Places that Matter

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Steinway Street's Middle Eastern blocks

click on image for slideshow
Steinway Street, Brendan Garrone
Steinway Street, Brendan Garrone
Kabab Cafe, Brendan Garrone
El-Rawsheh Cafe & Restaurant, Brendan Garrone
Laziza of New York Pastries, Brendan Garrone
Panda Queen Chinese Restaurant, Brendan Garrone
Al-Iman Mosque, Brendan Garrone
Egyptian Cofee Shop, Brendan Garrone
Alzaeem Restaurant & Cafe, Brendan Garrone
Alzaeem Restaurant & Cafe's door, Brendan Garrone
Read the Holy Quran, Brendan Garrone
Cluster of Middle Eastern markets, cafes, and more
Place Details »

Place Matters Profile

By Makale Faber

Turn right outside the subway, towards the signs for LaGuardia International Airport. Cut across Columbus “Park” (a triangle of asphalt with a statue of Christopher Columbus in the center that splits six-lanes feeding into the BQE and Grand Central Parkway) and walk six blocks and make a right on Steinway Street.

Squeezing the wooden top of a long, ruby velvet Egyptian water pipe hose, Ali El-Sayed, exhales a small cloud of fruity sweet tobacco smoke into Steinway Street. He is taking an afternoon break from prepping dinner at his restaurant (and an underground NYC favorite) The Kebab House, at 25-12 Steinway. Brianna, Joe, and Joanna, three elementary school neighbors, stop by to chat with him about their summer vacation while they wait for their aunt to finish their hair dressing appointment two shops down. He interrupts their cell phone ringer demonstration to ask passersby Ricardo and Anna how their newborn is. A few minutes later he calls out to a man walking down the street with a lovely girl on each arm, “How’s my proud Brazilian papa? I see you’ve got the princessas out today!” Lee Anne Wong, a neighbor, fellow cook and friend, appears shortly after entering the conversation after giving Ali a big hug and kiss.

Known as the mayor of the two-block stretch of Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens, that reporter Ivan Delventhal coined “Al-Astoria” for its concentration of Middle Eastern markets and cafes, Ali was the first to open an Egyptian restaurant in the area fifteen years ago. It joined what are now community anchors, the Egyptian Coffee House and the Arab Community Center coffee house (both with large screen TVs offering latest Arabic news and entertainment) and it has been followed by Arabic newspaper, magazine and video shops, Lebanese restaurants (El-Rawsheh), a Jordanian pastry shop (Laziza), a Halal Chinese restaurant (Panda Queen), a Sicilian Espresso bar (with back room hand and board games and a large screen TV offering the latest Italian news and entertainment) and a handful of other restaurants, Islamic bookstores and pan-Arab markets offering delicacies and staples at a fraction of Manhattan prices. A small number of barber shops and hairdressing salons also serve as community gathering spots.

Eight years ago the El-Iman Mosque opened, which draws Muslims from local Middle Eastern, North African, Indonesian, and Puerto Rican communities. They, along side Sicilian and Arabic men and women sipping coffee on the sidewalk, create not, “Al-Astoria” but simply a New York City neighborhood. “It’s just a community!” Ali says. “We didn’t plan this, it’s not as simple as everyone wants it to be. I want to show you something. Come inside.” For the first time in almost an hour, we retreat from the gentle bustle and strong sunlight of the block. He points to a map on the back wall of his ornately painted 20-seat restaurant. “Look. It’s a copy of the official ethnic map of Manhattan drawn up by the Joint Legislative Committee Investigating Seditious Activities in 1919. It shows you in red where the Russian Jews live, orange where the Scandinavians and Finns live, green where the Syrians, Turks, Armenians and Greeks live -- as if we’re alike. I hope you can convey that this isn’t just Little Cairo in Queens, it’s community, and it was built over time with a lot of different types of people. Look outside, yes, there is a Yemeni deli across from me, and another two doors down. We have an entirely different culture. Even within the Arabic community we’re distinct. What makes this place special is that we care about each other. We say hello. We’re polite, and you can find that all over this City.”

It’s no surprise that food dominates this two-block stretch; the history of the Middle East is contained in its food. You see it in its poetry and in tales of the great feasts featured in the Arabian Nights. Each dish holds within it centuries of history, local culture and tradition -- which you can taste and learn about if you ask, thanks to an unforgotten sense of hospitality so typical to the Middle East.