El Ay Si Long Island City, Queens 9 September 10
eat: Seared Calamari, Burger, Tater Tots, Green Beans
sip: Remy Pannier Vouvray, Vega Murillo Tempranillo
The other night, my friend, Sarah, suggested we meet in Queens, where we could have our pick of eats from the plethora of bars and restaurants along Vernon Ave. Normally, I would have gone online to forage the plethora of internet reviews to help guide our search. However, having just moved to NY from LA, I was excited to explore a new neighborhood and make our dinner choice the old-fashioned way - in person. In LA, since you are often driving to dinner, it is necessary to know beforehand where you will be dining. Plus, a good restaurant doesn't need to have an appealing exterior to entice passerbys. Yet, I do relish the simple joy of stumbling upon a culinary gem. Whether it's the waft of fresh baked bread, sun-drenched sidewalk tables, or an adorable sign that catches my eye, I like to have the senses be my guide.
At first, El Ay Si beckons us visually; the exposed brick, the candlelit glow, the cozy, dark wood booths à deux and, thanks to a balmy September night, the welcoming, open doors. Next, our ears perk up to Radiohead and Arcade Fire; food always tastes better with a dollop of good tunes. When we scan the small, yet appealing menu - a blend of comfort food and Mexican dishes - we are hooked. As we nestle into our nook, I have a eureka moment (this is for other food photojournalists out there): the booths feature individual lamps that eliminate the use of a pesky, unflattering flash.
Sarah has been craving a burger and this one hits the jackpot. It's a hefty 1/2 pound of super-juicy, delicious meat topped with lettuce, tomato, and caramelized red onions on a classic white bun. The accompanying sweet potato fries are awesome; sometimes the use of the healthier orange tuber produces a drier, overly-starchy fry, but these are finger-licking good. Plus, at $10, this combo is a steal.
Rather than ordering an entree, I decide to cobble together a meal of small plates. First is the Grilled Calamari, which is simply prepared with olive oil and sea salt. Although I'm a fan of the ubiquitous fried version, sometimes the squid becomes soggy or overly-heavy under all that breading. Here, the calamari are wonderfully chewy and light - a squirt of lime is all you need.
Comfort food has experienced a massive resurgence lately - chefs are reinterpreting classics by replacing processed ingredients with fresh ones, creating a haute-comfort cuisine. However, I'm tickled that one of the old-school standbys (and my childhood fave), tater tots, are popping up on menus around town. Here, a heaping mountain of taters arrive with an addictive, spicy chipotle mayo dipping sauce. You can also order them, and the fries, "Disco Style" - smothered with cheese and gravy. Genius.
To fuel my veggie fix, I get a side of green beans, which are glistening with butter, garlic, and fresh herbs. Thanks to the al-dente preparation, they are crunchy and flavorful. Like the previous dishes, this isn't a wimpy portion of beans, but a "Hungry Man" size serving that will satisfy more than your daily allowance of vegetables.
If you are interested in an imbibing-only eve, there is a long, welcoming bar in the front of the restaurant. In addition to classic cocktails and a decent menu of international brews, wine is offered at a reasonable range of $25-$42. I'm clinging to the end of summer, so I sip a golden, apple-y Remy Pannier Vouvray. Sarah embraces autumn with a medium-bodied, berry-licious Vega Murillo Tempranillo One of my favorite, tongue-in-cheek offerings is the "Highroller" a 3-liter magnum bottle (or 24 glasses) of Marwood Prosecco for a clean hundred. It's celebration, El Ay Si style.
This is a neighborhood joint through and through, from the amicable service to the wallet-friendly prices. It's good for a quick nosh or a long, lingering meal, an early dinner with kids or a weekend brunch. When our friendly waitress brings the check, she warmly gives us a $10 off coupon which illustrates our review perfectly: two enthusiastic thumbs up :)
Deal Alert - 20% off wine on Sundays-Tuesdays