The steam table is an often misunderstood – even maligned – concept. For those unfortunate souls who know only a lackluster corner deli, it’s a repository of “food that’s been sitting around all day.” A restaurant inspector might insist on stricter criteria – something to the effect, perhaps, of maintaining already-cooked foods at safe holding temperatures by displaying them in pans above a bath of hot water. For us, particularly in the case of a praiseworthy steam table, it’s “a picture menu in three dimensions.” A poetic definition, perhaps, but to us it rings true.
Some displays of prepared food, we’ll agree, are not steam tables. They include the multitude of bins filled with ingredients waiting to be wedded in a Sichuan dry pot; the disposable trays, resting on wire racks above (tiny) flames, at a monthly Indonesian bazaar; or the bounty of pork and potatoes at any number of Ecuadorian street carts. To our thinking, a steam table should be indoors, and it should have some sense of permanence. It might be large or small, self-service or tended only by staff, offering hot food only or cold items as well, the be-all and end-all for the business or simply a complement to some fuller bill of fare. Most of all, it should be a visual delight, tempting diners with its gently steaming bounty of dishes. Here are a half-dozen spots in Queens that we enjoy.
Khao Kang (Thai, Elmhurst)
Look for: fried garlic pork, sour fish curry, stir-fried shrimp and squid
Sopan “Tor” Kosalanan (his nickname is pronounced something like “Ta”) was raised in Chantaburi, in southeastern Thailand, very near the border with Cambodia. Arriving in the United States as a young man in 2002, he quickly departed New York for a food-service job in Dallas, then took similar work for a further seven years in Chicago, but ultimately returned to Queens because, as he says, “I just wanted to stay with my family.” After a few more years in other kitchens, he opened Khao Kang – loosely, “curry over rice” – in 2014.
The cafeteria-style business serves white rice and a clear soup with you choice of two or three hot curries, stews or fried dishes. “When I was young, my mom taught me [how to cook],” notes Kosalanan, who later adapted her recipes for larger quantities without diffusing their often fiery characters. (When the servers tell us a dish is “spicy,” we take them at their word.) In 2017, he opened Khao Nom, a snack-and-dessert restaurant just around the corner. Kosalanan visits it often but never strays far: His mom and an aunt still keep the faith in the kitchen at Khao Kang.
Point Brazil (Brazilian, Astoria)
Look for: feijoada, oxtail, collard greens
“Every night I plan for the next day,” co-owner Elzi Botelho Ribeiro tells us. “We play by ear what we’ll cook, and how we’ll cook it.” Her modesty is betrayed by a small box behind the counter, which holds some 80 handwritten labels that can be slipped into place above the steam table. Clearly, the daily bill of fare – 12 to 16 hot dishes, plus a similar number of cold ones – is drawn from a well-rehearsed repertoire. In practice, Elzi adds, certain dishes appear on certain days: oxtail on Thursday; palm-oil-enriched shrimp bobo on Saturday and the occasional Wednesday; and the national dish of feijoada only on Saturday and Sunday.
Sweets, in a display case that faces the steam table, are the work of Elzi’s sister, Erli. (We wrote at length about the sisters, who left Brazil for New York three decades ago, in “Bahía Comes to Astoria.”) Erli prepares each dessert as needed, usually beginning when its predecessor is halfway gone. In this fashion she continually replenishes about 20 confections, giving us even more choices than at the hot-food layout across the aisle, though we really ought to limit ourselves to just one dessert. Maybe two.
Al Nour (Lebanese, Astoria)
Look for: chicken with potatoes, chicken with spinach, eggplant
Al Nour opened ten years ago, under the name Cedars Meat House. “This was my father’s first food business,” his son, the counterman, tells us. (Both were born in Lebanon; the son declined to give their names.) From the start the casual restaurant has been coupled with its own halal butchery, which helps to provision its steam table as well as multiple rotisseries and grills. (Despite the focus of this story, it’s hard not to sneak a peek, and a whiff, of our neighbor’s sizzling kebabs.)
Nowadays, under the name Al Nour, the steam table serves seven different dishes every day. “Nothing repeats twice in a week,” the son says with pride. We’re partial to two dishes featuring chicken, one paired with sliced potatoes, the other lemony, with spinach, ideally with a fresh-baked flatbread on the side. Accommodations are basic – the dining area comprises a narrow ledge furnished with stools, and the same containers are employed for eating in or carrying out – but, notably, the honor system holds sway. In contrast to almost every steam table of our acquaintance in New York, we weren’t asked to pay when served; once our food was handed over, the counterman went his way, and we went ours, to the nearest stool. Only when finished did we double back and settle up at the register.
Baby’s Grill & Restaurant (Filipino, Woodside)
Look for: young jackfruit in coconut milk, fried fish, pork adobo (braised in seasoned vinegar)
Bernard Mamaid, the manager, cook and son of the owner of Baby’s Grill & Restaurant, had little education when he left Luzon, the largest and most populous island of the Philippines, in 2008. For two years Mamaid worked as a dishwasher in another Filipino restaurant, where the chef observed his cutting of vegetables and meat and trained him as a prep cook. After rising through the ranks, Mamaid struck out on his own and worked at restaurants serving a variety of cuisines – American, Japanese, Korean, Mexican – until the opening of Baby’s in 2014. “This is a family business,” Mamaid tells us, adding that his wife was our cashier. But the message for his kids takes priority: “I’ll work hard; just finish your school.”
The steam table offers up more than 20 items each day, but unlike the grilled and BBQ dishes we sometimes order on the side, many dishes are cryptic, not least because of their lack of labels. As at every turo-turo (the Tagalog term for a restaurant where you “point-point” to order), we’ve learned the importance of identifying not only the principal ingredient (beef? pork? what parts of the animal?) and the texture (yielding? crispy? chewy?) but also the prevailing flavor (vinegary? shrimp-pasty?) Balance is key. Almost invariably, we’ll cap off our meal with one of the housemade confections beside the register (sweet!).
Singh’s Roti Shop & Bar (Trinidadian and Guyanese, Richmond Hill)
Look for: curry pommecythere (a fruit), bigan choka (roasted eggplant), curry goat
When we visit Singh’s on a weekend afternoon, very often we’re stopped at the door. Not by a bouncer but by the back of the line, which stretches as far from entrance to steam table as does the serving area from side to side. (We couldn’t capture the entirety of the counter in a single photo.) A combination CD salesman and DJ, specializing in West Indian music, entertains the crowd, even on some less busy weekday afternoons.
Many customers and staff come from Trinidad and Tobago, the southernmost of the West Indies, or from that country’s South American neighbor Guyana. Although the influence of Indian emigrants is evident – occasionally we’ll take our meal with rice, but more often with roti – the steam-table dishes sometimes require a primer from the counterwomen. On a recent visit we picked out the golden mash of pumpkin immediately, and we guessed the identity of a richly green, runnier-than-usual callaloo (a leafy vegetable), but an orange-brown pommecythere (Pom-see-tay) stumped us. Although we’d tried this tropical fruit under many names, both stewed and pickled, often dyed crimson, we’d never before enjoyed it curried, or in its natural color.
Note: Apart from the very helpful counterwomen, we spoke with the manager but not the “big boss.” About that behind-the-scenes presence, we know only that our steam-table selections and a grape Solo, from that aviator-themed line of Trini sodas, were on the house.
Tianjin Dumpling House (Chinese, Flushing)
Look for: smoked tofu, beef tendon, duck heads
Helen You named this food-court stall after her first home, a northeastern Chinese city not far from Beijing. Since 2007, Tianjin Dumpling House has occupied a prime corner on the lower level of Flushing’s Golden Mall, a warren-like gathering of small businesses, most owned by Chinese expats, most serving food. At first, to complement her small display that included duck heads, beef tendon and smoked tofu, as well as sausages that might well pass muster at a Polish meat market, Ms. You offered a menu of boiled dumplings prepared on the spot.
The space was so limited, Ms. You tells us, that eventually she “put out 40 ingredients and let people choose what they wanted” in their dumplings. In effect, she took something like a steam-table approach to a made-to-order food. Bespoke dumplings were, in her words, “a lot of work, but it worked for a lot of people.” And for Helen You: In 2014, seven years after opening her stall, she launched Dumpling Galaxy, a full-fledged restaurant that immediately won wide acclaim, and does to this day. Many of her hundred-plus varieties of dumplings, Ms. You adds, were inspired by customer improvisation at Tianjin Dumpling House. We’re betting that there’s still room for dumpling invention at the food stall; let’s nibble on duck heads while we wait.