It’s always like coming home to my lifelong best friend in Queens, and now that my dear cousin lives in Brooklyn, I was able to take in some of the affordable eats in these boroughs in my couple days stay after a full week in Manhattan (see my other NY articles)… all excellent. Queens really does have some of the best dining deals in NY.
TAVERNA KYCLADES, Astoria, Queens – I’ve long wanted to dine on Greek food in Astoria, ground zero for all things Greek. Taverna Kyclades was the perfect choice: with old friends, eating family-style in a humble, convivial space; one half an indoor dining room, the other an enclosed glass patio. It feels like a casual seafood/fish house, which in fact, it is, in the form of platters of Greek food shared by Greek families packing the place out.
House bread arrives piping hot, addictive with olive oil or one of their house dips, like Yogurt/Garlic/ Cucumber Dip ($5.50). Peasant Salad ($7.50 small; $10.95 large) is plenty large, even as a small. Plump, red tomatoes, heaping amounts of onions and olives, and a big slab of fresh feta cheese… a beautiful salad.
Mythos Beer washed down Grilled Sardines ($14.95) and lemon potatoes (which you can also order as a side), tasting vividly lemony but in an almost unnatural yellow hue. Filet of Sole stuffed with Crab Meat (19.75) was the one ok dish: old school, not the freshest crab, reminding me of the 1950’s style of seafood entrees you find at SF’s Tadich Grill.
The piece de resistance is Grilled Octopus ($11.95), a succulent spread of plump invertebrates, envigorated by a squeeze of lemon. Opa!
SPICY & TASTY, Flushing, Queens – Frank Bruni once reviewed Spicy & Tasty, placing it firmly on NY’s culinary map. I wanted to see if years of raves were true, and staying literally a mile away, I couldn’t pass up the chance. The simple dining room looks like plenty of other Chinese eateries, as does the menu. But there is a freshness level that is cut above, exemplified in veggie dishes, such as lightly crisp Green Beans or a Seaweed Salad. Though there was a language barrier with the servers, they did their best to help when I asked for recommendations.
Famous Dan Dan Noodles ($5) with minced pork are basic white noodles in a sauce that at first tastes like unchallenging soy sauce fare, but unfolds with complex nuances that come from chili oil and sesame. Szechuan-style Chicken ($8.95) is quite moist with a mild burn that grows the more you ingest.
I became ecstatic upon biting into Peanut Butter Sweet Sticky Rice Ball ($2.95), listed under “Szechuan Delicacies“. Everyone else at my table thought it sounded wholly unappealing but I was intrigued, and at that price, figured I couldn’t lose. It was the highlight of my meal. Four sticky rice balls they were, with a savory peanut sauce drizzled over the top and a surprising, warm interior of black sesame. It tasted of smoky campfire and oozing peanut butter in mochi-like wraps. How could I not tingle with discovery?
HAN JOO CHICK Korean BBQ, Flushing, Queens – Here’s the sad part: I’m not going to be able to give you a lot of details on this one. My best friend’s husband (and dear friend of ours) is Korean so he knew where to go. The staff only speak Korean, there is no website, and there are few if any reviews I can find on the place other than a couple Yelp comments.
But let’s just say the crowds of local Koreans frequenting this place are in the know about Han Joo Chick’s BBQ, beyond the greasy fare you find at many a Korean BBQ joint. Yes, you’ll see the same sides and dishes you might have elsewhere, but flavor is ratcheted up a few notches. The meat is fatty mounds of pork belly sizzling as excess juice runs down the slanted grill, flavoring veggies at the bottom. There’s a dense spread of bowls full of pickled delights, various styles of kimchi, and Pajeon extravagantly loaded with seafood. I would eat here again and again… and wish I could.
DUTCH KILLS, LIC, Queens – I want to love Dutch Kills, Queens first honest-to-goodness, Manhattan-style speakeasy in a god-forsaken stretch of Long Island City. If you’re in the area (and if you are, you must drive to the LIC waterfront for a moonlit walk with Manhattan laid out before you!), I’d recommend it for a nightcap. Bar seating is limited since the bar is all by itself in a back room, away from view of cozy wood booths up front. The setting feels blue collar Prohibition-era, which suits me just fine.
But somehow, despite direct association with the unstoppable Milk & Honey crew, and its breath-of-fresh-air-compared-to-Manhattan prices at $10 a cocktail, I was mildly disappointed.
Our drinks were classic concoctions, all solid, but not as perfectly balanced as at Milk & Honey, nor as interesting. When asked for bartender’s choice and giving parameters (spirituous, never sweet, scotch or bourbon-based), I first got The Penicillin, which I adore but have had many times over at Milk & Honey (where it was created and rose to fame), and LA’s The Varnish (prepared more adeptly at both those establishments, I might add). A fine choice for a novice but should they have asked me a few more questions? Giving it another chance with a second round, our server brought me a drink she described as “perfectly balanced, not sweet at all”… it was not the first, and certainly was the latter. Nonetheless, I enjoyed myself in this dim, warm Queens bar but couldn’t help but wonder: did we get an ‘off’ bartender that night or is Queens still miles behind Manhattan in the quality of its cocktails?
ROBERTA’S, Bushwick, Brooklyn – Roberta’s reflects the spirit of both Brooklyn (by way of California, i.e. farm fresh) and classic Neopolitan in its pizzas, the likes of which we’ve seen to the point of overkill in SF. In fact, I felt I was right back home in the Bay Area hanging out at the funky Roberta’s.
At Roberta’s, every aspect of the place dares you not to be crazy about it: a sketchy, off-the-beaten-path Brooklyn locale reveals a warm dining room with wood-fired pizza oven and rustic, eclectic garage-sale in a 1970’s mountain cabin decor.
Eat at picnic tables indoors or head out back to the tiki bar (alas, no cocktails, but wine and quality beers on draft, like NY’s Ommegang), where there are more picnic tables, thatched roofs, expansive garden and a greenhouse upstairs over the patio, growing herbs found in your meal.
The menu offers charcuterie (La Quercia meats but also a divine Biellese Finocchiona made locally in NY), cheeses, Veal Sweetbreads ($13 – playful with lemon, parsley, mayo infused with Benton’s ham), cuttle fish, tripe. My kind of menu… the sort that has been popular in the Bay Area for years.
Salads are simple, gourmet, with greens from the greenhouse. Mustard Greens ($9) perked up with bits of pickled rhubarb, basil and guanciale. Bosc Pears ($12) travels the creamy route tossed in honey and runny burrata cheese, with Benton’s fabulous bacon and black pepper.
The pizzas rock: blistered, thin but thick enough. With dear family and friends, I sampled three, delighted with each, like the Millennium Falco ($14): pork sausage, tomato, Parmigiano, garlic, onions, bread crumbs and basil. California creative flair was stamped all over Cortes ($16): tomato, Hatch Red Chili pork sausage, lime, pickled onion, shaved radish, jalapeno, cilantro and crema fresca drizzled on the top. Felt like attending a fiesta. But the straightforward Lupo ($16) may have been my favorite: pesto, mozzarella, prosciutto cotto, smoked ricotta and spring garlic. Lovely.