Lately we have discovered the 3 block long strip of Egyptian/North African restaurants on Steinway St. just south of Grand Central in Queens.
One restaurant in particular called "Eastern Nights" is amazing. Two things stand out as you approach this gem. The specials of the day are all written in Arabic on the chalkboard on the street, and the inside is always packed with middle eastern men of all ages drinking tea, smoking apple-scented tobacco from elaborate water pipes and playing card games and dominoes. At first this was a bit off putting (Were we welcome here? Were women welcome?), but the hospitality of the owner and wait staff immediately put our fears to rest.
The meals come with a large basket of warm pita bread and a plate of home-made pickled vegetables and a dish overflowing with rich tahini with olives. We have tried their mixed grill, of which the chicken kebob was best (slightly dry but seasoned to perfection). Their shrimp tajine is very good too.
The atmosphere is both comfortable and exotic (arabic satellite television variety shows or old Egyptian b&w classic movies play on a big screen TV) and you can sit there for hours without being made to feel unwelcome. If you order a pipe ($3), it is prepared for you by a wizened old man in the back of the shop, who pantomimes how to use it properly and drops by from time to time to replace the heated charcoal that keeps the bowl warm. This, with a glass of black tea or a cup of turkish coffee and an egyptian pudding or baklava is a wonderful way to pass a relaxing hour or two with friends.
The food is hit-or-miss but when it's good it's VERY GOOD and the atmosphere makes it worth the risk.
Other shops on the street look good, but never as packed with locals.
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