Monday, March 5, 2012

Neighborhood Eats: Spotlight on Astoria

While the most well-known NYC vegan havens are the East and West Villages in Manhattan, healthy, vegan-friendly fare can be found in the outer boroughs as well. Astoria, Queens, my childhood stomping ground, has always been known for its diverse and delicious restaurants. Growing up, the majority were Greek and Italian (not impossible to find vegan fare in these cuisines, but mostly cheese abounds.) However, in the past few years the neighborhood has further diversified and modernized, making it quite vegan-friendly. I'll take you on a short food tour of 30th Avenue, a major shopping/eating strip, with a couple detours along the way.

Get off the N train at the 30th Ave stop and you will first encounter Sai Organics, a top-rate health food store with a multitude of vegan take-out options, including pastries and muffins, sandwiches, soups, fresh juices, salads, and organic fair trade coffee with soy milk. The store is run by friendly people with a Zen attitude and they proudly announce that their bathroom is open to all humans whether customers or not, a welcome change from the typical New York restroom policies.

Continue up the avenue with the street numbers increasing, and you'll come across a strip of fruit and vegetable markets. The produce isn't organic, but the products are always very fresh and quite reasonably priced. The variety is excellent as well.

My next snack stop is usually Mama's, the new self-serve fro-yo spot which recently opened in Astoria. This is the only of its kind I've encountered which has 3 or 4 non-dairy sorbets among the various yogurt options. Judging by the taste and appearance, I'd say the flavors come from real fruit and the sugar content is low. Grab a few self-serve squirts of the various flavors (pomegranate and mango are two of my faves), then head over to the toppings bar, where a ton of fresh fruit is accompanied by nuts, seeds, carob chips, coconut flakes, and mochi, a chewy Japanese treat made from rice. You pay for your concoction by weight, so feel free to sample as many different toppings as you wish!

Next up is one of my favorite establishments, Brooklyn Bagel. There weren't too many foods I missed when going vegan, but a chewy NY bagel with a schmear of cream cheese was definitely one of them. Brooklyn Bagel has the solution, with 5 varieties of tofu cream cheese (plain, chive, veggie, walnut raisin, and recently, spinach) paired with a variety of bagels including many whole-grain options (whole wheat everything is my favorite.) I'd suggest going for the mini-bagel, as the "normal" sized bagel is roughly the size of my head. Additionally, they usually offer a vegan soup option, have a full salad bar, and soy milk for coffee.

Hang a left at Steinway Street and you will come to the strip of Middle Eastern restaurants and grocery stores between 28th Ave and Astoria Boulevard. Middle Eastern food is tricky: on one hand, shwarma and shishkebobs abound, and sometimes I avoid these places because of the meat smell and possible cross-contamination between the meat grill and the falafels. On the other hand, Middle Eastern cuisine has a ton of healthy vegan options, such as hummus, tahini, falafel, fava beans, and a host of interesting salads. There are also some Middle Eastern pastries resembling the Greek baklava which are made with sugar and vegetable oil rather than honey and butter. Turkish Delight is another vegan treat which can be obtained on this block, as well as very reasonably priced nuts and dried fruits. One advantage is that most of these restaurants cook the food on grills that you can see when you walk in, so it's pretty easy to figure out if your pita is being grilled right next to a lamb chop.

Astoria is also home to several Thai and Indian restaurants, also on 30th Ave, where there are quite a few vegan options. I've yet to discover a specifically vegetarian restaurant in Astoria (if I'm wrong, please let me know!) but these various snack shops keep me well satisfied when I teach dance in the neighborhood. It's always a pleasure to go somewhere where you can get some healthy, yummy, unique munchies.

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