108th Street, Forest Hills, NY
Review by SuSu, MaceVindaloo, Diana, Runt Ekwesh
It's rather un-PC to refer to anyone as "my man" but in the case of Robert Sietsema, he became immortalized by Calvin Trillin in exactly that manner: "My man, Sietsema." Actually Sietsema seems to be everyone's man; he's the food critic for New York City's Village Voice, and he specializes in researching and writing about "Ethnic Eats" for cheap. There are people who are openly in love with him, and carry his books and columns on their person whenever they embark around Greater New York, for they will get hungry eventually. We are in "deep respect" for Sietsema, for he is always right.
This eatery is really, really out of the way. It's not far from Queens Boulevard, the highway / street which cuts through the middle of Queens from east to west. Buses run it, and underneath it is the main subway line. Salute is only a block north of this thoroughfare, but that one block north will take you from what you might consider to be a fairly normal-ish slice of America to the Jewish-Uzbeki enclave. It's really another world; every block holds a different synagogue and Hebrew school. There is a three block-long area with shops of all types, from grocery stores to restaurants, video stores, Uzhbek-language cell phone shops, bakeries, shoemakers, etc. It's Little Uzbekistan!
It turns out that the cuisine of many Baltic and Slavic nations involves grilling, for the most part. The food is sturdy and heavy, and can be very very stodgy and bad. When your cuisine is ultra-simple, your skill at grilling stuff better be good!
None of us has any experience with Uzbek cuisine, thus the guideline of a guy like "My man, Sietsema" become even more important than usual. He (and Calvin Trillin concurs, this is important, too!) recommends a soup called the Lagman, which is simply described as a lamb and noodle soup. It doesn't sound good, lamb often being mutton in this country, but we have to go with the recommendation. Also mentioned was the fries "with garlic and greens" and their grilled kebabs. And since we hear the pickled vegetables are rudimentary but good, we got some eggplant. So we ordered all of that and sipped our Diet Cokes while we waited ...
The Lagman was ... it's hard to describe. We can only say it was sublime! The soup is chunky, containing tiny bits of lamb in a well-seasoned, beautifully flavored broth which has none of the bad stuff about sheep broth you may have experienced before. There are onions and carrots in the broth, and white flour noodles. The closest thing to these noodles that any of us have had before is Japanese udon! Unlike Chinese soups, this was served in little bowls, like something you might eat a couple of scoops of ice cream out of, so though it's a hearty soup, it's not as appetite-killing as it could be.
(By the way, one of us keeps referring to this as "Ludo Bagman Soup" ... we'll make someone come up with a recipe for this for Hut Cuisine, be on the lookout for it!)
This was followed by the eggplant, which were whole small purple pickled eggplant sliced the long way so that the thing was held together by the stem end of the fruit, and sprinkled with a hot-spice mixture which included red pepper flakes. It was good, though tough in texture, as eggplant can be. We assumed it was the best of its breed (we later went to one of the local supermarkets and saw many vats of pickled vegetables and fruit, even whole apples!).
At this point, we decided to order "national bread," the only bread offered on the menu. We assume it could have been called "Uzbek bread." It was a dense, bagel-like thing, complete with a "hole" in the center it had been docked in the middle to prevent that part from rising. We don't know why. And the bread also looked like it'd been boiled before baking, thus the dense texture and ultra-shiny crust. Very hearty, and obviously not meant for sandwich slicing.
The fries were fries, but liberally sprinkled with fresh chopped garlic and chopped parsley. It was delicious, but lethal anyone you hoped to speak to for the next few days better like secondhand garlic breath! Some of us settled for shaking off the garlic from the fries before eating, as this lent more than enough savor and flavor to the potato. We guess the garlic is meant to be like a dip? Then again, real Uzbeks were probably laughing at us.
The kebabs were more than sublime ... the seabass kebabs were holy. Yes, holy! It's the only word we have that comes near to describing the sizzling hot piece of flesh on flat skewer. Bite into it and the juiciness of the flesh assaults you, the aroma will have you singing raptures, accompanies by the flavor that only grilling can impart on food! And the "special cut steak (beef)" and lamb kebabs were incredible, too! There are platters of kebabs, which include two skewers and salad, fries, etc., but we recommend going à la carte, and ordering one of each kebab. We saw other tables with big piles of kebabs on a platter, mixed and matched as they preferred. The kebabs are priced per skewer, and are very cheap: chicken-with-bone is $2.50, lula (a lamb sausage) is $2.25, and the priciest is seabass at $5.50; "special cut" beef is $3.50 while the other beef kebab is listed at $2.50. Actually, the cheapest is something called zhasb-kebab for $2; it means "lamb fat," and we didn't try it.
We also ordered a cheburekes, which is a big Crimean dumpling filled with ground beef or lamb, and fried. Like the kebabs, it comes to the table still sizzling, and it's very good. But do wait a few minutes to let the molten heat dissipate a bit.
In fact, from looking at the menu, this place seems to offer slavic and baltic foods in general, but maybe that's what Uzbek cuisine is? They also have something called "Korean Carrot" which none of us were brave enough to try. Neither did we try anything labeled Armenian or Greek, but we did have Turkish coffee with baklava. The coffee was quite good, and served in bigger cups than usually associated with Turkish coffee (one of us is addicted to the grounds at the bottom of the cup, and no, you're not supposed to drink that!). The baklava was tube-shaped and drizzled with chocolate, rather than the honey-laden, lasagne-style dish we've normally come to expect. We liked it, though we didn't figure out why it was tube-shaped.
All up, dinner came to about $50 for a bunch of us, which was great for such a profound meal. It had "purity," for lack of another term to describe it, and though it was primitive in it's way, the fact that they do such a great job of things also makes it the food of any number of gods, too. We felt privileged!
And because it just seemed too good to be true, we went there again on a week night when work had been arduous and crazy and we were frazzled. The food soothed us right down. It wasn't fast; things like the soup had been semi-prepped and were assembled on order, so that came out quickly. But the kebabs actually took a while to come out, indicating that they were skewering and grilling from scratch for every order. It made sense to order appetizers and things to wile away the time, especially since the babaghanoush was so good, especially with the "national bread." We'd recommend that combination for any meal, any time.
And the salmon and seabass kebabs we'd ordered showed that the grilling was no fluke it was as good mid-week as it had been on a Saturday night. They also have "steaks on charcoal" and curiously, they offer chicken, salmon, and tilapia done this way, no beef or lamb. It's likely that they know better!
We also tried a Russian lemonade (which was NOT iced tea and lemonade mixed together, which is what that item seems to be in the US), it was bottled like beer and was slightly fizzy. It was delicious. We also tried some fruit sodas like mango and grapefruit this time, too. We have confidence in this place!
It's a small place with 5 or 6 tables for 8, and the same number of tables for 4, all up against the walls of this narrow space. It's often packed with families and parties, who seem to bring their own bottles of vodka. There is a bar at the back, and waitresses who look related to one another. At least one of them speaks English, but you can point and smile and any of them, and you'll likely get what you wanted. If you see Boris, he's the grillman as well as the owner of this place, and belongs in some pantheon for his skills!
We like the onion, or garlic, shaped chandeliers. Then again, they might simply be turnips. We also like the display of fruit soda cans underneath the television set above the bar. There are videos playing; the first time we went, there were music videos in a language not our own. The second time was a TNT movie. Hey, we don't go there for the entertainment.
The only drawback everything is "kosher," which means that they are closed on the Sabbath, which is from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. They deliver, but do try to get there; it looks like a beauty salon from the outside, but inside is an invitation to the greatest Uzbekistan has to offer!
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