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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Melting Pot

Astoria, NY offers a World’s Fair-worth of dining options

By B.A. Nilsson

When I first saw the Unisphere in New York’s Flushing Meadows, I was eight and trembling with the excitement of attending a World’s Fair. The next time I saw it was 45 years later—just last month—and it remains a compelling reminder of those hopeful times. In 1964, “Peace Through Understanding” was the Fair’s slogan, and spread over the fair’s 646 acres were fancy pavilions from across the country and around the world.

I recall touring these multicultural exhibits among an audience of white guys with crew cuts and Jackie Kennedy wives, then returning to my grandparents’ apartment in Astoria, near Ditmars Boulevard, where the population seemed to consist only of other elderly Norwegians. Not true, of course. My father, who grew up there, later told me that it was a matter of some despair to his parents that the Greek population swelled to a point that his neighborhood became known as “Little Athens,” and his sister brought home a succession of Greek boyfriends.

I just finished a month as an Astoria resident and saw evidence, culinary and otherwise, that the World’s Fair promise has been fulfilled in ways that organizer Robert Moses could never have imagined. My apartment was not far from the intersection of Broadway and 33rd Street, an area known for its restaurant variety. Rarely did I dine at home.

The Greek identity endures. Three of that intersection’s corners declare it. Café Kolonaki recently closed, but right across from it is the long-lived, ever-expanding Omonia Café, a pastry and coffee shop with outdoor seating that’s occupied for all but a few wee-hours hours. They baked the cake for My Big Fat Greek Wedding. They’ll serve you breakfast, sandwiches and more if you don’t need baklava just yet. They introduced me to fresh strawberries over Greek yoghurt, and I’m hooked.

Romano Famous Pizza, at the third corner, also has room for you at sidewalk tables, and a rotisserie of dense gyro loaf promises more than Italian pies. Head one block southeast to 34th and dine at Uncle George’s, a large, old-school place with checkered tablecloths and an expansive menu that includes classic Greek spreads and a variety of grilled and skewered meats. And friendly service, but that proved to be the rule in this neighborhood.

Whenever I dined in Manhattan, there was none of New York’s storied gruffness; in Astoria, I was repeatedly welcomed to the neighborhood. Some of this friendliness is studied, as at the nearby Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee Co., where, as you near the counter, you’re prompted to order with a cry of “Can I help the next guest?”

Some of it takes a little while, though. It wasn’t until my third or fourth stop at OK Fruits and Vegetables, grabbing a fruit salad for breakfast en route to work, that the taciturn fellow behind the counter decided I was a regular and welcomed me.

And some of it’s just in the game. The legendary King of Falafel is a truck parked by 30th Street, in front of a supermarket, where you can get pita-wrapped falafel or souvlaki for under five bucks. “Hey, big guy, what can I get you?” starts the conversation, which then winds through the accompaniments (“Gotta have some hot sauce on this, boss!”), the weather, sports teams, and do I live around here, delivered in a rapid-fire staccato by a fellow baking in August heat magnified by the deep fryer and grill. Even though the King takes a powder before nightfall, the souvlaki truck at 32nd Street is open, grill-smoking and scenting the neighborhood well past midnight, something for which I was most grateful on late-night trips back from Manhattan.

The neighborhood’s ethnic variety covers not only a range of nations but also prices, as newer establishments experiment with fancier settings and menus. Demetri’s Authentic Greek Cuisine may have closed after many years, but Bahari just opened across Broadway and offers Greek fare from family recipes like galeos saganaki (sautéed baby shark with feta) in a skylight-enhanced room.

The most pleasant dining area I enjoyed was the back garden of Leng Thai, where bamboo trees hide the wooden fence and the khao soi is remarkable. Two blocks away is Benjamas’ Taste of Thai, and two more Thai restaurants on one long block northeast at 31st Avenue.

I never got to Tierras Colombianas, also at 33rd and Broadway, and thus missed its take on Colombian cuisine, but I breakfasted a couple of times at Viva El Mariachi, a few doors down, where you can get nopales (from prickly pear cactus) or chorizo with your eggs.

After a couple of weeks of sandpapering, painting and refinishing, a place promising authentic Spanish tapas opened just as I left, and I regret missing this one, too. Small portions are a widespread trend of which I’m all in favor, as they let you sample more upscale fare at reasonable prices.

Another trend I long to see arrive in our area is churrasco, the Brazilian barbecue that presents many different meatstuffs marinated and grilled to marvelous flavor and tenderness. I saw several in midtown, and there was one right beside the Broadway subway platform that gave you a variety of ordering options. I chose the by-the-pound approach, filling a plate from the salad bar with beef, chicken and sausage from the grill, and weighing it at the counter before plunging in.

Any urban resident learns to hate the menu stuffing that clogs your doorway, so I sheepishly confess that I found a menu for Osaka, a just-opened Japanese restaurant, as I was fretting over a dinner destination, and enjoyed an excellent noodle soup at this cheery destination. Asian eateries abound, from the by-the-book Sunshine Chinese Restaurant, right across Broadway, to JJ’s Restaurant on 31st Avenue, where the menu puts fusion fare alongside sushi and the traditionals. Wok ’n’ Roll sits near the subway; Nuevo Jardin de China, on Broadway, mixes Chinese and Cuban fare.

It’s a short walk to a couple of Indian restaurants, to a Bosnian restaurant (Djerdan) specializing in burek pies, many Italian restaurants of varying gourmet-icity, several late-night bars, a couple of mixed-pedigree American-menu places and a few members-only joints that remain mysterious. Notice what’s missing? Chain restaurants.

While the Capital Region doesn’t boast the critical population mass that puts so much in walking distance, here’s what I’d like to see in the area: Appealing hippie vibes inform Bareburger, a busy place with a simple menu. Choose your bun, choose your meat (Piedmontese beef, elk, bison, ostrich, lamb), mushroom (portobello), or veggie patty and add an array of toppings. All organic, with the best herbal iced tea I’ve tasted.

World’s Fairs are terrific, and the next one is long overdue, but nothing brings cultures together as easily as the dinner table. The neighborhood at Astoria’s 33rd and Broadway is proof of that.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

The Mill on Round Lake (2121 Route 9, Round Lake) has unveiled its newly renovated outdoor bar and fire pit, and if that’s not enough to persuade you to spend some al fresco hours here, there’s also a new bocce ball court. The indoor portion also has seen improvement, with the addition of another dining room, fireplace, more restrooms, and an expanded warm-weather menu soon to come. Call 899-5253 for more info. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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