The Five Best Restaurants in Little Egypt
The Little Egypt segment of Steinway Street, between Astoria Boulevard and 28th Avenue, has its own particular, welcoming smell, a blend of shisha and grill smoke from the halal cart stationed in front of the Al Iman mosque. Though only one block long, there are dozens of restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops, and hookah bars, which provide so much culinary variety that more than one trip is necessary to fully experience this enclave.
Kabab Cafe, 25-12 Steinway Street, Queens, 718-728-9858
Likely the most famous spot on Steinway, Kabab Cafe is about the size of a living room but looms large in locals' minds thanks to charismatic owner and chef Ali Al Sayed. A neighborhood pioneer who opened his restaurant back in the 80s, he's known for his intellectual bent: On a recent visit, he shared his thoughts on the book Man's Search for Meaning while filleting a porgy and posing for photographs. His singular presence is matched by his singular food, of which there is truly something for everyone, be they vegetarian or carnivore, cautious or adventurous. The latter will be rewarded with innards from lamb testicles to chicken liver; the sweetbreads, served in a memorable lemony sauce, will convert the offal-averse. Your best bet is to take the owner's suggestions -- there's no regular menu, but he'll recite whatever he has on offer with poetic flair. A meal at Kabab Cafe is a one-of-a-kind experience, and as a bonus, you can linger over drinks (many of the establishments on Steinway are alcohol-free).
Mombar, 25-22 Steinway Street, Queens, 718-726-2356
Ali's brother, Moustafa Al Sayed, is chef and owner of this spot, which seems to peer out onto the street, thanks to the mysterious eyes carved into its facade. Moustafa is also an artist, and he crafted the furniture, stained glass windows, and intricate design of the interior, which welcomes diners with a similarly homey feeling to Kabab Cafe. Moustafa's cooking leans a bit more toward the traditional, with a menu that highlights tagines, hearty dishes cooked in a distinctively shaped clay pot. Rabbit, lamb, and chicken tagines are served with olives and vegetables alongside pyramids of couscous, spiced complexly with a blend of za'atar, sumac, and cumin. (Moustafa is thinking of selling his own spice blends; we hope he does.) As with Kabab Cafe, you'll do well to try anything on special. Recently it was rich and warming lamb cheek served shredded with pita.