BY JOE DISTEFANO
As the Culinary King of Queens, I’m so very fortunate to live in the most diverse and delicious destination in all of New York City. Really I’m not royalty though, I’m an ambassador, and a hungry one at that. Today, we take a trip to Lebanon via the International Express—aka the 7 train— to savor the offerings at the family run Souk El Shater.
When it comes to Middle Eastern cuisine, many Queens residents immediately think of Astoria’s Little Egypt and they are right to do so, but did you know there’s a portal to Beirut in Sunnyside just steps away from the 7 train? It’s a family run market/grocery called Souk al Shater.
“Souk means like a bazaar and ‘el shater‘ means clever in Arabic, so it literally translates to bazaar of the clever,” says Hussein Osman, as he shaves some beef shawarma off a rotating spit that sits inside the front window. “Shater was my grandfather’s nickname.”
That beef shawarma seasoned with herbs and spices imported from Lebanon is excellent in a tightly wrapped sandwich as is the chicken. Can’t decide? Get a combo platter of both drizzled with tahini sauce. It comes with a salad sprinkled with dried sumac and batons of crunchy electric purple pickled turnips. That white blob in the center isn’t more sauce, it’s toum, a lemony Lebanese garlic paste that along with a jalapeño and parsley hot sauce will enliven your taste buds as you enjoy your feast at the narrow counter that lines one wall.
Since Souk El Shater is also part butcher shop, the beef and chicken kebabs are excellent as is sujuk, a spicy Lebanese beef sausage. If you are lucky enough to be there when they are making rotisserie chicken, be sure to grab one. It’s one of the most unique birds in Queens, and at $13 with two sides, it’s a steal. Hussein who runs the shop with his brother Mohammed and their father, Ahmad, is especially proud of the crunchy falafel, made from a blend of fava beans and chickpeas.
The family matriarch, Salwa, is in charge of desserts, which include five varieties of baklava. Got a really sweet tooth? Go for the nutless version, made with apricot jam and coconut. Even better is shabiya, a triangle of crunchy phyllo dough filled with rose-scented ashta cheese. And then there’s maamoul mad, a date filled semolina cake, that for all the world tastes like a Fig Newtown that spent a semester abroad in Beirut.
Should you wish to try your hand at Lebanese fare at home the shop has all manner of ingredients, including one pound bags of Lebanese za’atar perfumed with thyme and sumac, as well as tahini and cans of Americana brand fava beans and labne cheese. On the way out ask for some Sharawi chewing gum made from mastic, a resin from the Pistacia lentiscus tree, that’s been used as a breath freshener long before Wm. Wrigley Jr. was born. It’s a clever way to clean your palate after a trip to Lebanon via Queens.
Souk El Shater
43-03 Queens Blvd., Sunnyside, nr. 43rd St.; 718-392-2702