Ali’s Kebab Cafe
Once upon a time there was a King of Alexandria. Well, from Alexandria. Okay, maybe more of an Egyptian tour de force. Half man – half culinary guru. And he wasn’t actually in Egypt, he’d become a local hero dispensing politics, philosophy, humor, passion and pretty wonderful food right here in NYC’s Astoria. He’s randomly known as the Mayor of Little Egypt, a far off land bordered by Steinway Street and your every desire in Queens. So yeah, set your sail, have your ankh in hand, man that barge and sail on to the tiny storefront/kingdom that belongs to the charming Ali El Sayed.
Much has been written about Kebab Cafe over the years. It’s special. Seating for maybe twenty people. Atmospheric barely captures it. The decor is whimsical, offbeat, personal. The ancient world through more quirky modern times are represented – down to the wall mounted innards of a true Steinway piano, an homage to the address. Moustafa, Ali’s brother who just happens to own the larger Egyptian clay pot restaurant down the block called Mombar created the furniture and some of the art. Their mother’s portrait hangs prominently on the wall, quietly keeping an eye on her sons.
He’s a treasure.
Just put yourself in the charming Ali’s hands and let his fingers do the cooking. And serving. And espousing. And maybe they’ll be sharing a glass of wine with you too.
A few basic tenets to dining here. A. Never ask for a menu, you tell him what you’ll eat (as in vegetarian or offal lover) and he’ll tell you what you’ll have. Trust him. He knows the goods. B. Bring your own wine. There is wine for sale but honestly, you don’t really want to drink it. It’s mostly Algerian and Egyptian and bringing your own is a far better plan – plus the only corkage fee is a possible glass or two for your host, Ali. C. Prices can vary, it’s generally quite a good deal given the quality and preparation but pricing can be subjective. Don’t worry, it’ll work out.
We started with the mezze platter. Most people do. It’s not your average bear. Lemony hummus, fava spread, a babba ganoush lovingly infused with cumin, one friend’s comment – it’s babbalicious. The falafel is feather light and char crusted, fried escarole sits atop a circle of refreshing apple slices and it’s beautiful. Savory, crunchy, hauntingly seasoned. Plus it kind of melts in your mouth.
Pillowy warm pita arrives followed by his signature bowl of pickled chili peppers (please bring me a vat) and his imprint is on every plate to come, a dusting of sumac and za’tar.
Along with the help of an assistant, for many years it was just him – miracles are created in this slip of a kitchen. It’s crazy. Having this view of the inner workings is akin to being at Lourdes. All hail the Per Se of Queens!
There’s a strong Mediterranean influence in the food, as reflected by the history of Alexandria, Ali’s home town. France comes by to say hey as well as Greece and Italy.
Pumpkin dumplings delicately flavored with yogurt and mint make for a perfect second appetizer.
Then we threw back for the real deal. I was there with organ loving friends and they fell in with the lamb brains in lemon and basil. Sensational…
and the stewed lamb cheek with a poached egg mixed right in at the table, like an Egyptian Caesar salad…
and then my friend the porgie came out.
A poem. True joy on a plate.
Ali’s attention is like a beam of sunlight. His fervor for history, philosophy, conversation and even romance is endearing and that ardor is reflected in every nuance of his food. It’s truly part of him and as luck would have it, a part of us now too.
25-12 Steinway Street / Astoria
Cash only / Closed Mondays
* Header photo by Angela Carbonetti / http://www.angelacarbonetti.com