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loukoumades Queens

Our first New York encounter with loukoumades was under a canopied table, in a church courtyard, at a Greek festival in Brooklyn Heights many years ago. The ladies who fashioned these dough fritters, one by one, seemed just as attentive to the behavior of their (mostly young) customers as they were to the cook pot. No tomfoolery, their expressions told us, or no loukoumades.

Since then we’ve seen loukoumades at many similar events, most recently in late spring outside a Greek Orthodox cathedral in Astoria. A line of would-be festival-goers, who had endured month after month of Covid regulations and cancellations, stretched a considerable distance down the block. Food, we’re sure, was one attraction.

The main draw, however, seemed to be the opportunity to satisfy a greater hunger – for finally getting together with relatives, friends and neighbors. Likewise, at Cafe Boulis and Gold N Honey, two Queens shops whose loukoumades look as different as can be, a sense of community is just as important as any menu item.

Costa Pavlou and Stratos Alexiadis opened Gold N Honey this spring in a largely residential section of northeast Astoria. The “N” is a nod to the N train, whose final stop in Queens is a few minutes’ walk away; “Gold” and “Honey,” of course, allude to the loukoumades.

Costa and Stratos met in junior high. Today, in their early 40s, they work together as electrical contractors. Each has a family of his own, and each has traveled many times (though not lately) to visit relatives in Greece. Stratos recalls that during one Greek vacation, over a serving of loukoumades, one of his kids asked, “Daddy, why don’t you start something like this back home?”

Stratos recalls that during one Greek vacation, over a serving of loukoumades, one of his kids asked, “Daddy, why don’t you start something like this back home?”

The idea seemed promising to Stratos, and to Costa – to their knowledge, there’s not another café in New York that focuses on loukoumades – but tough to schedule around their existing business. “What pushed us to the brink” of opening a café, Costa adds, “was Covid.” When contracting jobs disappeared in early 2020, suddenly the partners had plenty of time to work on a project of their own.

“We watched how Nick [the pharmacist next door] helped the community,” Costa continues, “and we wanted to do the same.” During construction, the partners retained one local worker to install the windows, another to do the floor and a third to fashion the street-facing sign. Even as we chatted outside with Costa and Stratos, the driver of a passing SUV called out greetings, and Nick walked over from his pharmacy to check in.

loukoumades Queens

The shop also relies on local bakers to supply early morning accompaniments to coffee, such as cheese or spinach pies, before the namesake fritters make their first appearance of the day at 10 a.m.

Gold N Honey’s loukoumades draw on the recipes of both extended families back in Greece. Dense and chewy inside, each golden orb has a crisp shell that stands up – at least for a little while – not only to honey or syrup, cinnamon or sugar, but also to toppings such as crushed pistachio, sliced strawberry, drizzled Nutella and a scoop of ice cream that can be added in any imaginable combination.

Our own favorites, however, are filled with just a little strawberry jam and encrusted with sugar, centering attention on the texture of the loukoumades themselves. The ideal preparation is a frequent topic of conversation, Stratos observes, when a new customer steps up to the counter. “Oh, come to my island,” he says, echoing an imaginary customer. “We have the best ones!”

A Greek island, it so happens, is the ancestral home of the loukoumades at Cafe Boulis, two N train stops to the south. Panagiotis Peikidis – Pek, for short – tells us that the café’s original owners hailed from Chios, in the Aegean Sea, closer to Izmir, Turkey, than to Athens. When Pek bought the café five years ago, he retained their recipe, and today Cafe Boulis continues to serve loukoumades whose shape, Pek tells us, is typical of Chios: rings rather than balls.

These loukoumades are lighter than most, and not quite as crisp, so the toppings tend to be lighter, too. We found that sour cherry syrup offers a nice counterpoint to the sweetness of the fritters themselves. All loukoumades are prepared to order – this is equally true at Gold N Honey – and are best when eaten immediately.

Pek, 37, was born in Queens and raised in Greece. After returning to the States, he worked as a video game programmer before deciding to leave his “high-stress” job and take over Cafe Boulis. We share a laugh with Pek at the thought of this career transition; New York’s regulations of businesses that serve food and drink are notoriously stress-inducing themselves. Fortunately, he adds, his mother, Lemona Peikidou, and sister, Eugenia Peikidou, “helped with the heavy lifting.”

During his sojourn in Greece, Pek tells us, he became acclimatized to the easy-going café culture. To recreate this ambiance in Astoria, he continues, providing “lots of outdoor seating” is a given.

Less tangible, but just as essential to Pek for fostering a sense of community, is emphasizing his family’s Pontic Greek heritage. Pontic Greeks originally hailed from the Black Sea coast in what is now Turkey; nowadays, in Greece, they mostly live in the northern region of Macedonia and have their own dialect and a “tight culture,” Pek tells us. As we sit at a table outside, he points out a young mother with a stroller chatting with the café’s manager, Eleni Lefkopoulou; both are Pontic Greeks.

Another, subtle, expression of this heritage is through baked goods such as spanakopita, or spinach pie. When Pek first bought the café, his mother introduced her own recipes – although not, as we’ve mentioned, for the loukoumades, which had and still have their loyal fans. Five years on, Pek’s mother has “passed along her knowledge” to his sister, who continually bakes in small batches at least through early afternoon.

Pek assures us, however, that “spinach pie is something I make sure to have all day.” After a traditional savory pastry, we imagine, loukoumades taste all the sweeter.

Dave Cook

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