When I heard Astoria, Queens is the Mount Olympus of authentic Greek food in New York, I made a vow right then and there to climb the mountain!
Eventually, I settled for an Astoria Food Tour led by a former resident who knew the best places to eat—and the cheapest places to buy toilet paper.
We started our tour with a pre-diabetic breakfast of super sweets: damn-fresh baklava and baklava’s messy cousin, a version with shredded wheat-like wrap, which may have served as inspiration for Jim Henson’s creature workshop (at least according to a recent lawsuit filed by the pastry).
Delicious now, “The doctor took my toes…” Later!
With this super-sweet sampler we had Greek coffee, which is a thick, rich gummy road tar-like substance that’ll really get your motor going.
I was surprised to learn that it’s traditional to empty your Greek coffee’s ubiquitous muddy bottom onto your plate to have your future read.
Apparently, my future looks a bit murky…
Though Astoria is heavily Greek, other nationalities have elbowed their way into the neighborhood—and all are welcome!
There is a large Bosnian contingency here and they’ve brought another delight to the neighborhood—bureks—which are fried phylo dough filled with spinach (sometimes) and feta cheese (always!).
I love bureks, having had a childhood best friend whose Israeli mom made a variant of this transnational treat. These Bosnian bureks were greasy goop in comparison.
There’s even a hipster element moving into the area, as indicated by a gourmet grass-fed burger joint on every corner. We made a stop at a Williamsburg-esque Irish Pub for fried pickles.
Though the pickles were local and undoubtedly of the highest farm-to-table quality, they were fried in a super-thick dough that did not endear them to my arteries (which prefer dill chips breaded in a cornmeal crust, thankyouverymuch).
After the pickle debacle, we were given whiskey with a chaser of spiced pickle juice. My Polish friend likes a pickle with his vodka, so I didn’t find this as mind bending as my tour mates did.
Even so, the reviews were universally positive. I’m next looking forward to trying vodka in the traditional Russian style—breathe out, down the shot, breathe in while smelling fresh rye bread, and then crunch into a pickle—the perfect ceremony.
We were taken into an Italian market (yeah, they were here even before da’ Greeks!) and were shown how fresh mozzarella is made by—I kid you not—Bobby De Niro’s kid brother.
He started by cutting the cheese, then he started making mozzarella…
You melt the curds in boiling hot water…
Sizzle butt! Scat dat dooty!
Until it looks like an albino snow owl in a microwave…
By repeatedly lifting and stretching this white gooey mess, he started to smooth it out
That cheese is scalding hot, but don’t take my word for it. Instead, lip-read the curse words from this guy’s.
“Alas, Poor Yorick!” What is this Shakespeare in the Park?
And suddenly, there it was, fresh mozzarella. But apparently, it only tastes right for one day. He has to do all of this again tomorrow.
All worth it. Who cares that his fingers haven’t had sensation in them since Gli Azzurri won the World Cup (extreme Italian reference that I don’t even get)!
Finally, we waddled a few blocks to an ornate Egyptian restaurant decorated with jeweled glass, hammered tin, and lots of throw pillows (reminded me of my Jewish mother’s remodel of our Valley condo in the 1990’s).
By this time I was tired, I smelled like ethnic food, and I was ready to go home and nap, but hey! One more full course meal never hurt anybody.
Next we were served a trio of dips. I wasn’t even paying attention at this point but I’m sure we can all guess they were hummus, baba ghanouj and the last one might’ve been mummy boogers, who knows, I just ate it.
It was really hot in the restaurant and the owner had made us hibiscus flower tea. I drank about 30 gallons of it and splashed some on my face and under my pits for good measure.
If there had been a trough full of that hibiscus stuff, I would’ve gladly got down on hands-and-knees and lapped it all up. It was spectacularly flavorful, but not too sweet—a problem I have with most fruit juices and alcoholic drinks (ain’t i a party?).
When the meal came, I think there was a simultaneous audible groan from the 20+ people on the tour.
We all listlessly ate our delicious, lovingly prepared chicken dinner which tasted like something my Jewish grandmother had braised if she’d had a love affair in the 1970’s with a door-to-door Zaatar salesmen…