19-06 Ditmars Blvd., Astoria; 718-545-4554
In what’s left of Greek Astoria—the part not co-opted by Brazilian buffets, Bosnian cevabdzinicas, and Egyptian hookah bars—very few tavernas stray from the familiar feta-and-fish formula. Agnanti, hard by Astoria Park, is the notable exception. Not that it doesn’t cover the basics, like a proper Greek salad and all manner of flaky phyllo pies. But gravitate instead to such obscurities as ntakos, a mound of hardtack-dry barley rusks moistened with pulpy tomatoes and a torrent of good olive oil; the ancient grain soup called trahana; and the specialty of the house, a tough old rooster tenderized in a sweet, subtly seasoned tomato sauce and served over tiny squares of pasta. The hearty fasolia plaki, or oven-baked limas, can be found under the menu heading “Tastes of Constantinople,” a Greek interpretation of Turkish specialties. The setting is cramped and lively, the service proficient but brusque, and the cash-tips policy annoying, but, in the end, a small price to pay.
92-09 63rd Dr., Rego Park; 718-897-9080
Bukharan Jews originally hail from that Central Asian city in what is now Uzbekistan, but most of them seem to have relocated to Rego Park, right off Queens Boulevard. That’s where you’ll find Cheburechnaya, which has everything a kosher-keeping Bukharan homesick for the good old days on the steppe could ask for in a restaurant. The service is suitably gruff, the BYO vodka flows like water, and the tables are big enough to play Ping-Pong on. The food is good, too. Start with morkovcha (garlicky carrot salad) and a chebureki (variously stuffed fried turnovers). Scoop up some hummus and baba with your lepeshka (house bread shaped like an overgrown bialy), and delve into a nice beefy bowl of lagman (noodle soup) or maybe a plate of plov (meat-mingled rice pilaf of sorts). The charcoal-grilled lamb kebabs are uniformly succulent, lamb being to Bukharan cuisine what pastrami is to the Lower East Side. The ground-meat lulya kebab is especially juicy and tender, the deeply flavorful lamb ribs even better, and if you like skewered lamb testicles—and who doesn’t these days?—you’re in the right place.
19. Istria Sport Club
28-09 Astoria Blvd., Astoria; 718-728-3181
Of the many greetings with which a restaurant host can address his public—“Welcome,” “Hi there,” “Please, sit anywhere you like” all spring to mind—the phrase “Who sent you?” delivered in a husky voice at this quasi-private subterranean social club was new to us. If no one has, in fact, “sent you,” there aren’t any really good answers to this question, so we shrugged at an old photo of Joe Bastianich hanging on the wall, and mumbled, “He did.” Not that it really mattered. Istria Sport Club, established in 1959 as a home away from home for the neighborhood’s expat community from the Adriatic Coast peninsula (Bastianiches included), has long been accessible to curious interlopers. Our greeter, who also turned out to be our waiter, having concluded the niceties was happy to recommend the specialties of his birthplace: comforting homemade pastas like gnocchi and fusi, both in a succulent veal gravy; the Balkan sausages called cevapi; and palacinke crêpes for dessert. Although rich and hearty, the food isn’t the main draw here. It’s the transporting atmosphere and the company, like Milano, an off-duty waiter from nearby Piccola Venezia, who recognized us and waved hello. “I’m here every night,” he said, as Zlatko, the affable club manager-cum-accordionist, pumped away on his squeeze-box, leading the dining room in a spirited sing-along.
20. New Imperial Palace
136-13 37th Ave., Flushing; 718-939-3501
It seems these days that Chinese regional cuisines go in and out of fashion faster than Android models: No sooner do you master your Lanzhou hand-pulled noodle-eating technique than you are confronted with Henan big tray chicken. There’s something comforting, then, about Cantonese cooking, America’s original Chinese takeout. So the next time nostalgia strikes, grab fifteen of your nearest and dearest and commandeer a round table at this bustling joint, where poker-faced waiters know what you want almost before you order it. Bamboo steamers of Dungeness crab and sticky rice, the house specialty, sail out of the kitchen at a steady clip, and with good reason, but there’s barely anything that swims, slithers, or scuttles that’s not on offer, including abalone, conch, sea cucumber, and sablefish. Sizzling casseroles are present on nearly every spinning lazy Susan, and so are succulent chickens either roasted or deep-fried. But if you really want to wax nostalgic, try No. 96, crispy orange-flavor beef, and order it to go.