Extolling the virtues of Queens Cuisine
Queens Now Has Less Feta, More Jellyfish
By WILLIAM GRIMES
Published: January 26, 2007
LIKE most New York immigrant stories, mine started with a long trip, a small apartment in a humble neighborhood and hope for a better life. Sure enough, I graduated from the little apartment to a bigger one, and then a house. I got a better job and a better life. But 27 years later, the neighborhood remains the same: Astoria, Queens.
Try as I might, I cannot think of a good reason to leave. From the Manhattan perspective, Astoria makes some sense because it is, after all, only a few short subway stops from Bloomingdale’s. If you cannot afford Manhattan, well, Astoria — like Park Slope, Sunnyside, Cobble Hill and all the rest of the runner-up darlings of the real-estate pages — qualifies as a fallback position.
But that’s not how I see it. For me, Astoria is not a satellite of Manhattan, it’s the gateway to Queens, a jumping-off point for the borough that, when it comes to ethnic diversity, knows no equal. For me this is not an abstract demographic issue. It is as real as the food on my plate.
As Astoria has changed, and along with it the rest of Queens, my feeding habits have too, never more so than in the last couple of years. Three years ago I stepped down as The Times’s restaurant critic and re-entered civilian life. Gone were the days of lavish Manhattan meals paid for by my employer. I rediscovered my own kitchen and, at the same time, my own neighborhood. The parasitic life of being fed by others was over. My wife, Nancy, and I were hunter-gatherers again. But the terrain had changed.
In 1980, when my rent was $250 a month, Astoria was heavily Greek and Italian. Broadway, my nearest shopping street, abounded in Italian delicatessens and Greek butchers who hung hairy goat carcasses and fuzzy rabbits in the window. Their number has dwindled with the years. A Swiss butcher named René operated a truly anomalous store, a French-style boucherie. His ancient, white-haired mother sat at the cash register and took the money. René, who looked like an enormous slab of meat, took my orders for, say, noisette of pork, without raising an eyebrow. Alas, René is long gone, as is Walken’s Bakery a few doors away, owned by the family of the actor Christopher Walken.
Other ethnic surprises survive. Although the original owner has retired, Astoria Meat Products continues to sell Eastern European sausages, breads and jams. Big chunks of double-smoked bacon and plump, garlicky kielbasa hang from steel rods overhead. On weekends, when the mood strikes, I still drop by and pick up half a smoked, glazed ham.
The Italians are almost all gone, and many of the Greeks have moved on too. The demise of my favorite Greek deli had one fortunate consequence, though. It led me to Titan Foods, a supermarket that draws Greek shoppers from miles around. This is the place for olives — nearly 20 varieties displayed in big steel cylinders — and for feta cheese in every gradation, from crumbly, salty Greek styles to smoother, milder fetas from Bulgaria. It is almost shocking to report that the French make feta too, the creamiest of all.
The real prize in the deli case at Titan is home-made yogurt, thick, tangy and rich, a different species entirely from the standard grocery store brands. Titan sells the standard Greek pastries from a bakery counter, but I go either to Omonia Cafe, on Broadway, where the phyllo-topped custard is so good that I finally asked the woman behind the counter to pronounce it for me so I could order it by name. It’s: galaktoboreko (guh-lock-tuh-BORE-ee-ko). The baklava is also first-rate — packed with finely chopped nuts, well-seasoned and not too goopy — but there’s an even better version at a hole-in-the-wall on 31st Avenue: Thessalikon Pastry Shop, a caterer that sells its wares, often grudgingly, by the tray.
Let us not romanticize the Greek restaurants of Astoria. For some reason, many a food writer, charmed by the neighborhood, has gone weak in the knees over steam-table moussaka, rubbery fried calamari and greasy lamb shanks. Greek cuisine does not, even at its best, ascend to great heights. For a time, Elias Corner on 31st Street enjoyed a cult reputation that utterly mystified me. It is an estiatorio, a type of restaurant in which customers approach a fish counter, point to their choice and pay by the pound. The fish is painted with some olive oil, strewn with a few herbs and grilled. That’s it.
For some reason, this formula besotted New York for several years, even though rank amateurs could produce the same results at home. I much prefer the five-year-old Agnanti, at the upper end of the neighborhood near Astoria Park, which offers unusual regional dishes like ntaka, a Cretan bread salad, and mustard-dipped shrimp kataifi.
Astoria without Greeks is unthinkable. It is the home not only of Socrates Sculpture Park but also of Socrates Realty and Athena’s nail salon. But in my end of the neighborhood, near the 36th Avenue el stop, the ethnic swirl has brought Bangladeshis, Colombians, Brazilians and Mexicans.
On summer nights, unpredictably, a Bangladeshi vegetable vendor occasionally turns up, his cart heaped high with Asian vegetables sold by no one else. Asian sari shops, sweet shops and grocery stores now line 36th Avenue, along with a video store that brightens the street with its showings of Bollywood musicals on a flat-screen television. On Broadway, one stop north on the N Line, Mexican taquerias flank the off-track betting parlor.
At the far end of the neighborhood, immigrants from Egypt and North Africa have remade a desolate stretch of Steinway Street into a lively boulevard lined with restaurants, hookah cafes and bakeries.
So much for home base. Queens is vast. Over the decades, my explorer’s compass has pointed in wildly different directions. For a while, a Gujarati restaurant in Elmhurst had my full attention, until it burned down. Ping’s and Joe’s Shanghai in Elmhurst also enjoyed my favor. In Woodside, La Flor Bakery and Cafe sells sublime $4 fruit tarts that require two diners to finish them off. My thoughts often turn to them in idle hours.
But Flushing is now my north star. Over the years, an area once in sorry decline has evolved into a pulsating Chinese and Korean neighborhood and a food-lover’s paradise. This is not new news, but it took me a while to catch up. My culinary life has been transformed by the Gold City Supermarket on Kissena Boulevard, a huge, high-energy store, half of it devoted to a dazzling selection of imported sauces, condiments and dried and frozen foods, the other half to produce and meat departments that boggle the mind.
It pays to do some homework before visiting. Although prices are posted, all signs are in Chinese characters. Bruce Cost’s classic “Asian Ingredients” (Morrow Cookbooks) or Huang Su-Huei’s well-illustrated “Chinese Cuisine” (Wei-Chuan) can serve as guides to the aisles stacked with exotic barbecue sauces, light and dark Chinese soy sauces and small treasures like pickled mustard cabbage.
The fish counter is dramatic. I once saw an eel make a break for freedom, slithering across the produce-department floor. Customers like to pick out a live fish, which an impassive fishmonger holds aloft, flopping in a net. A quick whack from a wooden mallet, and the performance is over.
The post-shopping reward is just a few doors away, at the Fay Da Bakery. This is a chain with two outlets in Chinatown and six others scattered across the city. Patrons take a tray, grab a pair of tongs and load up on steamed and fried buns, both savory and sweet. Some are both at once, like a chewy, sticky-rice bun that looks like a honey-dip doughnut outside but inside contains pork bits swimming in a rich gravy.
Then it’s on to downtown Flushing and the J&L Mall. Flushing abounds in monster Chinese restaurants that do a bonanza dim-sum business. But hidden in nooks and corners are tiny stands that offer outstanding bargains. My consigliere in these matters is Harley Spiller, a relentless Chinese-food detective who occasionally sends out field reports to his friends. The “mall” is nothing more than a corridor on Main Street lined by rows of snack stands and lunch counters. Little or no English is spoken, so non-Chinese customers adapt. Finger pointing and basic business terms like “two” or “three” work fine. The stall owners, in my experience, are friendly, accommodating and intrigued to see a non-Chinese customer.
Halfway down the aisle, on the left, a bun stall turns out a variety of large steamed and baked buns at a dollar or two apiece. The best is a crepelike envelope of soft dough encasing chopped chives, egg and glass noodles. A close cousin, which came hot from the oven on my most recent visit, was a big ball of pillowy steamed bread dough filled with egg, glass noodle, chopped Chinese leeks and tiny dried shrimp.
At the entrance of the mall, to the right, the buns come three for a dollar. The staple items are small steamed buns with beef or pork filling, but you can also find sweet fried doughnuts accented with scallion, or sticky rice snacks with a meat and mushroom center. These are steamed in a bamboo leaf and then tied up in a neat package.
At the back of the mall, spicy Szechuan vegetable dishes are sold from a counter by weight. There are about a dozen choices. I picked four at random on my last visit: long strands of pickled seaweed; cabbage and peppercorns in a fragrant, winey pickling broth; cubes of amber, firm tofu with peanuts and sesame seed; and pickled long beans, chopped into tiny slices and tossed with red-pepper flakes.
Flushing may occupy me for a while. There’s another mall just a couple of blocks down Main Street, the Golden Shopping Mall, that merits investigation. And even more seductive is the strangely named Waterfront International Enterprises, a restaurant specializing in the cuisine of northeastern China. It’s cold-weather food, heavily reliant on hearty soups and stews. Grilled whole jellyfish, evidently, is the traditional way to start the meal. Count me in.