My father grew up in Astoria, on Long Island’s western edge, in the 1930s and ’40s. Back then it was known as “Little Athens,” and most of his neighbors were Greek, which meant that he was as often to be found dining on Greek fare as he was to be tucking into his mother’s Norwegian-continental cuisine. So I took it as a matter of course that childhood visits to Astoria meant sursild at the apartment and souvlaki on the street. And, of course, the wonderful pita wrap with spit-roasted gyro in the center—that crisp, fatty blend of beef and lamb and who-knows-what-else.
Outside of multi-ethnic urban centers, gyro meat too often emerges, pre-sliced, from the freezer. But you’ll see a large, succulent cone of it rotisserie-twisting in the window of Anton’s, a statement that, yes, here you’ll get a for-real gyro (however badly you may mispronounce the word) in which many layers of just-carved loaf mix in an oversized pita round with chunks of onion and tomato, moistened with tzatziki, a traditional yogurt and cucumber sauce. (This is the same principal behind doner kebab and shawarma, Turkish and Arabic versions of the dish that can be found in the appropriate area restaurants.) At Anton’s, a gyro is $7.29. It’s a worthy investment. As much as I’m a hamburger fan, this is a more satisfying mixture of ground meat and its accompaniments. Add fries and a side of Greek salad and it’s $10.89. That’s a damn fine lunch or dinner.
It’s a storefront on a busy stretch of New Scotland Avenue, across from St. Peter’s Hospital, which has helped keep the place going for the past three years. It’s owned and run by Mike and Kerry Anton, who also maintain an impressive cheerfulness. Much of the business is takeout. Only a half-dozen tables populate the back, but we visited on a recent early evening and easily found a couple of seats.
Breakfast is available all day, but I had my mouth set for that gyro. You can still get your pita fix with breakfast by ordering a popular morning dish called the EJ Breakfast Wrap, which boasts a filling of eggs (two for $5.39, three for $5.89), onions, peppers, home fries and cheese, and you can add bacon, ham or sausage. Or splurge an extra four bits and get gyro slices. The less-bountiful egg sandwich runs $2 to $3 for one to three eggs, with an a la carte listing of additions (cheese for 50 cents, gyro for $1.25, and so on). Other types of bread (including gluten-free) are available, as is an array of cheeses.
This isn’t Astoria, of course, and words like melitzana and kourambiethes tend to intimidate the faint of palate (we’ll get back to those words). So Anton’s offers a straight-ahead menu of burgers and dogs, the latter in the local tradition of small wieners slathered with onions, mustard and homemade, cinnamon-redolent meat sauce, best consumed in multiples of three or four. They’re a buck apiece with the works (85 cents without the meat sauce), but twelve bucks gets you a baker’s dozen. Then there are sliders for $1.79 apiece—two-ounce mini-burgers with lettuce, tomato and onion. Add a quarter for cheese, 20 cents per slice of bacon. These, too, you can buy in quantity—six for $9.75, $11.29 if you want cheese on them. And there are fries ($1.49/$1.89) that can be enhanced with cheese or chili, or Hellenically with lemon and feta.
Deli sides like homemade potato salad, stuffed grape leaves and kalamata olives are available, but let me steer you to the dips, a Greek mainstay that are served with pita wedges. The six varieties include hummus (the traditional chick-pea-and-tahini spread), also available seasoned with roasted red pepper, tzatziki, melitzana (an eggplant dip) and tarama (or taramosalata, a paste of cod roe). These are priced from $2.59-$3 apiece, but I took advantage of the $7.59 special to get three of them. They’re flavorful and satisfying, and the tzatziki is particularly rich. Both the red-pepper hummus and the tarama seemed restrained, however; I’m guessing that hospital workers don’t want to be blasted with garlic at lunch.
Souvlaki, a grilled-meat sandwich, is available with chicken, pork, shrimp or veggies ($7-$8), and there are featured sandwiches with roast beef, grilled Portobello or veggie in the $7 range. Specials for the day were moussaka (an eggplant-ground-beef stew with béchamel, $13) and pasticcio (macaroni with ground beef and béchamel, $10).
Susan started with Anton’s Spartan Chili ($3.29/$4.09, the standard soup pricing), which, while leaning toward what passes for chili in the Northeast, added some zip in both heat and seasoning. She’s a spanakopita fan—it’s a culinary staple of hers—and was about to order it (it’s $5.59) when she noticed a special of kolokithopita ($4), a phyllo-wrapped pie of pumpkin and feta that was unusual and very tasty, with an oddly autumnal flavor for this time of year.
Mike Anton couldn’t say enough about his mother’s pastries, which are displayed on the counter. We sampled one apiece of kourambiethes, which is a powered sugar-covered cookie that’s astonishingly light, finikia, a soft, cinnamony cookie with walnuts on top, and baklava, which also was exceptionally light. And none of these costs over $1.50.
My path to world peace runs along a street lined with restaurants from countries all over the world. You find that now in Astoria; here’s hoping Anton’s helps make more of a trend of it in Albany.
577 New Scotland Ave., Albany, 453-9191, antonsgreekrestaurant.com. Serving 9-8 Mon-Thu, 9-9 Fri-Sat. AE, D, MC, V.
Cuisine: Greek and American
Entrée price range: $4.89 (grilled-cheese sandwich) to $10.89 (gyro platter)
Ambiance: lunch counter