At the northern terminus of the N and Q trains, where the empty cars sit waiting for fresh passengers on a trestle that looks positively Swiss, lies the greatest accumulation of Greek restaurants in the city, where whole grilled fish at bargain prices have always ruled the menus. Yet, in the last few years, the catalog of restaurants has broadened, so that now the area known to real estate agents as Ditmars, but simply Astoria to its denizens, is one of the best destinations for cheap eats in the city. Here are my favorite joints, old and new.
Rose and Joe's Italian Bakery — Anyone who's eaten the bakery pizzas of Boston's North End can never forget them, square Sicilian pies that fly from the ovens on an hourly basis, reminding us that pizza is a form of bread.
So, too, at Rose & Joe's: the rare Italian bakery in town that specializes in pizzas, along with the standard cookies and pastries you'd expect, but in superior renditions. 2240 31st St, 718-721-9422.
Kopiaste Taverna — This relative newcomer is young in Greek restaurant years, specializing in the food of Cyprus, where Turkish food is influential.
One of the most exciting meals in the neighborhood is the Cyprus Meze, a collection of 17 small plates that demonstrate the range of the island's cookery, from zippy taramosalata and tzatziki to pourgori (like Lebanese kibbe) to cumin-scented keftedes to a single curling octopus tentacle glistening with pungent olive oil and oregano. And the price for this all-in meal is astonishingly low. Shown: zucchini patties with garlicky skordalia dip. 23-15 31st St, 718-932-3220
Artopolis — This swinging, modernistic bakery in a very Greek-looking strip mall is exceedingly proud of its kourambiethes, powdered-sugar nut cookies that are kept in a special antique glass case.
You can sample these cookies, and other pastries as well, along with an espresso or Greek coffee, at intimate little tables that make you feel like you're relaxing on an island by the Mediterranean Sea. 23-18 31st St, 718-728-8484.
Mediterranean Foods — Right next door to Artopolis in the same strip mall, Mediterranean Foods offers one of the best selections of Greek groceries in the city, including over a dozen types of feta cheese, olives in myriad shapes and colors, and baked and canned goods galore.
By itself, the selection of olive oils at bargain prices would be worth the visit. 23-18 31st St, 718-721-0221.
Chicken Festival — Nice to have a Peruvian chicken place in the neighborhood, even one that flaunts its circus theme.
The cheap chickens are a delight, but even better — but at an elevated price — are the rotisserie ribs, meaty and with a concentrated flavor that also owes much to the spice rub that coats the chickens, but with a distinct set of sauces all its own. 2919 Ditmars Blvd, 718-728-9696.
Hinomaru — This Japanese ramen house (the name refers to the red sun on the national flag) was good enough to be ranked among our 12 best ramen specialists last year, and indeed the noodles are impressive, deposited in a rich pig-foot broth.
But the place has some odd notions, too, well worth savoring: a homemade fish cake with a monkey face, and a loose bomb of spicy pork to be tossed in your soup, called "fireball." 33-18 Ditmars Blvd, 718-777-0228.
MP Taverna — When Upper West Side chef Michael Psilakis decided to return to his Greek roots with an Astoria taverna, we had a right to be skeptical. How would his menu jibe with the classic island menu of the neighborhood's other Greek spots?
Well we need not have worried, because this bilevel place wears its chefly notions lightly, as evidenced by a bulgur salad that's a delight to the eye and tongue, and an octopus appetizer ramped up with chick peas and black-eyed peas in a sparkling emulsified sauce. 31-29 Ditmars Blvd, 718-777-2187.
Lefkos Pyrgos — If you long for the kind of old-fashioned Greek coffee shop and bakery where old men sit nursing their coffees till late into the evening, kibitzing about the old days, Lefkos is your place.
Lit with blue neon far into the night, the place's phyllo-swaddled, custard-stuffed galaktoboureko (shown) is the best I've found in the city. 2285 31st St, 718-932-4423.
And here's a map: