Queens Kickshaw, centrally located in Astoria right off the bustling intersection of Broadway and Steinway Street, has become a neighborhood destination. Its coffee program may be among the best in the borough, but the grilled cheese sandwiches and other savory bites are my big draw. At its worst, the food at Queens Kickshaw is very good. When the grilled cheese stars align and you order from the strong sides of the menu, it's superb.
The sandwiches are inspired by Astoria's multicultural mosaic, drawing influences from Greek, Turkish, and Latin American ingredients (and then some). Imported cheeses and spreads come right from the neighborhood's polyglot markets before being put to use in creative, extraordinarily well-balanced sandwiches. It's best to start with the classics. Cheddar & Mozzarella ($8) (above) is the platonic grilled cheese: a diad of sharp and gooey cheeses encased between burnished slabs of tender brioche. It's served with tomato soup, little more than a warm, slightly chunky passata: resplendent in tomato flavor, and perfect for dipping.
The big dog on the menu is the Gouda ($10), which looks like an overwhelming mess until you taste the result. Nutty gouda is reinforced by an earthy black bean spread and sweetened by guava jam, all piled on more brioche. It'd be an overbearing combination, save for the ample sprinkle of pickled jalapenos, a reprieve of sour and spice to pop in each bite. This is sandwich architecture at its finest: powerful flavors, well balanced, delivered in the perfect package.
Less magisterial, but still very satisfying, is the Manchego & Ricotta ($9) another study in cheese contrasts. The cheeses blanket creamy eggplant and sharp capers on thin slices of nut-studded multigrain bread. While the flavor mostly comes from piquant, aged manchego, the texture is something akin to biting into a hug. It's what your grandmother would make for your after-school snack, if she were an Iberian with a predilection for eggplant and hippie sundresses.
The Arhovas Feta ($10) isn't a grilled cheese, but that shouldn't stop you from ordering a pair of pillowy focaccia slices topped with ajvar (a lush, slightly smoky roasted red pepper spread), Greek feta, and dill. It's on the small side for the price, a disappointment to order solo while your friends gorge on heftier sandwiches, but it makes for a fine shared bite to lighten a meal of butter-shellacked cheesy bread.
Small mixed green salads come with the sandwiches, all prepared with the same unpretentious creativity: a spicy vinaigrette accompanies the sweet and bawdy gouda sandwich; pickled raisins crown the salad served with the manchego and ricotta.
Just as worth an order are sweet curried pumpkin seeds ($4) and miso-mustard pickles ($5), a mix of asparagus, green beans, cauliflower, quail eggs, and the like. The pickle brine is worth drinking straight from the jar, a strong, clean end to a cheesy, indulgent meal. But you should really end with a pecan-studded sticky bun from SoHo's Balthazar. A bite through the caramelized shell reveals a yeasty, tender cinnamon-laced pastry that practically weeps butter.
For Astorians, Queens Kickshaw deserves to be a regular for casual meet-ups and brunch circuits; the café is kind to lingering over a cup of excellent coffee or tea (also considerably better than it needs to be). But given its proximity to the Steinway Street stop on the R, there are precious few excuses for anyone to miss out on some truly winning grilled cheese. The menu isn't perfect, and service has, on occasion, been inexplicably slow (even bearing in mind that proper grilled cheese takes time). But there are real gems to be found here, and delays have in the past been resolved with genuine smiles and caring attention.
Queens Kickshaw is exactly the kind of place you want in your neighborhood, the place so warm and welcoming and excellent at what it does that it feels like it's been there forever. All the more so with the onset of its summer hours; it's open till 1 AM every night, with a variety of interesting and tasty wine and draught beers to sip while working on your night cheese. There's no wrong time of day for these victuals and libations from a charming, growing café worth keeping an eye on.