Buffet sampler ($4.99 per pound, without churrasco): okra, chicken rolled around spinach and rice, and feijão tropeiro. In their original form these "cattleman's beans" provided sustenance during long horseback expeditions; nowadays the basic combo of beans, toasted manioc flour, and nubbins of bacon or sausage are often enhanced, as here, by bits of fried egg and greens, perhaps collards.
Khichiri, a forebear of the Egyptian koshary and the British kedgeree, is a South Asian preparation of rice and lentils with many variations. Turmeric probably takes credit for the hue of this bhuna khichuri (with beef curry, $7.50 total), which traditionally is colored and seasoned with a paste of dry-fried spices, though roasted yellow mung beans are also a common ingredient. For this khichuri, the Bangladeshi chef has set an intact chili pepper on top to signal that more are hidden below.
Getting the spice level right is a point of contention between many Southeast Asian restaurants and the New Yorkers who love them. Often the chow delivers less of a kick than some of us would like. This series of audio guides, whose purview stretches elsewhere into Asia as well as to East Africa and Latin America, is one compensatory measure.
No such entreaties were needed, however, for lunch specials of nasi lemak ($11.75) and beef rendang ($13.95) at this Malaysian-run cafe. (The staff are from Kuala Lumpur, and their most enticing menu items have roots there, too, but much of the menu is devoted to savories in the spirit of a cobb salad or a bacon cheeseburger.) My dining buddy and I quickly agreed that a little dish of hot sauce on the side was superfluous; most everything but the coconut rice was imbued with a generous but not incendiary spiciness.
Also shown: kaya toast ($2.75). This version of the coconut egg jam was smooth, easy to spread, and on the sweeter side — which is to say, very much to my taste.
The poppy-seed bagel that frames "The Sinatra" ($7.35) adds a chewy counterpoint to Genoa salami, ham, pepperoni, provolone, lettuce, and roasted peppers, dressed with oil and vinegar. Toasting the bagel first might be pushing your luck; this Italian-American-Jewish mashup strikes the right balance exactly as served.
Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee Company 35-09 Ditmars Blvd. (35th-36th Sts.), Astoria, Queens 718-932-8280 (One of several locations, none of them in Brooklyn) www.BKBagel.com
Order your pizza well-done. That's good advice at Sac's, where the thin crust, a hallmark of coal-oven pizzerias, might otherwise sag precariously under the liberally applied toppings. "Mama's old-fashioned pie" (medium, $14) was laden with San Marzano tomatoes, romano and fresh mozzarella cheeses, and crumbled bits of homemade meatballs ($2.50 extra) almost to a fault; it was difficult to detect the garlic and fresh basil.
Charring a coal-oven pizza also adds an ineffable extra something that cooler-burning gas-fired units can't deliver. This is less important along the lip than on the underside, in the middle of the pie, where one takes many more bites. In that second photo, note too the white speck, which at first I tried to brush away; it's actually a sparkle of light leaking through. As mentioned, thin crust.
This snug bakery-cafe takes great pride in its "famous loukoumades," deep-fried pastries that are a staple of Greek church fairs. Sometime loukoumades are shaped into balls, sometimes (as at Cafe Boulis) into dainty rings; inevitably they're soaked in syrup or honey.
Karydopita ($3) gets a similar soaking, but to different effect. The syrup settles, leaving the upper reaches of this walnut cake merely moist and the top surface almost crunchy. Even in bites without a walnut, you get a nice variety of textures.
Pastizzi ($1.50) are savory phyllo pastries native to Malta, a Mediterranean island country not far south of Sicily. Ricotta, you will not be surprised to hear, is one common filling. Another, shown here, may have been introduced during a century-and-a-half of British rule: beef and mushy peas. (For that matter, one wonders about a possible connection between the names of the Maltese pastizz and the Cornish pastie.)
Most of Leli's wares hail from the European mainland, but several other items are also prepared daily for Astoria's Maltese community. Qassatat (with a silent Q), open-topped shortcrust pastries with the same fillings as the pastizzi, appear during breakfast hours, though on the day of my visit they'd already vanished by lunchtime. Anchovies don't figure into the pastizzi or the qassatat as sometimes in Malta, but they do appear on what the menu board calls a "Maltese pizza," accompanied by ricotta, lima beans, capers, olives, and potatoes. Ample cafe seating would enable you to divvy up your pizza on the spot.