Link to Jim Leff's old review of Kabab Cafe ????
"Many years ago, when I was reviewing restaurants for the New York Daily News and Leff was writing for Newsday, I got a call from Jim, who implored me to review Kabab Cafe ASAP because he was worried about its survival. So he and I ended up eating a decent, not great, meal there while he explained to me in great detail why each dish succeeded or failed."
But Leff in the thread posted above says:
"I like Kabab Cafe as much as anyone (in fact, I was the first to write about them, years ago in NY Press), but a few comments..."
Sounds like Levine's memory is incorrect, and it was a New York Press review not a Newsday review.
Not sure if this is it or not, byline says "WRITTEN BY NONE" but the date seems old enough. Oct 2001. I'm copying and pasting for posterity below...
A Teeny Bit of Salvation in the Kabab House
On Sept. 13, I finally managed to coax my ass out of the quicksand couch that it had been stuck in for nearly two days. Mustering up the courage to turn off the media coverage of riots breaking out in Kmarts with every new shipment of Old Glory, I was determined to head in to Union Square for some quiet reflection and perhaps some discussion of the week’s events with those gathered there.
I got on my bike, and then the 7 train. Everyone was glaring at the dust mask I was wearing, as if I were going to incite a mass exodus from the city for doing so. As I rode out of Queensboro Plaza, someone pointed out that I had a flat tire. Having already spent several hours of my Sept. 11 getting that tire fixed up (I was mentally prepared to bike to Maine if I had to), I was now beset with anger, which I projected upon my poor bicycle. I feel for the children on that 7 train, witnessing this unkempt guy with a dust mask losing his cool and cursing at his ride while jouncing it up and down. We’re all acting a little strange these days.
I made a subway U-turn, hightailing it over to Astoria to the local bike store, and paid to patch up the old two-wheeler. That’s when it hit me: I’m in northeastern Astoria, and I’m hungry. Kabab Cafe. If the Kabab Cafe can’t awaken a set of depressed tastebuds, nothing can.
Ali, the owner and chef, and one of the most beloved figures on Steinway St., had an American flag displayed in his window. And he wasn’t the only one–all along this strip of Middle Eastern businesses flags (and hookahs) dominated the windows of restaurants and cafes. It wasn’t exactly a suitable substitute for Union Square as an outlet for my curiosity, but this neighborhood scene was enough to carry my previously detached self into this newly transformed, hyper-American version of America.
Thankfully, Ali’s foul modammas was unchanged, in fact better than ever. Basically stewed fava beans, it’s one of the more esoteric menu choices at Middle Eastern restaurants. I usually don’t order it elsewhere, because once you’ve tried the version at the Kabab Cafe, everyone else’s foul (pronounced fool) falls short of your new standards.
Ali’s food is rich and soulful. Whether you order from the menu or just have him cook up a special for you, you’ll get a sense of the difference between food that is lovingly prepared and proudly presented and food that is hastily thrown together with profit in mind. An ordinary plate of babaganoush is transformed by the presence of apple and cucumber slices, a dusting of rare spices and some exotic, mysterious deep-fried leafy green. And it’s so smoky, acidic and intense that you have to pause to think about what you’re eating and how it got that way. Egyptian food, much like Indian food, is prepared with secret mixtures of spices that are passed down from generation to generation. Most falafel shacks don’t quite attain this level of cooking. Though it’s easy to mistake the Kabab Cafe for a falafel shack, inside it feels more like an Arabic version of a jazz-on-the-hi-fi beatnik coffeehouse from 1950s Greenwich Village. It’s also one of the few restaurants where it is possible to start up a conversation with the other patrons.
My sense of taste restored, my passion for eating renewed and my piece-of-shit bicycle back in operation, I’m now ready to get back to business.
Kabab Cafe, 25-12 Steinway St. (25th & 28th Aves.), Astoria, 718-728-9858.
I originally wrote about Kabab Cafe for NY Press, back in the very early 1990s. The piece Kathryn pasted in below was by someone imitating me. Not me.
I later wrote about Kabab Cafe briefly when I was doing a column for NY Newsday in 1996 (just before I launched Chowhound), and I also included a review in my first book.
Here's that NY Press piece. It was one of my first published articles, and focused mostly on Ali's mother (sadly departed, alas). Then I'll reply with the review from my book, which goes into more of Ali's cooking:
25–12 Steinway Street
She’ll be arriving soon, and I can hardly contain my excitement. I’m speaking of Nagai El Sayed, the seventy–something incredible chef from Egypt. Fully robed, head covered (late nights, she’ll throw caution to the wind and toss some of the fabric behind her ears), she makes food just like your Egyptian grandmother would, if you had one and she was a great cook and you were from there... . Strange spices swirl, foods combine in ways that only a very exotic—yet universally grandmotherish—mind could devise. You are in Alexandria.
Her sons Ali and Mustafa own the Kabab Cafe, and once or twice a year they fly her here to cook in their tiny Astoria eatery. Would–be travellers to the Middle East can tear up their plane tickets in favor of a subway token to Queens. Mrs. El Sayed’s food is that authentic. Her trademark melokia (“green soup”) is a warming, oily broth flavored with puree of green vegetables and heady spices. Don’t try to imagine it. Short of a trip to Egypt or a meal here, you’ve never had anything remotely like it, even if you frequent middle eastern eateries. Her mousaka, served chopped up, is so profoundly complex as to inspire wonderment.
The place is also very good during the 10 or 11 months a year that Mrs. El Sayed isn’t in residence. There are about a zillion little middle–eastern luncheonettes around town where Arab workers gather to socialize, play backgammon, and get a bite to eat. The food isn’t usually the focus, and that’s okay, as the customers are more interested in relaxing, smoking a few cigarettes, and bantering in the mother tongue. Kabab Cafe is virtually indistinguishable from these places—there are always a few men (almost never women) smoking cigarettes and shooting the shwarma, harried guys dashing in and out for a sandwich, the taped middle eastern music punctuated by tosses of backgammon dice and sizzling frying pans.
Hang around long enough, though, and you begin to notice a subtle difference here. Everyone is eating; not just hungrily but eagerly. These are Arab foodies; Algerian taxi drivers willing to go 20 minutes out of their way for really outstanding baba gonoush, Egyptian deliverymen who don’t mind arriving late with their packages if they can enjoy humble but soulful lamb, slow cooked with potatoes until the plate is all bones and brown porridge dotted with spuds ($6.50, like most specials). I once sat next to a young, street–tough looking Yemeni guy, clutching his obligatory pull–out car radio, who spoke knowledgeably (though in broken English) about Thai, Italian, and South American restaurants all over town. His driving gig serves not only to pay the rent, but also to help him visit all of his favorite spots.
No one makes a big deal about the food, mind you. There are no signs touting “our famous hummous”, the menu offers nothing new and innovative. Just high–quality grub made by guys who care. Their friendly greeting is genuine, and the same caring sincerity is reflected in such things as falafal (like all vegetarian dishes, $2.50 in a sandwich, $5.00 as a platter with rice and salad) fried to order in clean oil, loaded generously into fresh pita with immaculately crisp vegetables, and a homey, rich foul madamas, the garlicky fava bean dish. The kefta kabab ($3.00 sandwich, $6.50 platter) is excellant, the ground meat, onions and spices melded together by hand and charcoal–grilled.
When Mrs. El Sayed rolls into town, however (as she will for a short while starting in late May), the place shifts into culinary turbo–drive. Try as I might, I cannot understand how, using all the same ingredients and spices (none of which taste particularly exotic to me anymore), the same frying pans and oil and salt, she can prepare things that make me woozy with disorientation, as if I had suddenly and unexpectedly been transported to an Egyptian village. One sip of that green soup and the air feels heavy and musky, the tablas start beating a frenzied Arabic groove, and I feel like I’m living out a wild, giddy adventure.
The redoubtable Mrs. El Sayed makes only one or two specials per day (to supplement the cafe’s everyday offerings—the usual range of salads, sandwiches, grilled meats and fish) so call to find out what’s on for that day. If the answer is mousaka or kibbeh, you’ll want to go immediately. If you’re knowledgeable enough about this cuisine to have special requests, you’ll undoubtedly find them happily willing to accomodate you. But please don’t ask for something and then fail to show—it would be downright criminal to disappoint Mrs. El Sayed.
She once promised to make me my favorite, kibbeh (cracked wheat pie with pine nuts and ground meat) if I’d come on a certain Wednesday. I burst into the place on the appointed day, three hungry friends in tow, but found her feeling under the weather, unable to muster enough energy to cook this demanding dish. At her age, jet lag, climate change, and of course our undrinkable water all take their toll. I pantomimed my understanding and forgiveness (it goes without saying that she speaks not a word of English) and enjoyed instead her simple, delicious preparation of chicken in oniony sauce. The next day, though, she made sure that I was served some of the finest kibbeh ever eaten in a New York restaurant.
The place is open very, very late, and Mrs. El Sayed usually hangs. If she’s not still there at 1:30 or 2 am, holding court at a back table (actually, there are two tables: the back one, and the front one), sleepily but jovially trading stories with the customers, I start to worry. She must be feeling extra–tired and (literally) disoriented. The same magic that pulls me back to Egypt through her food must make her feel unbearably out of place here. Her sons and the customers all do their best to make her happy and comfortable so she’ll stay here for a while, but she is, in a sense, never really here at all. She flies in, but never fully materializes; one foot is always in the old country, amidst potent fragrances, bustling medinas, nomadic tradesmen and dissonant calls to prayer. Spectre–like, Mrs. El Sayed fades after a time and is gone.
The mystical doorway to the east will be open—just a crack—for only a short few weeks in May and early June. To get there, take the N train to Astoria Boulevard and walk (with your back to the bridge) 8 blocks along the south highway service road (Astoria Boulevard) then turn right on Steinway Street. Or, take the G or R to Steinway and walk up the street.
re: Jim Leff
From my first book:
25-12 Steinway Street, Astoria, Queens
Lunch and Dinner: Tuesday-Sunday, 12:00 p.m.-12:00 a.m.
Atmosphere/Setting: A humble but very cozy little cafe with ingeniously crafted folk-art tables, wall paintings, and various Egyptian trinkets. Chef/owner Ali is a riot and an impeccable host, and you are eating in his kitchen.
House Specialties: There's always excellent falafal, baba gounoush, and hummous, and foul madamas (garlicky fava bean stew) is made to order. Other standard offerings include freshly-made kofta (ground lamb with spices), lamb, and chicken kebabs, grilled fish, salads and sauteed vegetables (all with a sprinkle of cumin). Other than that, the menu changes daily; often a stewed meat with potatoes, some sort of soup, or whatever else you can talk Ali into whipping up.
Summary & Comments: Ali is a trained chef and will cook you most anything you ask for (it needn't be Middle Eastern, either; for example, his pasta rocks). While from the outside this looks like your typical falafal/hummous/kabab joint, and all that stuff IS wonderful here, Kabab Cafe is also the only source in NYC for traditional Egyptian fare like aiga (vegetable cutlet), and melokhia (a viscous and garlicky green soup). Not everything's available everday, but shmoozing with Ali to devise an order is half the fun. It's best to let him improvise; you'll be served a sort of tasting menu with a little bit of this, a little bit of that. If he likes you, he might whip up some hummous with lime instead of lemon, with a monolith of grilled bread topped with a leaf or two of fried basil. Tall food comes to Queens. Note: this is one of the most inconsistent restaurants I know (hence the relatively mild quality rating), but spectacular highs more than compensate for the errant blah meal.
The more extreme items have never been on the menu, and not available every day. When Kebab Cafe was featured on "No Reservations," the focus was on offal, and Ali reported that for years afterwards, some new customers came in assuming that was what he specialized in. Ali does have affection for offal, and does a good job with it.
re: Jim Leff
thanks Jim. I guess the NY Press is long gone too ?
You don't happen to have a copy of your original review on Soup Kitchen International, and if any of the locations is still serving up the original stuff ? like the great lobster bisque if i'm not mistaken or hte mulligatawny soup ????
thanks a bunch.
NY Press was my go-to paper when I lived downtown in the late 80s/early 90s. The Voice, as far as I was concerned, coasted by on its rep for too many years. NY Press was far more independent and interesting. The restaurant reviews accompanied many of my meals, since reading them without the promise of immediate food gratification was torture.
re: Bob Martinez
nothing like the old Russ Smith led rag, however.
I remember the original NYP article, as well as being sad when Ali's Mom was gone from the scene. I never got to taste her food. and actually have not ever got over to Kebab Cafe in the intervening years . Its good to remember the really personal spirit with which Chowhound began.