However, there are also a few great things about living on the fringe of city life in Astoria, Queens. The rent. The beer garden. Tiny old Italian and Greek people waddling around sweeping doorsteps or shaking newspapers at you. And the FOOD.
Obviously the restaurants in Manhattan deserve a pretty important gastronomic nod here, but as we all keep reading, Astoria is quickly becoming an almost-cool neighborhood. This means that not only are places like the unsurpassable Kabab Cafe, countless Greek restaurants, Telly's Taverna, Neptune Diner, Last Stop pizza, and Watawa sushi cropping up, they also remain hidden outer-borough gems. If you live in the neighborhood, these places are enough to make you want to stay. At least, until the advent of gentrification (or hipster-ification) in a few years.
The point of this post is the discovery of another fabulous new addition to the Astoria Foodie Landscape: Rangdhonu Cafe, a Bengali restaurant on 36th Avenue that opened so recently it doesn't even have a Web site.
After reviewing options that included a Brazilian buffet and yet another Venezuelan arepa bar, my friend Eric (it's pointless to use an initial at this point, since he's all over this blog) and I stopped into this place, which has a sort of fast food restaurant decor. Eric wanted to try it out because it reminded him of his old neighborhood in London, which was predominantly Bengali. As he pointed out, the restaurant is located on a "South Asian stretch of 36th Avenue, complete with Bengali grocers and a sari store. The barber across the street has its signs in sanskrit, too."
Rangdhonu is awesome and weird in a really cool, important way. In addition to the aforementioned fast food atmosphere, the place was populated entirely by what appeared to be Bangladeshi (I hope that's proper usage, Eric) men. I was the only female patron in the entire place, except for a mother with her baby and husband at the table behind me.
After we arrived, a waitress brought us plastic cups and a miniature pitcher of water, which we poured for ourselves. The menus were presented to us by a completely different person, a round man with a heavy accent and an appealing gap-toothed smile. He explained to us that the menu actually changes every day depending on what they make, and he patiently showed us which items were available before bustling off to allow us to mull things over.
When he returned to take our order (beef curry for Eric, chicken tikka from the tandoori menu for me), he informed me that Americans generally found the Chicken Tikka to be too spicy and suggested the Chicken Tikka Masala ("pieces of chicken tikka cooked in creamy masala sauce") from the curry menu instead. We ordered an appetizer of Mughlai ("Light pastry filled with spiced eggs, vegetables and chicken"), and the waiter actually laughed at me when I had to clarify that I wanted a side order of naan IN ADDITION to the rice that already came with my meal. Somehow, instead of finding his slight mocking mildly offensive, I was mildly charmed. It was kind of nice to feel so welcome by such a helpful employee, as opposed to the usual displays of indifference common to restaurant staff in this city.
The waitress brought us a small basket with plastic utensils a few minutes later, even though the waiter had warned us that our mughlai would take at least 10 minutes to prepare. When the mughlai arrived, we were given a backup basket of utensils.
The mughlai was totally delicious, wrapped in flaky pastry and reminiscent of a chicken b'steeya dish served at the Middle Eastern restaurant I loved in my college town. It was huge and flat and cut into manageable squares for us. It was also served with two types of sauce in thimble-sized containers, one that was ultra-spicy and one that had hints of what Eric called out as parsley. I'm not entirely sure what types of vegetables were encased in the pastry shell, but I'm pretty sure I ate more than my fair share.
Within a reasonable period of time, our meals were served. Both the appetizer and the meal were served on ceramic plates with an elaborate floral design, despite the fact that we were eating with plastic silverware. Another element of strangeness, certainly, but it somehow lent itself to the overall amazingness of the place. We received plates piled high with more rice than I've ever seen in my life, as you may notice. I poured my delicious curry over it and went to town.
It was DELICIOUS. Now, I enjoy spicy food, but I can't take anything too spicy. This dish was, surprisingly, not spicy at all. It's a good choice for someone like me, especially when I already had leftover spicy panang from Awesome Thai awaiting me in the refrigerator. Eric's was also delicious, and it's important to me at least that I could distinguish the flavors of his beef curry from my chicken. It's a bit worrisome when the meat all tastes the same (which has happened to me before, to be sure). The tandoor sauce was a bit sweet, and it complimented the chicken quite well.
My only problem was that the chunks of chicken were HUGE and had to be cut into manageable pieces. Also, the chicken-to-rice ratio was a bit off, with the chicken weighing in on the sparse end of things. Still, I was only able to eat a little less than half of it before I called it quits. The naan, which was delivered after the meals, was a delicious, doughy, perfect side. Plus it only cost $1.
And on that note...Eric and I got a can of soda, a shared appetizer and two entrees for $21 total. With tip, my meal was $13 and I finished off the rest of it for lunch today. Plus, there was no indication of any sort of ethnic food stomach issues (if you know what I mean) at any time, which always earns extra points in my book. I will probably go back to this place on every possible occasion, so get ready to be dragged there if you live in the area and enjoy Bengali food. We will be going.
So Manhattan, you may have the Empire State Building, but I have cheap and easy Bengali food. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.