The first Uzbek cafés to appear in Queens nearly a decade ago were patterned on the Silk Road tea houses that were important institutions back home. In addition to steaming pots of green tea, the bill of fare at Rego Park’s Registan and Uzbekistan Tandoori Grill (since renamed Uzbekistan Cultural Center) included heaping platters of lamb pilaf, turban-shaped loaves of bread dotted with sesame and nigella seeds, bowls of soup with delicious homemade noodles, and perhaps best of all, inexpensive meat kebabs cooked over lump charcoal.
Seeking to serve a wider constituency, the latest Uzbek places have broadened their culinary horizons, adding Russian and Middle Eastern dishes to their kosher menus, attracting Russian diners on one hand and observant Jews on the other. In addition to solid renditions of the usual Uzbek fare, newcomer Cheburechnaya offers Siberian pelmeni soup, Ukrainian-style platters of pickled fish, and from the Middle East, a hummus ($3) that is wonderfully dense and garlicky and a baba ghanoush that is too heavy on the mayo for my taste. Rather than being narrow and clubby like the older cafés, the large and well-lit space affects a cosmopolitan air with its smartly clad waitresses, gleaming metal meat cases, and an open kitchen that flaunts a mile-long trench-shaped barbecue pit.
You can enjoy a just-baked loaf of turban-shaped non at any Uzbek in town, but Cheburechnaya ups the bread ante by also offering noni toki—parabolic crackers an amazing 15 inches in diameter, like a giant matzo bent into a bowl. Other than scooping hummus, it’s hard to know what to do with these breads, but they’re so good by themselves, you’ll probably find yourself taking one home on the R train, balancing it gingerly on your knee.
While most places offer three or four types of kebabs, the Cheburechnaya menu lists 23. Old standards such as ground-beef lula, chicken wing, lamb sweetbreads, and chunk lamb, priced from $1.75 to $2.50, are completely up to snuff, but lamb rib is the variety I wouldn’t give up if forced to pick only one thing to eat on a desert island. The glass-front refrigerated meat case tempts you with several other frankly odd choices, including lamb testicles, which turn out to be the bulkier, paler, and more rubbery testicles of a full-grown ram, cut into swatches. Health considerations may tempt you to forgo the kebab called “lamb fat,” but then you’d miss one of the most interesting taste sensations since Mario Batali put lardo on pizza. Made with the much prized fat from the lamb’s buttocks, on which all true Uzbek cooking depends, the kebab presents four crisp and delicious morsels that you can decadently eat by themselves or, more prudently, enfold in a hunk of non or poise on a good-sized piece of noni toki.
But the real reason to hurry to Cheburechnaya are the namesake chebureki. These half-moon fried pies—stuffed with a choice of meat, cabbage, potatoes, or mushrooms—are, strictly speaking, the province of the Tartars, a nomadic bunch who managed to introduce them to nearly every country in central and western Asia. The versions here are distinguished by a very thin crust that arrives glistening with oil, and, in the case of the lamb and cabbage varieties, with an unforgettably good filling. My project for the future: to convince the chef to make me one filled with lamb fat!