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.
(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.
(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.
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.
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.)