We love this three-stool, no-frills Lebanese-Syrian takeout spot, not just for the tastiest, tidiest falafel sandwich in town, and not just for owner Mouhamad Shami's pride and commitment to keeping everything fresh. We love it for dishes you rarely find in other Middle Eastern joints, like a spicy vegetarian kibbeh stuffed with Swiss chard, mint, and parsley -- not to mention occasional specials courtesy of Mrs. Shami, like kafta bil-saniyeh (a casserole heaped with potatoes, tomatoes, and minced lamb, $12) and a deftly spiced vegetarian moussaka ($7.50).
150 Fulton Street, 212-528-4669
Beyoglu is simply the best Turkish cooking in town, and if you don't believe us, chef-owner Orhan Yegen will tell you so himself. His steely-eyed braggadocio, delivered tableside in a perfect soft-spoken Bond-villainese, almost seems intended to cast some sort of hypnotic spell. You are getting hungry, very, very hungry. Have a kebab. Yegen's discourse, though, is no match for his kitchen's minty yogurt soup; tantalizingly good meze ($3–$8.50); and succulent doner kebab made from lamb and beef ($12.50), the only entrée available and perhaps the only version of this dish you may ever settle for again.
1431 Third Avenue, at 81st Street, 212-570-5666
Endure clueless service and discomfiting staff imbroglios for what amounts to an Israeli vegetarian feast, starting with gratis pickles and olives, followed by an appetizer sampler and thick pita bread, and dominated by liberal (if painful) applications of z'houg, the Yemeni hot sauce. The lemon-and-oil-drenched appeal of Middle Eastern food shines in starters like spicy red-pepper-and-tomato Moroccan salad ($4) and smoky baba ghannouj ($4.50). And how can you resist a place that makes such transcendent hummus? Leave room for malawach ($6), the flaky fried flatbread, and jachnun ($7), the Saturday special of 24-hour-baked cylinders of dough.
7 Seventh Avenue South, 212-206-7374
Sometimes the best way to experience an unfamiliar cuisine is to defer entirely to the cook, to relinquish free will and idiosyncratic tastes and simply say "Feed me." That's the way dinner unfolds twice nightly at Mamlouk, the atmospheric Middle Eastern restaurant where the $30 six-course prix fixe menu changes daily, and where the only decision you need to make is whether to book a table at 7 or 9, the only available seatings. Dinner usually begins with great bread and terrific meze, including muhammara, a delicious walnut-pepper melange, followed by a minty fattoush salad, a tasty vegetable stew, and then two meat courses that might include anything from a Persian-style chicken with walnuts and pomegranate juice to an Iraqi lamb-and-okra dish. Factor in the wailing Middle Eastern music, the exotic furnishings -- tables so low that to dine at them requires an advanced knowledge of Pilates -- and the hookah pipes ($15 surcharge) that materialize after dessert and mint tea, and dinner is an entirely transporting experience.
211 East 4th Street, 212-529-3477
Live by the skewer, dine by the skewer -- that might as well be the culinary motto of this bustling kosher Uzbeki joint on the fringes of Forest Hills, where the charcoal-grilled main event arrives on long, lethal blades after a parade of salads and spreads, best devoured with an order of puffy "national bread." After sampling the fare -- vinegary carrot salad, creamy hummus, fluffy baba ghannouj, a sumptuous lamb-and-vegetable noodle soup that could make Soup Nazi throw in his ladle -- we discovered why fourteen tough guys, seated at a long table and incessantly toasting one another in Russian, seemed so jubilant. It wasn't just the vodka.
63-42 108th Street, Forest Hills, Queens, 718-275-6860
We only hope this teeny Greek taverna's newly arrived wine-and-beer license doesn't encourage too much lingering; it's tough enough to score one of the five postage-stamp-size tables at dinner. But the cheap, fresh meze ($12.95 for three), the flaky boureki filled with chicken and olives ($7.95), and the hearty one-pot meals like lamb stifado ($14.95) and pastitsio ($12.95) are worth the wait -- which should be ameliorated when the owners find a second, larger location. Until then, come early, come late, or take your vegetarian souvlaki or braised-lamb sandwich to go -- or to eat alfresco on the bench outside.
105 Thompson Street, 212-925-1040
In the unfathomable fashion of his native countrymen, an expat Cypriot friend of ours demands practically all his food cooked just shy of incineration, and then, as if to enact a resurrection, squeezes an entire lemon over the ashy remains. But the man has a few discriminating tastes: To wit, he has his mother mail him a superior haloumi, the Cypriot sheep's-milk cheese, the way other mothers send cookies. When he runs out, he heads to Zenon, a boisterous, kid-friendly taverna where they grill thick slabs of the stuff and serve it with lemon and parsley. It's only one of several tasty meze dishes here ($2.95– $7.95), including scrumptious deep-fried zucchini and eggplant with garlicky skordalia, and spicy sheftalia (char-grilled pork meatballs) -- and the next-best thing to having a doting Cypriot mom with a FedEx account.
34-10 31st Avenue, Astoria, Queens, 718-956-0133