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A Night at the Kabab Cafe

"Forty five minutes." There were four of us, in the hallway of Kabab Cafe, around 8pm Saturday night. Sure, we said, standing in the hallway. Waiting, and waiting.

From past my friends' heads I could see the tiny, cramped quarters of the restaurant, decorated with old family photographs, cracked pyramids, faded write-ups from newspapers, dangling necklaces, and knick knacks. I spied full tables. Two 2-tops. Three 4-tops. Mismatched furniture. People sitting in corners, nooks, crannies. The smell was unbelievably delicious. Ali's helper was busy at the stove, cooking up something delectable and I peeked through the gaps in the shelving, craning my neck to see what they were making. Lamb? Chicken? Veal? Ali threw some vegetables into a pan and drizzled oil, herbs, threw them into the oven, brought something else sizzling out. It took some amount of restraint not to reach in and start picking away at the food. The smell, the smell.

If I wasn't hungry before we stepped in, I was hungry now. Ravenous. Starving. Gut-wrenchingly hungry. My stomach complained, "feed me." We stepped outside. There was a single chair on the sidewalk. Somewhere below, a dog howled in an alleyway. Families strolled down the street. On occasion, a loud city bus stopped to pick up and drop off passengers, beeping in the night. The door opened, and again, the wondrous smell, the tantalizing smell.

Forty five minutes. We waited. We waited. We waited some more. Nobody seemed to be leaving the restaurant. The coffee shop across the street beckoned but we did not heed its call. We peered at the taped up menus instead. Veal sweetbreads? Liver alexandria? Fool and falafel? Lamb with pomegranate sauce? I leaned against the stained glass window, trying to see inside, telling myself, patience. The restaurant has a staff of two who cook, clean, bus tables, pour water, set place settings, warm up pita bread, take orders. Ali works at his own pace, and there is no hurrying a master.

Finally, a table left. It's ours! Victory! We pulled out the tiny table from the wall and squeezed around to the cushioned banquette. My friend placed her bag upon the only bit of free space: a flat of bottled water. We choose a wine from a mishmash of wine bottles standing on a shelf. Ingredients spread out over every available surface.

Ali leaned over to tell us the specials. It was a litany of temptations. Ali paused. I thought that was the end of the menu, so I nearly shouted, "yes, the meze plate, please!" But he continued. "We have lamb. Pork. Poussin. We had duck liver. No more," said Ali, eating, picking up remains from a metal bin. He handed us each a piece of the duck liver. We nibbled, quietly deliberating over what to order. Visions of offal danced in our heads. We ordered five appetizers and were about to order more but the master stopped us. "Ah, we'll see," said Ali. "We'll see how you are after that."

First the meze plate with warm pita bread. Hummus, fool, falafel and babaganouj. Some fried leaves as garnish. What kind of leaf was it? We were not sure, but it was delicious. We fought over the remaining pita bread, savoring every bite, and rationing every scrap and every slice of apple. Best falafel I've tasted in my life, and it makes me angry to think of wasted calories on inferior falafel. He delivered a cooked dish to another table and squeezed by, bumping my friend. "I am sorry, miss, but I am old and I am fat!" he said to her. We all laughed.

Next up: lamb tongue cooked in lemon-olive sauce: sweet, meaty, lemony, and gone in a flash. Lamb Cheeks in pickled lemon sauce, also sweet and tender. An umami explosion on the tongue. Then, veal sweetbreads in a lemon caper sauce. An onsaught of deliciousness, and the leftover sauces and dressings matched up to the main event. Every scrap of eggplant was precious. Every bit of leftover onion was coveted. And the sweetbreads? Cooked with a light hand and fatty, meaty, tender, like eating meat butter. It was a parade of offal, unmatched by our growing appetites.

We devoured everything in sight and looked up, eager for more. "It was good? Yes?" "Yes!" we said, "yes!" "Ah. Next, I am making you brains," said Ali.He carefully sculpted patties of brain, carefully breading them, one at a time, slowly. He whisked away the patties and suddenly the restaurant was filled with the smells and sounds of deep fried brains. They appeared in front of us, hot and sizzling. Now I know what the zombies of old horror movies crave and why they crave it. "Are those brains? How are they?" asked a neighboring table. We could only gesticulate wildly and close our eyes in pleasure. Were the sweetbreads better or the brains better? What kind of comparison is that? It was like comparing Mozart vs. Beethoven or Monet vs. Picasso or the Beatles versus the Stones. Beautiful in their own ways and appreciated for their unique qualities.

Mr. Ali, leaned over, inquired if we wanted more. Fish, said one of my dining partners, let's do some fish. We chose a single fish but instead, he cooked an assortment of three, whole, heads still on, with onions and squash. Moist and tender, sweet, and delectable. The tiny bones of these whole fish were no match for our bellies. Even the onions on the side were wonderful. As we digested, we saw Mr. Ali cooking for other parties. Two young men came in and sat down, ordered the lamb shank, and shot the shit with Ali. He'd known them since they were boys, just boys, coming in "wearing shorts, and no hair on their legs." As we finished the fish, clean to the bone, other parties entered and departed the restaurant, always to joyous cries of, "How are you? How's your family? Where have you been? I missed you!" It was the theme song to television show Cheers, writ large, by a jovial Egyptian man, full of love for all his customers, new and old.

Dessert was a simple plate, warmed in the oven: semolina, honey cake, baklava with labne, apples. Rustic, pleasurable, and served with love. From the kitchen, we could hear Mr. Ali talking to his young Hispanic, male helper, "Come here, you did good today, please, let me hug you, I want to hug you," and his assistant looking annoyed as he scrubbed dishes, like this were a regular ritual.

Hibiscus tea appeared, fragrant, and full of apple slices. It smelled wonderful. Honeyed and fragrant. I quietly sipped the hot beverage, burning my tongue but fighting against drowsiness, induced by wine and food. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed tea quite so much. Rising from the table was a bit of a challenge, but we stopped in front of Mr. Ali to pay our bill, and our respects. He thanked us for coming and told us it was a pleasure to serve us tonight. But the pleasure was all ours, and we stumbled out into the night, vowing to return, and soon. Perhaps we could try the liver or the lamb, or heart, if he had it, or testicles, like Tony Bourdain. But until then, I would dream of sweetbreads and brains....

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  1. I'll need to give this place another try. I live close enough now to not have an excuse. I absolutely hated it the first time I went, mostly because Ali's pricing (and pricing tactics and total lack of displayed prices) is robbery.

    3 Replies
    1. re: JFores

      Yeah, it's definitely not cheap and not an everyday sort of experience. We got there at 8pm, sat down just before 9pm, and left satisfied but not stuffed at 11:30pm. About $50pp including the wine.

      1. re: JFores

        Yeah, if you're serious about how good it was I need to go back again...TO be honest I went there lik 4-5 times (last time about 2 yrs ago) but got bummed out because although I believe Ali is a master of schtick the food is not as good as he'd like to present, it's overpriced for Queens, and he tries to rip you off at every turn

        1. Thanks for the great report, kathryn. Next time you're there, you should definitely try Laziza Bakery on Steinway. I find that Kabab Cafe tends to be weak in the dessert area.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Miss Needle

            Actually I think the honey cake we were served was from that bakery. I did get the impression that their desserts weren't the strong point, but at that point in the meal, I would have eaten anything Ali gave us!

          2. "Now I know what the zombies of old horror movies crave and why they crave it"
            The only problem is, those zombies would have eaten Ali's brain as well. We don't want that.

            This is as good a review as I've read on Chowhound or anywhere else. You really put me there. My two or three visits to KC have jibed with others' experiences in that they've been up and down. You obviously caught the man at the top of his game. Nice work.
            P.

            3 Replies
            1. re: Polecat

              True, and zombies probably eat raw brains, not delicious deep-fried ones. I hope that my future visits to Kabab Cafe stay as good as my first one!

              1. re: kathryn

                Nice review Kathryn. As others have said, you clearly caught him on a good night--I've felt that the cooking has gone downhill lately. The baba and falafel have stayed consistently great and excursion worthy, but entrees have suffered over time. In my head, the downhill spiral started in earnest around the time his primary assistant left a few years ago, but who knows if that's objective or not. Perhaps he just loved you guys for your adventurous nature and cooked with renewed focus; with two people in the kitchen, such things might be a factor.

                1. re: tynanch8

                  Take another look at the "kitchen" and you'll understand the reason for the change in cooking (which I dont think has suffered but is clearly different). The Health Dept came in a year or so ago and he closed down for awhile while they made him take out his open flame stove tops and put in an oven with a venting system. His preferred pan sauteed method was put aside. I love Ali and go there reasonably often... he's adjusting more and more to his new resources and you should try again.

            2. yep, that's kebab cafe. good writing.

              1. That was a wonderful post, full of whimsy and feeling, and we are certainly envious of your skill with words. Are you a professional writer?

                We have not tried the “Kabab Café” yet, but your post has enticed us sufficiently to try “Kebab Café” in the future and hopefully we will have as positive an experience as you did, considering the many mixed reviews on the “Kabab Café.”

                2 Replies
                1. re: lwong

                  Hmmm...I"ll really have to go back. I haven't been there in about 2 years because I got a bit tired of Ali's incessant flagging of warm, plastic and expensive bottled water (something many chowhounders have commented on), the oftentimes insipid entrees, the high prices, and the feeling that this is something of a banalization of the sorts of tasty dishes from the Muslim world/Egypt that you can get elsewhere in Astoria or Bay Ridge etc. Of courrse, while we're speaking of the "Orient" it's probably wise to realize that Ali likes to rope in those seeking an exotic, outer borough experience. I hope that moderators won't delete these comments about food/ambience as they usually do when I say something less than stellar about Ali and his restaurant which I'll try again next time I'm feeling especially flush. Or maybe I'll just cross Steinway Street and eat a wonderful Moroccan sandwich at the corner place in front of Ali!!

                  1. re: zemilideias

                    hey, have you posted before about that Sandwich place? whats it like, what is good?

                2. Has anyone been here recently? Is Ali cooking up anything special for the cold winter months (not that most of his menu doesn't lean "hearty" most of the year)? Might be making a trip here next week and wanted to be on the lookout for any specialities. For instance, there's a season goose dish mentioned at New York Magazine's site that I've never seen on the menu before.

                  1. Just wanted to add the link-to for this posting

                    1 Reply
                    1. I never, ever, understood what the fuss over this place was.

                      I have tried it several times and it was ok/mediocre each time. However it is way way too expensive for what it is: a run of the mill mid-eastern grill joint with no unusual tastes or
                      textures.

                      It also took FORVER to get our food, which was not even cooked well. Burnt on the outside near raw on the inside. Maybe it wasn't ok after all.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: NYJewboy

                        Yeah, NYJewboy, that's what I've always experienced...I'm flummoxed by the lumpen on this site!