The Egyptian options on Steinway in Astoria are well known throughout the city, and chef Ali of Kabab Cafe is probably the most legendary of them all. Unlike most hype though, his is well-deserved and absolutely spot on. Not too many people leave this place unsatisfied. There are bowls full of offal and brain for the adventurous and easy to eat plates of lamb, chicken and fish for the less so.
We have previously written about Mombar, run by Ali's brother and serving southern Egyptian food but somehow never had a camera and notes from a couple visit to Kabab Cafe, which has a more northern slant. Here you walk into basically a kitchen, with a few seats in the back for diners. It is almost like walking into his home. He greets you, he says what is on offer, he recommends, he cooks, and he loves.
Each table is unique and handcrafted, and on top of them it is always recommended to get a glass of hibiscus tea ($3, below) as a refreshing way to relax and enjoy the hodgepodge of scenery on the walls. Nothing is aligned but everything fits. A large gathering of Negra Modelo beer bottles kept drawing my attention for some reason.
Slightly toasted, pretty rigid pitas are served with a magical mixed meze appetizer plate ($15, below two photos).. The usuals of Middle Eastern cuisine, but ten times better, with a collection of crispy baked achoy. Garnished with radish, red pepper, and apples.
Plates with spices on them are served before each round, to lay your portions right on. Sumac and the za'atar spice bomb share space and vie to grab ahold of your tabouleh and hummus. Two people could conceivably come here and share this plate and eat all the bread and falafel and be reasonably full, but it is hard to resist the rest of the menu as well.
We were only two on this trip, so we chose just one entree, the beautiful lamb shank ($27, below). It comes out as one piece but is quickly knifed apart by Ali and spread out on the plate. The meat is so tender and fresh, and falls off the bone without any effort. It is spiced and accompanied with an arrangement of vegetables.
As we were eating, Ali peers over his shoulder and asks: "Talk to me guys, I'm insecure over here!" Somehow I doubt that, but he is genuinely pleased by our compliments nonetheless.