Kabab Cafe: An Egyptian Experience


An old Chinese proverb says, 民以食为天 (Men deem food as God). After spending a delightful evening at Kabab Cafe, Astoria, I came to the thinking that if food is not a man’s God, it should be at least, as Ali the owner says, his soul.

We first heard of Kabab Cafe from Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations on Travel Channel. It was featured as one of the most popular restaurants in “Little Cairo”, the middle-eastern neighborhood in Astoria, Queens. Astoria, with its “sizable and diverse immigrant population”, is said to have “some of the best and most authentic food in the country”.

Although we already knew Kabab is a small, family-run restaurant, we were still surprised by how tiny the place was when we arrived. At probably 350+ square feet and only 6 tiny tables, 2 of them plate-sized literally, the entire Cafe is about the same size as the deck of our house.
Seating Area(pic from here)

The moment I stepped into the door, I saw three people, a lady behind a glass-windowed shelf-like counter, a tall old man standing next to her, and a mid-aged man in a plaid shirt walking toward us. At that time I did not know that I had just seen the entire human resources of this restaurant, including everyone from waiters, cashier, chef, sous chef to the owner himself.

To quote some words from a reviewer:

“Passionate men cook great food. And Ali is one of the most passionate men you’ll ever meet. That’s all you need to know before you go to Ali’s Kabab Cafe in Astoria.”
“As I ate my first falafel there, Ali argued vehemently (though I was not arguing back) that, “A man’s HEART is in food. His SOUL. His whole LIFE is right there in that dish.” He punched his hairy, exposed chest and smacked the veins in his wrist as he spoke to accentuate his point. I told him that I agreed. “

A few minutes after we sat down at one of the plate-sized tables, a group of 4 people came in and sat down next to us. Their table was about twice as big as ours. As we were wondering why nobody brought us the menu, the tall, old man who was standing in the narrow, one person-wide space (see pic) between the shelf and some kitchen-like utilities along the wall, turned to us.
Kabab Cafe Kitchen(pic from here)

“Hello! Good Evening! How’s everybody doing tonight?… Let me tell you about what we have tonight. For appetizers, we have mixed plate of falafels and baba ghanoush, spicy eggplant salad, and beets salad… and next, do we want to talk about vegetable, meat, or fish?”

Almost everybody yelled, “MEAT!”.

“Wonderful. We have lamb shank… filet mignon… sweetbread… lamb brain… also rabbit, duck, squab, pheasant… ”

As he went on and on, we suddenly realized the menu we were waiting for was never going to come because, THIS was the menu, this talking old man!

Now the menu question was solved, the next question arised. Was that tiny little space where you could barely turn around really the kitchen of this restaurant, or is there something in the back where they make the food to feed all of 16 people here? I suspected the latter, so I looked around and tried to find the hidden kitchen. Nothing. The place was so small you couldn’t have missed anything even if you wanted to.

“Where is the kitchen?” I asked the old man, who had the smile of the Mickey Mouse.

“It’s a secret. I’ll tell you later.” said the man.

One of the guys sitting next to our table apparently had the same confusion, “Where is the chef?”

At this time the man in plaid shirt (who had led us to our table and who I later guessed to be the old man’s son) came back and brought each of us some pita bread with a sour tasting salsa-like dipping sauce.

Still staying in the “kitchen”, the tall, old man said to us, as we sat closer to him than the other table, “do you guys know what you want to have?”

We named the mixed plate, eggplant salad, lamb shank and another entree, then heard the guys next to us were murmuring something like “how do we order” “shall we just yell”. I leaned over and told them, “just talk to that man”.

To think back, I wonder how many times in your life you walk into a restaurant, see no kitchen, no menu and do not know how to order.

As the evening went on and dish after dish was served, it became clear that the tiny space was indeed the kitchen and the tall, old man, assisted by the lady, was the chef himself.

Falafel and Baba ghanoush
The food turned out to be superb. The eggplant salad was warm, tender with an exquisite flavor. The mixed plate (see pic) of falafel and creamy baba ganoush was a Mid-eastern classic and tasted just like that. Served with a zesty tomato sauce and on a bed of white rice, the slow-cooked lamb shank was indeed what they call “sublime eating”.

Everytime a dish was ready, the lady would put the plate on top of the glass shelf and the man in plaid shirt would pick it up and delivered to the table that ordered it. When something was being fried, you could, with the room being so small and cramped, smell the frying smell as if you were sitting in the middle of the kitchen. Nobody seemed to mind however, probably because it was a very pleasant smell, just like their food.

Whenever a new table of people came in and sat down, the old man would give them the same talk about what he had for the night, asked what they would like, then memorized all the orders and passed them onto the lady in a language that wasn’t English.

As the night went on, there was not a single minute the room was not totally occupied. And I was astonished that among the 3 of them, they never missed an order or gave the wrong order to the wrong table, or failed to meet any of guests’ requests like more rice or napkin (although one time I did have to shout out to one of them to ask). A full house, to them, seemed to be business as usual.

Ali

The dessert we ordered was called “shredded wheat”. Like everything else of the evening, it was homey and very satisfying.

On our way out, we waved at the busy old man, who gave that mickey mouse-like, wide mouthed smile again and shouted “I love you guys~~bye~~”.

As I walked out, I again was wondering how many times in your life you get to leave a restaurant with its chef saying “I love you”.

We later learned, the old chef’s name is Ali, who also happens to be the owner of this famous little restaurant.

—-

(Right after this article was finished I came across “Kabab Cafe: the crown jewel of Astoria’s Little Cairo” where the author gave a more detailed review of the food itself, especially the part about the Mixed Plate. Read it and be hungry.)

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9 responses to “Kabab Cafe: An Egyptian Experience

  1. 太有趣了! 没想到Queens还有这么个餐馆。看来你们称得上是美食家了!

    非常佩服你们能听着报菜名点菜。说老实话,我跟我太太尝试这种新鲜的餐馆的时候,最大的难题就是点菜。当侍者用浓重的方言英文报一些根本不知道所云的菜色的时候,就一个感觉晕。而看菜单也好不到哪里去。上面的本地语菜名大致看不懂,光看英文的解释只能知道有什么原料,很难想象具体是什么味道。所以每次去稀奇古怪的餐馆吃饭都往往很失败。点的沙拉基本是一堆莫名的菜叶,主菜也很少能吃到满意的。很想请教请教如何在这些世界各地的餐馆点菜的经验。是需要先做好自己的功课,比如查出著名的菜名什么的么?

  2. First of all, thank you very much for finishing the article!! Right after i wrote it I thought to myself, “nobody’s gonna spend time to read such a long post”!

    至于点菜嘛,呵呵,主要是靠平时的“知识积累”(比如MiddleEastern/Morrocan之类的很经典的就是baba ghanoush这些东西,本来差不多就知道一点),当然有的也得事先作点research,NYC的餐馆在http://www.citysearch.com上都有review及menu,或者google一下,有点名气的餐馆都能google着。读读去过的人的review是很有用的,他们一般会说那个菜印象最深什么的。不行还可以当场问一下waiter他们的特色是什么,这个菜是不是很creamy之类之类。

    (不过,假如你们像我家的foodie那样一天到晚看Food Network, Travel Channel什么的,对各种foods, ingredients, spices, cooking methods 都如数家珍,哈哈,拥有着渊博的美食知识/词汇量,
    那么很多菜单上的东西看一眼就知道是什么味道了, 8-D)))))

  3. great restaurant~ very nice experience~ i wish i had the luxury of going out more when i was closer to new york!

    say hi to your foodie~i love food network too…in fact it is probably the only tv i am going to watch (well with hgtv)…if i have a tv, that is ;-)

  4. Hi, just wanted to say I loved your story of the human talking menu :-)

    One small writing tip – honestly, don’t apologise for any of it, like the length, or the fact that someone else has written a different review (heh, it’s just different, who’s to say it’s better?) – we’d never think of any of those things ourselves if you didn’t introduce the idea to us!

    Best wishes

    Joanna

  5. Joanna, what a pleasant surprise. thanks for stopping by and I really appreciate the advice. Although I do feel good about what I write, not being a native writer there are also times I wish I could do better.

    Love your articles particularly those about authenticity. “Sometimes… (authentic writing) is hard because the challenge comes not in finding the words – but finding the courage to write them”.

    I love that and consider myself pretty courageous… :-)

  6. Jie, the foodie says hi back… I always knew you love cooking, if you are not a foodie, you are at least, definitely a “cookie”… :-D

  7. Hi, thanks for your feedback – it’s much appreciated :-)

    I don’t think there’s anyone who writes who doesn’t always want to write better…

    Best wishes

    Joanna

  8. I am just curious how could they cook the best food in the tiny space? How does it taste?

  9. He was a trained chef in Egypt, guess it doesn’t take much for him to get a great dish up…

    actually almost all the restaurants in that mid-eastern neighborhood are quite small and crampy, all they got is great chef & great food (at inexpensive price)… they know people who are crazy about food don’t care about anything else anyway ;-)

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