There's a long line of pubs down Queens Boulevard that may lead you to think that this stretch of Sunnyside is solely Irish territory. But a small yet popular group of Middle Eastern restaurants also calls this neighborhood home, and a 15 minute subway trip from Grand Central to the 40th or 46th Street stops on the 7 train can reward you with some top-notch Turkish and Lebanese cooking, if you know where to look.
Update 12/30/12: This venue is now closed.
A glance at Grill 43 may suggest that grilled meat and poultry are the specialty of the house. They are not. But where the kebabs and shawarma disappoint, the dips, spreads, and salads on the menu are worth a visit all on their own.
Impressively flavorful mezze run $4 to $5 each, or $13.95 for a plate of four. Don't miss eggplant in any of its forms, roasted whole and topped with garlic sauce, chopped up with tomatoes and chilies (in hot and mild versions), or puréed into patlican salatisi, a lighter baba ganoush that favors olive oil and straightforward smoke over tahini. A piquant relish of ezme carries a fierce heat to liven up the restaurant's fresh, crisp-crusted bread; I've found no equal of it in New York.
Grill 43 is especially rewarding at breakfast, when you can get their excellent Menemen ($5.95)—a homestyle dish rarely seen at Turkish restaurants in the city. The tender curds of egg are stained orange by the tomatoes and peppers they're cooked with, leaving a film of oil on the plate best sopped up with more of that great bread.
The Lebanese Shawarma Master
Back in 2011, El Shater, a beloved neighborhood Lebanese deli and lunch spot, shut its doors. Members of the owner's family split off to open two new spots. One, Habibi, took over El Shater's old space. It closed a little later, passed hands once again, and is now Grill 43.
The other opened down on Queens Boulevard, where it is to this day. Souk El Shater doesn't look like much—it's a slender Middle Eastern grocery ("souk" translates as "open market) with a food counter up front. But it's home to some of the greatest shawarma in Queens, deeply spiced beef and more delicate chicken, both exceedingly juicy and well seasoned. You can get your meat wrapped in thin pita with pickles and garlic sauce for a mere $3.50, but also on a platter ($8.50) with dips like fresh homemade hummus and a very creamy babaganoush. The winning condiment may be a fierce, grassy purée of green chilies with olive oil "and some secrets I can't tell you," says the man with the shawarma blade.
Shawarma's the star here, but don't overlook the steam table in open view; let your nose be your guide and ask for what's fresh. On one visit that yielded some excellent Molokhia ($8.50), an enormous platter of stewed-but-not-mushy greens and chicken served over rice. If you win the staff's trust they may offer to make you some raw kibbe, a specialty of hand-formed balls of raw meat mixed with bulgar—a rarity in New York's Middle Eastern restaurants.
Counter seating is limited at Souk el Shater—just four stools—so consider taking your bounty to go and heading over to the Gaslight Pub a few doors down. The bar offers specials like three draft beers for $10, which are best enjoyed on their surprisingly nice patio in the back, and you're welcome to bring in as much food as you'd like.
A Turkish Showcase
What we call a kebab house the Turks poetically refer to as an ocakbaşı, and Mangal Kebab on the south side of Queens Boulevard certainly qualifies. The casual hangout spot has a wide range of kebabs and salads that cater to almost exclusively to a Turkish and otherwise Middle Eastern clientele.
You can order from a menu, but to eat like the locals do, head up to the showcase of marinated meat, fish, and vegetables and order whatever looks especially fresh. Adana kebabs ground with spicy red pepper may be your best bet, $8 for a small order and $12 for a large; the lamb is juicier and sweeter than the chicken. If you visit on a weekend, go for a lamb shank ($13) sticky-sweet with braising juices, or a bowl of brain soup, traditionally eaten in Turkey after last call. (It's worth noting that Mangal is open late—for the neighborhood anyway—until 11 p.m.)
Mangal's dips are solid, the eggplant in particular, but if a trip to Grill 43 is at all on the horizon, save room at Mangal for the meat.
More Comfortable Environs
None of these restaurants are big on atmosphere, so if a nicer place to eat is your top priority, there's Turkish Grill nearby. The sit-down restaurant comes complete with linen tablecloths and waiter service, though to be frank the food, while fine, don't quite match up to the other specialties on this roundup. Mezze like vegetarian stuffed eggplant make a nice starter, and kebabs are decent enough.
But if Turkish Grill has a claim to fame, it's the Pide ($10 to $15), a Turkish cheese-topped flatbread sometimes compared to pizza. Pide is generally poorly done in New York, so when I call Turkish Grill's the best I've eaten in the city, know that that's like crowning the fiercest-looking dog at a corgi beach party. But for pide-lovers longing for a taste of home, the crisp-chewy crust and assertive fillings here will scratch a homesick itch.
Planning a Visit? The TL;DR
These restaurants are close enough that you can visit them all in an afternoon. Your cheatsheet? Grill 43 for mezze, Souk el Shater for shawarma, Mangal for kebabs, and Turkish Grill for a sit-down meal if needed. Want some dessert? Sour cream-topped doughnuts are a short walk away.