The family behind the beloved neighborhood spot Sami’s Kabab House is expanding its footprint on the same block in Astoria. Straying from the traditional Afghan dishes the Zaman family is known for, owner Ali Zaman opens Little Flower Cafe, a modern halal version of the New York coffee shop. It debuts at 25-35 36th Avenue, on the corner of 28th Street, for coffee on June 17, with a full food menu to follow on June 20.
Little Flower joins an already vibrant halal restaurant scene in western Astoria serving two main Muslim enclaves: Little Bangladesh in the southern tip along 36th Avenue, and Little Egypt, which has evolved to include Moroccans, Algerians, and Yemenites on the two-block stretch on Steinway Street up north. The menus in both neighborhoods largely lean on traditional dishes from their respective cultures, but recently, Astoria-based Muslim restaurateurs have been shaking things up. Bangladeshi-owned Eatzy Thai opened in 2020 with halal versions of Thai dishes like pad kee mao and tom kha. A year later, fast-casual Mexican spot Hot Peppers debuted burrito bowls and quesadillas that are plump with halal steak.
The Zamans hope to offer more modern and creative halal options. Enter their seemingly humble soft scrambled egg sandwich topped with onion puree, cheddar cheese, chives, and lamb bacon sliced so thin that it curls like prosciutto inside a milk bun. It’s Little Flower’s take on the bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich that puts a twist on an iconic NYC food while also presenting a halal option for the Muslim community.
Achieving that curl was a big deal for co-owner, Ali Zaman, who’s spent years helping out at his father’s eponymous Sami’s Kabab House, where he did everything from bussing tables to running the restaurant solo. He recalls coveting the bacon he would observe his friends eating — although he admits his diet is not exclusively, but still mostly, halal.
Zaman’s initial tasting of the lamb belly — a joint effort with Christian Ortiz, the chef of upscale Mexican restaurant Yuco in Greenwich Village — was unsatisfactory. “The problem is that the lamb belly is really small so you don’t get long strips like in pork or beef bacon,” he explains. “It tasted like jerky, too overpowering.” Experimenting with different cuts finally yielded something different: a delicate, salty, thin layer of lamb belly with the brick-red umami of bacon, embellished further with the texture of prosciutto.
“Now I can expose Muslim people to this,” Zaman says. His mission for Little Flower is to introduce a new destination for Muslims — one that takes a modern approach of blending halal and Afghan elements with coffee shop classics and emphasizes the sourcing of high-quality ingredients.
The egg sandwich isn’t the only menu item that elicits the pride Zaman shows like a doting parent. There’s also Little Flower’s interpretation of the Boston cream doughnut: It’s stuffed with firnee, the traditional Afghan cardamom- and rosewater-accented milk custard dessert from his father’s restaurant, and encrusted with a crunchy burnt sugar on top.
He brings his intentional care to his coffee, too, sourcing his beans from critically acclaimed micro-roaster Sey Coffee in Brooklyn. For a shot of familiarity, he’s offering simple syrups in cardamom and rose flavors, common in Middle Eastern and South Asian cuisines.
Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol, so Zaman sources non-alcoholic kombucha from Brooklyn-based Unified Ferments. Their lauded brews build off of single-origin high-end teas like the snow chrysanthemum and jasmine green, and both kombuchas will be served at Little Flower in wine glasses. Zaman aims to replicate the ceremonial ritual of wine drinkers — the fun swirl of the glass and the discerning talk of flavor profiles — for non-drinking Muslims.
The interior of the 15-seat cafe also reflects the same attention to detail of the menu. Kakishibu — a fermented persimmon dye from Japan — was brushed over the ceiling, walls, and floor for a light amber look that will slowly darken with time.
“We can have nice things, too,” says Zaman, who’s come to know many of the regular customers at his dad’s restaurant since it opened in 2017. From decor to halal prosciutto to kombucha rituals, Little Flower presents new facets to relish: “I want to expose them to my people, the hardworking blue-collar Muslim Americans,” he says. “I want to give back to them.”