Uncle George's Taverna
Review by SuSu, Diana, MaceVindaloo, IrishLad, WSLawyer
And once upon a time, there was a place in Long Island City/ Astoria called Baba Yeorgi's (that's the phonetic English spelling, of course), which served very plain grilled food cheaply in a crowded little restaurant. It wasn't decorated or pristine, but it was good and you could feed yourself for pocket change and come out very full and satisfied -- a wondrous thing when you're an impoverished student or athlete!
Baba Yeorgi's is now using the English version of its name, "Uncle George's". We were frightened by the enlarged, glass-encased space looking somewhat like an Italian family restaurant with the oilcloth-like blue and white checked picnic-style tablecloths and tacky table candles in pear-shaped thick-walled glass cups, the kind with that pink netting around it. Had everything Greek gone to the god of hubris?? We'd been upset by the Athens Olympics opening ceremonies and would have cried. We almost didn't go in ...
But right by the door is a few tubs of herbs ... oregano! They looked severely picked over. Maybe Uncle George's uses fresh herbs? We peeked at the big reflected grill spits on the wall -- there were the chickens, the whole sheep (sans head or skin), and the kokoretsi! The last is hard to describe, but here goes: livers and other organs are skewered on the long spit, then wound round and round with intestines. The whole thing is roasted slowly over the grill heat, and it's a lot better than it sounds! It tastes like a cross between blood pudding and liverwurst and haggis and every other organy sausagey thing.
There is not a thing here for over $15.50, and that price is nearly double the average cost of entrees here. It's because whole red snapper or big shrimp are not cheap. And finally, the place was packed with people who looked and sounded Greek, from whence much of Astoria's population originated. You know the adage that you should only go into a Chinese restaurant if it's packed elbow to elbow with noisy, happy Chinese? We figured that's true for any ethnic eatery.
So we decided to go in and were seated immediately -- there is a constant flux of people going out and coming in -- and we got the "classic" three-dip appetizer. We all attacked the plate of dips -- we'd delayed ordering as we chatted and caught up and introduced each other to one another until the waiter came back for the third time. Then we ordered everything off the top of our heads. One of us thought the kokoretsi might be bacon-wrapped sausage and then didn't order it. So someone else did. We also got the spit-roasted lamb, whole snapper, pasticcio, orzo, souvlaki, tripe soup, eggplant caviar, fried calamari, and lemon potatoes. It was all very good -- nothing fancy or glam, but grilled well.
The pasticcio is often described as "Greek macaroni and cheese" but we thought it was more like shepherd's pie. Appropriate, considering Greeks are normally depicted in ancient literature with sheep. The kokoretsi, really was surprisingly good, even though we knew what it really was. The lamb included a lot of bones -- the person who'd ordered it was a bit taken aback by that, but it was good and quite tender. Souvlaki meat was sparser than the street pushcart variety, but was tasty and served with crispy lettuce, tomato, pita and tzatziki -- a cucumber yogurt sauce. The lemon potatoes were not as wonderful as we were lead to believe -- they were rather limp from having sat around in prep-land and oil for too long. The orzo was flavored way too intensely -- the rice-shaped pasta bits were in a lemony, oily, tomatoey sauce and we couldn't finish it. We couldn't finish the snapper either and had to wrap it up for consumption another time. The eggplant dip, like the other dips, was good. The tripe soup was bland, but flavored in the mild way avolemono is -- egg, rice, and lemon soup. The tripe itself was quite tender.
The bill for a whole bunch of us was about $80 for everything -- cheap! That included drinks: Greek beer called Mythos, red wine, sodas. That includes tip, too, which was nicely attentive. They answered our questions honestly, and expressed some cautions about out ability to really like what was being presented. But he wasn't pissy about it, which is rather a good thing.
Basically, the things they do well are the things the Greeks themselves eat. The things made for the tourists were less commendable. Follow the signboard of specials for the day and you'll likely have a more enjoyable meal. And remember the only flavorings the Greeks seem to use on the taverna level of cuisine is lemons and olive oil, maybe some oregano.
Unlike the Olympic games, the food at Uncle George's is pure, unpretentious, inexpensive, and it's a fun place. There are no gigantic screens with people beating drums with some pretentious beat, no paper boats with 10-year old boys waving, no rolling out sod to replace a puddle with a pitch ...
The Olympic committees need to come here and re-learn that!
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