meat, eh?”
Then, he proceeded to rattle off the numerous meats he could prepare for us delicately roasted and served over a bed of rice; a zoo, a menagerie; beer, lamb, chicken, duck, fish (of various types), rabbit, quail, yes quail, and, while I’m not certain, he may have mentioned kangaroo, bald eagle and ibex. Indeed the Chef is half of what makes Kebob Café worth visiting and returning to. Like an old Vaudevillian, you know in your heart his banter is well rehearsed, heavily practiced and that with you, it’s the fifteen thousandth time he’s done it. But it’s good, it’s professional, and he’s a master so you can’t help but appreciate it.
You know you can trust a chef when in the close atmosphere of their restaurant you can watch then nibbling at the food they’re cooking. Once you’ve seen them do that it’s okay that they come over to your table and pick up individual pieces of a dish and show you, with their fingers, how best to combine them. When this Chef picks up, with his bare fingers, a piece of food off the platter, dips it into the sauce for you and puts it on your plate, you’re appreciative of the suggestion.
And the food. Oh yes, this is a restaurant review, so what about the food? Kebob Café is one of those places where they bring you huge plates of various foods and while you may not be able to accurately identify what exactly the particular food item is, specifically, you don’t care. It’s just big heaps of delicious food. Our meal consisted of a beet salad (beets mixed with other things we couldn’t quite identify), a huge plate of hummus, baba ganoush, fresh apples, roasted peppers, steaming hot pita bread and various other touches, which again were not identifiable but were nonetheless delicious. To top it off, we had roast lamb, stuffed with, yes, more lamb. The inside lamb was finely chopped and mixed with walnuts, spices and again, various other bits. Did we know what they were? No. Were they good? Yes. And was it lamb stuffed inside of other lamb? Yes, and it was quite good.
Kebob Café is an excellent spot for delicious food and in a good atmosphere, cooked by a Chef who knows how to make a meal a great experience. It’s intimate, it’s good, you’ll laugh, you’ll get stuffed and, if you can get a chair, you’ll have a great evening. It’s a little pricy, but well worth it. And I recommend it, because, hey, I know the Chef.
25-12 Steinway St., Astoria, NY 11103
N or W to Astoria Blvd.