Wookiee Hut Neighborhood Reviews presents:
Little Egypt
Astoria Blvd and Steinway Street, Queens, NY
Review by MaceVindaloo

Often, you don't know about the good things until something very, very bad happens. For instance, we knew there are Muslim and Middle Eastern communities, but they tended to center around mosques which felt kind of exclusionary. And we couldn't find interesting references to eateries around the mosques, so we never had the wherewithall to expolore.

But then, is it not every day that a despot of 30 years is ousted by a Twitter-fed group of citizens, and forced to cede powers and possibly abandon his country. So, what do you do? A friend had an excellent suggestion, "You go celebrate by eating their cuisine." What an excellent opportunity to look for Egyptian food! And we figured, that if we couldn't find it here, it's not anywhere (to paraphrase the song). Another friend suggested Mombar, reputed to be wondrous, or the Kebab Bar, which is vegetarian. So with this information, we figured out how to get to northwestern Queens (take the N or the Q, get off at Astoria Blvd, and take the M60 going east ... like Mecca!).

Upon reaching "Little Egypt," we found ourselves sidling past throngs of loud but not-unruly revelers, police who were making sure it went smoothly and some irate drivers who were upset that they couldn't drive at speed through Steinway due to the celebrations (you know ...morons!). We walked back and forth up and down the street, looking for the places we had heard about so long ago and have been meaning to try. We found it, but alas, it was so uber-crowded and the hostess told us quite frankly that they would likely run out of food by the time we could get a table. So, we decided to wander and just see what we could find instead.

It was a cold, windy night, and we spotted Little Morocco, a warm looking corner store. It prominently advertised their famous merguez sausage sandwich. Now, me being a tubby bitch, I can never pass up such a proclamation and took it as a challenge, so we stopped and sampled. There were three of us, why all get the same thing? So, we got the merguez sandwich, a kofta sandwich, and a lamb kebab sandwich. All were excellent, but to me, the stand out was actually the kofta sandwich.

With our appetizers were eaten, we went looking for more, and spied El Karnak Luxor, directly across the street. It was, as to be expected, very crowded and the mood was jubilant inside. But we spied a table near the door, so we nabbed it. We were surprised at the liberal smoking of hookas, and nearly every table was puffing away on one, or more. We ordered: falafel (with salad); baba gannouj (blended roasted eggplant dip);a Hawawshi sandwich (a large flat disk of flavored ground lamb between pita-like bread, sort of an Egyptian quesadilla); another dish that came looking like refried beans, but lighter and tastier; and an El Karnak roll (two flat breads, which were kind of like a cross between flaky pastry and a Chinese scallion pancake rolled around tender lamb chunks and other seasonings).

All the food was very good, but the service was ... well, there were frequent apologies and reminders that, "This is a very special night." The waitress was very overworked, and didn't seem to be dealing well with so many people, nor was the kitchen (according to our waitress). Our food came out sporadically, and we never got some of the dishes, nor the reorder of mint tea we asked for several times. Finally, as our food arrived, a large group of revelers arrived, made announcements about a gathering at the United Nations the next day ("Between 1 and 4, and we need your support, of everyone here!"), and then proceeded to sing what I assume to me nationalistic songs from Egypt for the remainder of the evening. It made for a fun and jovial atmosphere.

At some point, I wondered why it was just not that rowdy, when I suddenly remembered that these people were muslims, and alcohol is forbidden. Duh, me! However, there are other ways to enjoy giddiness.

For post-dinner, we opted not to order more from El Karnak, given the waitress's inability to remember or bring what we asked for. But we thought some coffee would be nice. We looked down the street, and we found a place called, The Egyptian Coffee Shop. We assumed it would be a sort of diner place with espresso-type machines or something, and we were surprised when we opened the door. Now, my friends and I were not Arab, though one of us has a grandfather from Turkey. We were surprised by the momentary silence, and realized there were no women, and no food. But everyone moved over a bit to make room for us, and the servers were very nice to us.

It wasn't what we expected, but was fun. It turned out to be an old boys club type of hooka lounge that served coffee and tea. Most of the customers were old guys in groups or alone, but there were some younger either playing backgammon or surfing the Internet on their laptops, or just chatting animatedly. All were smoking hookas, which made the "A non-smoking establishment" and "No Smoking" signs posted everywhere to be the equivalent of a non-sequiter. The one television was focused on the Arab broadcasts, which concentrated on the trouble in Egypt. The place was frankly ugly, with fluorescent lights and basement-style paneling, but it was cozy and rather refreshing.

We squeezed around a small table and asked for Turkish coffee. The coffee was served in a hefty eight ounce thick-walled glass and was excellent — strong, hot, sticky sweet. While it's true that we felt totally out of place, it not in a bad way, because everyone there was totally helpful and friendly. It was a little bit like being at a zoo and being allowed to sit in the cage with the fun lions! We certainly didn't feel uncomfortable about being there, noted that the hookas were refilled with fresh coals often.

There is no food at the Egyptian Coffee Shop, and we saw people go across the street to Little Morocco for sandwiches. Next door to Little Morocco was a bakery, and we thought a little desert would be nice.

The bakery is called Al-Sham Sweets and Pastries. The pastries were very good, and we were a little disappointed to discover that most of the fare here is very similar to the baklavas and filo-based fare you'd find throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East: lots of flakey pastry with honey walnuts and pistachios. The people at the counter very nicely made us a fresh pot of coffee, and we tried one of everything. Things that were unusual, included a clarified butter based sesame cookie, and a spongey semolina style cake or churro soaked in syrup flavored with anise.

Now, we know this will sound politically incorrect ... and this IS a special night ... but we think we discovered that under such conditions, that the people in Little Egypt cannot do math! For all the food we ordered at El Karnak, the bill came to $38. The pastries at the Al-Sham Sweets bakery plus coffee came to $5. Little Morocco's sandwiches came to $15; only the Egyptian Coffee Shop collected the $9 due to them, plus tip. We know that the miscalculations are temporary at some of these places; the next time we ordered at Little Morocco, we were billed properly at $6 a sandwich, and $1.50 for mint tea, and Al-Sham Sweets charged us $17 for a full tray of pastries and half a pound of the sesame cookies, plus coffee. Still, it's quite inexpensive and delicious. And, as stated, we went back again to repeat the food experience.

Being a part of history — even the history of other people from far way — is a thrill, and we learned a lot about Egyptian food, and the neighborhood in Astoria, Queens where many Eqyptians settled in New York. Totall worth the long train and bus ride!
  • Little Morocco 24-39 Steinway St, Astoria, NY 11103, 718-204-8118
  • El Karnak Luxor 24-42 Steinway St, Astoria, NY 11103, 718-204-5315
  • The Egyptian Coffee Shop 2509 Steinway Street, NY 11103-3701, (718) 777-5517
  • Al-Sham Sweets and Pastries 24-39 Steinway St, Astoria, NY 11103, 718-777-0876

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