One of my countless quests and collections includes going to all of New York’s boroughs. You’d think by now with only five of them and the close proximity, I’d have accomplished my goal. Well, some things take longer than others.
My visit to the New York Times Travel Show and our Airbnb in Astoria meant that it was my first time conquering a new borough in quite a while. Technically part of Long Island City, we stayed in the borough of Queens, long known for its diversity and multicultural neighborhoods. It did not disappoint.
Even though our time would be limited, it was a fascinating glimpse into a world in which I will definitely return to for more. Visiting one part of Queens is like reading a page of a book, or maybe the dust jacket description. You have to keep reading in order to appreciate the plot.
So it was on a cold Friday night in January that we trekked through the windy, dark night from the Astoria Boulevard train station to our host’s address on Steinway, in the heart of the “Little Egypt” neighborhood.
The bus ride from DC was longer than expected, and I somehow started to develop a cold in the middle of the trip. The blustery wind did little to alleviate my symptoms. By the time we arrived, my throat was sore and I could tell the virus inside had won its first round against my immunities.
Still, we had made it safe and sound and were ready for an exciting weekend in the city to see the travel show and experience some of Astoria. Our gracious host Raul immediately clicked with us, as an appreciator of all things travel. He was immediately sympathetic to my oncoming cold, and offered us drinks and fun conversation through the midnight hour.
Mercifully the show didn’t officially open until 10 and the first speaker was at 11, so I didn’t feel the need to rush. I should have also known that no matter what, we’d still probably be late. The first agenda item was of course to eat breakfast, and Raul gave us a local recommendation that we were eager to try. After a restless night futilely attempting to thwart the cold, my head ached for nourishment and most importantly, coffee.
Sitting on a nondescript corner across from the Duane Reade pharmacy, hunter green awnings spelled out “Mini Star Restaurant / Breakfast Lunch Dinner” in serifed all-caps and no fanfare. Without the recommendation, we’d never have stopped here.
Once inside, however, the wide window booths across from a barstooled counter with a narrow row of tables in between screamed “honest-to-goodness diner” and I knew we’d found the right place to begin our morning.
We zeroed in on the omelet section of the extensive menu. Even there, the selections were plentiful. I settled on a Farmer’s Omelette with sausage, feta, onions and tomatoes, while Mark picked the spinach and a side bagel. My side was rye toast.
We really didn’t want a heavy meal, but the portions were decent size (we’re relatively light eaters in general). Both omelets came with fried potatoes, so with the bread on the side it was enough to sustain us well past lunch time.
The flavors were rich and the service friendly. It is the kind of place you could sit for hours and people-watch from the windows, except you’d feel guilty taking up space. We paid in cash (no credit cards here) and left satisfied.
I had to pick up some meds at the pharmacy, so Mark too the liberty of checking out a nearby donut shop. His choice of a single “jelly bomb” was ringing endorsement for us to make breakfast plans for the next day, as he discovered they have breakfast food too beyond just donuts. I suppose they didn’t call it Comfortland for nothing.
Strolling down 30th Avenue towards the nearest subway station, we passed a lively array of restaurants, bars, and shops that even though it was still morning, showed promise of excitement for the day. Sadly, we would not have time to partake on this trip, but again just getting the chance to see what was on offer was thrilling. This is why I love coming to New York! Each trip is like entering a new city, yet there is a bond of familiarity that somehow ties it all together, like a family.
Just in the first block we passed some interesting looking restaurants: Blend (Latin American fusion), Flo Urban Kitchen & Bar (salad/sushi/sandwiches), Sugar Freak (Cajun/Creole), Butcher Bar (barbecue), Gossip Coffee (coffee shop with donuts, desserts, and cocktails), Poke Burrito (Hawaiian), and The Grand (American breakfast/brunch).
Other places that seem to be popular were Queen’s Comfort (American comfort food), Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee Company (uh…bagels & coffee), Pink Nori (Japanese), Kurry Qulture (Indian), Jujube Tree (vegan/Asian fusion), The Shady Lady (American/tapas), Ovelia (Greek), Ample Hills (ice cream), Pochana (Thai), and Burger Club (hamburgers). Too many choices!
Our train ride into the city was extremely slow, at least to the Queensboro Bridge. Walking would have been faster to that point, though once we were in Manhattan the regular pace resumed. We’d been warned about track work, and certainly were not unaccustomed it having lived through DC Metro’s “SafeTrack” project.
It was a chilly walk to the Javits Center, especially when 15 minutes were added because I took a wrong turn upon exiting the subway. Despite the cold, Mark seemed to be enjoying the walk and seeing all the tall buildings. It was as if we hadn’t been here before, and while it had been a few years, it still captures our attention like wide-eyed children. This is another reason I love New York, but also probably why I wouldn’t necessarily want to live here. I like being enthralled each time I visit.
I won’t rehash the New York Times Travel Show here; you can read my detailed previous post about it. But I wanted to mention the huge amount of construction going on in the blocks preceding the Javits Center. As we walked along 34th Street, it was a scene of tall cranes, gleaming mirrored buildings and steel girding that was freshly erected. I suppose the stuff that was here before was run down and this has become the new hot spot. Real estate on Manhattan is a precious commodity.
After a full day of conventioneering and luckily meeting up with some friends who had also been drawn to the allure of the show, Mark and I headed back to Queens to continue our exploration of the still new-to-us borough.
Mark was insistent on having authentic Italian food, as is our pastime when we go to New York. Unfortunately the time it took us to make our way back and the lack of reservations (if that was even a possibility to secure), meant that we’d have to wait in a long line (possibly out in the cold) or choose something else.
The prime choice we were aiming for was a place called Vite Vinosteria, on 34th Street (to be clear, this was in Astoria, not Manhattan) just off of 31st Avenue. The reviews were great, and it had an authentic vibe. Inside, the smells were absolutely tantalizing.
Eventually a gentleman approached us like “I bet you poor souls think you are going to get a table now.” I didn’t have much hope, but when he said there were several couples in front of us and then a large group of six just walked in, there was literally no where else to stand but in the middle of the trafficway. We realized this was just not the trip to try this place, but we can’t wait go back and we’ll get there earlier.
Saturday night is prime time, so even another place required a long wait. Around the corner we found Milkflower, an artisanal pizza place with a relatively small, intimate seating area but less of a wait. We still managed to stand in line, thankfully inside, for about 40 minutes before we got to our table. I don’t think that’s terribly unreasonable, and I wasn’t hangry.
The menu was inventive, with names like Van Dammer (with Brussels sprouts, egg, and truffle oil), Chardie Sheen (swiss chard, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, and green garlic), Wu-Tang Clam (cherrystone clams and Fresno chilis), and Jimmy Snuka (pineapples and jalapeno). We went with the S.T. The Ghost (cheddar, mozzarella, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses and burnt honey) with an additional topping of sausage.
With my cold, I skipped the alcoholic beverage options, though they had a nice selection of wines and craft beers. The pizza was thin and crispy, with an even flavor. The honey added a subtle touch of sweet that wasn’t too much. I think Mark was a bit disappointed, since it wasn’t the Italian meal he had hoped for. It was a solid pie, though.
I knew we weren’t going to go home without dessert, and since barhopping wasn’t on the radar, it made sense to check out the little pastry café a few doors down from our Airbnb stay. I knew they would have some soothing hot drink for my aching throat and something sugary to mollify our taste buds.
When we walked into Noisette on Steinway, it was like walking into a little café in Cairo or Alexandria might be like. We ordered in English, of course, but other than that, the melody surrounding us was that of conversational Arabic. A large group of men were sitting around and chatting, sipping their teas and coffees in between stories. A few others sat alone with a book, laptop, or newspaper, completely tuning out the rest of the din.
I chose their namesake pastry, which was a layered slice of chocolate hazelnut mousse (“noisette” means hazelnut in French), ganache, mascarpone, and chocolate cake topped with whipped cream and dipped in nuts. Mark got a cheese and egg pastry, and we split a large pot of Moroccan mint tea.
It was just enough to satiate our appetites and despite the caffeination of the black tea, we were plenty bushed after the long day. I was looking forward to a hot shower and getting to bed early.
Whatever was in that tea must have helped, because I slept well and although I was still under the weather, I had enough energy for another round of travel show antics. My appetite was not negatively impacted either, and I was looking forward to trying this donut place that Mark had raved about, so off we went.
As promised, Comfortland delivered! Upon entrance, there was a promise of fun. I mean, donuts! The murals on the wall, artistically designed (and named) doughnuts, and a convivial atmosphere made me feel like we’d definitely chosen the right place for breakfast.
Besides donuts, they had a small but respectable breakfast menu and good coffee. The donuts were huge, but they also had small bite-sized donuts, which is what we wanted anyway. I can’t commit to a five-pound slab of dough with Fruity Pebbles or Nutella on it! (OK, I probably could with the Nutella one, but I owe it to my blood sugar to abstain).
My breakfast selection was a trio of smoked pork breakfast tacos with eggs, crema, and pickled onions, and one each of the jelly bomb and chocolate donut bite. Mark decided to try a biscuit with the vegan version of eggs even though we’re not vegan.
I thought the tacos were great. For some reason I don’t usually have tacos for breakfast, but these made me question why I’d live that long without doing so. A good choice. Mark’s biscuit was a little dry and I think he would have just preferred real eggs. But let’s face it, the true reason we came here was for the donuts.
While we only got the bites, that’s exactly what we wanted and they were absolutely the right choices. As with yesterday, the jelly bombs were stuffed full of raspberry preserves with the seeds. The jelly-to-dough ratio was generous, and it was the jelly donut craving that Mark had been seeking out for years.
The chocolate donut bites must have been made with Nutella and were topped with crumbled bits of Oreos. They melted in our mouths. Especially noticeable with these was the dough. One of the reasons I try to avoid donuts, other than to preserve my health, is that most donuts leave an oily film in my mouth. Not these! I think it’s that legendary New York water that makes everything so good. We easily could have had another couple of those bites.
Comfortland was one of those memorable New York places for the food, the decor, and the experience. I was filled with the same sense of, well, comfort, that I get when I discover these little places all over the city. A name well chosen.
The morning commute to the Javits Center was a little quicker this time. Having started later than the previous day, we weren’t particularly hungry for lunch, but when the opportunity strikes for free food, we got in line. The Incredible India! booth dished out delicious samples of the ChefNBox meals and that sustained us through to “dinner” before we boarded the bus back to Bethesda.
Actually the timing worked out perfectly. There was a food court a block away from the bus stop, so we ate our evening meal around 4:45 and people-watched as we did so from the warm indoor seating area.
One of the vendors was Little Beet, which is a mostly-vegetables type of place that I had come to love when my office was near Dupont Circle. I got the “Brussel Hustle” salad with chicken, avocado, cranberries, salsa verde, “super seeds”, and of course Brussels sprouts. Mark did a select-your-own-toppings kind of salad. They were generous portions that we consumed and were not hungry for the rest of the night. Sometimes even in New York you have to just eat what’s convenient.
The bus ride home was quick with no stops. Despite getting sick and not sampling the full range of options I would normally have (i.e., craft beer), it was a great weekend of new food and a new borough that I am vowing to return to explore more of.
Maybe we won’t go until spring, though.