Passionate men cook great food. And Ali is one of the most passionate men you’ll ever meet. That’s all you need to know before you go to Ali’s Kabab Café in Astoria.
I discovered Kabab Café just before I started driving a yellow cab and well before I ever dreamt of conducting eating tours. I had a couple of friends who’d moved to Astoria back when people still contended that it was going to be the next Williamsburg.
Since I’m not a great fan of Greek food, when I went to visit we’d usually opt for Steinway Street’s North African restaurant row. Kabab Café is no secret, and we all felt it was far and away the tastiest joint on the strip. Everything on the Egyptian/ Moroccan menu is very flavorful, and the daily specials are always jaw-droppingly, eyes-wideningly, table-poundingly delicious. As I ate my first falafel there, Ali argued vehemently (though I was not arguing back) that, “A man’s HEART is in food. His SOUL. His whole LIFE is right there in that dish.” He punched his hairy, exposed chest and smacked the veins in his wrist as he spoke to accentuate his point. I told him that I agreed.
Even though he cooks everything, Ali always takes the time to chat. Knowing that Ali is from Egypt, I tried to make conversation once by saying that I think the Sinai is one of the most beautiful places on earth. "I'm not a religious person, but I felt a spirtuality in that desert," I told him. "That's all bullshit. Religion is BULLSHIT," he practically shouted. "I want to live NOW, I want to fuck NOW, I want to eat well NOW."
I liked his style. But I pressed him, "Don't you think the Sinai is beautiful?" He responded, “You want to know what’s the most beautiful place on earth? I'll tell you what's the most beautiful place on earth. NEW YORK CITY is the most beautiful place on earth.” Again, I agreed. Ali is a great New Yorker. He even eats at DiFara and Totonno.
Yet, I never take people to Kabab Cafe on my five borough eating tours. It’s a sit down joint, and Ali takes his time cooking his dishes to order. My customers want to hit as many spots in as short a time as possible.
Recently, I sat down for a meal at Kabab Café, and the eating tour topic arose as Ali and I discussed the 15th century spice trade. “If you don’t take people to Queens on your eating tours, you don’t know SHIT about eating in New York,” he blurted out. I was hurt. “Ali, I call it Famous Fat Dave’s FIVE BOROUGH Eating Tour on the Wheels of Steel. Why don’t you think I come to Queens?” I said. “Because if you don’t take people to Kabab Cafe, you don’t know SHIT about food in Queens,” he retorted. Good point, I conceded.
But I told him the problem is merely with the timing. “If you don’t sit down to enjoy your food, you don’t know SHIT about . . . weeeellll. . . if you call me twenty minutes before you come, I can have something ready for you. . . Because I like you and I want you to have the best FUCKING eating tour in New York.”
Ali apologized for saying that I don’t know SHIT about eating. “I was worked up,” he said. But that’s exactly what I love about Ali: He's truly impassioned about life and everything that goes with it. On my next tour, we'll be stopping at Kabab Café.
Kabab Cafe, 25-12 Steinway Street at 25th Avenue, Astoria, Queens 718-728-9858