The northeast corner of Bay Ridge was once mainly an Italian, Irish, and Norwegian—yes, Norwegian!—enclave. Nowadays, you’ll find many Arab American establishments, including mosques, groceries, bakeries, hookah parlors, coffee shops, and purveyors of modest clothing for women. Though the Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian presence in the city goes back to 1870, it was the 1965 lifting of immigration quotas against Arabs that made this neighborhood possible—and a great place for eats beyond the falafel.
Let’s start our tour of this food-intensive area at the LEIF ERIKSSON RUNESTONE [Fourth Avenue and 67th Street], which commemorates the Viking “discovery” of America 500 years before Columbus. Stuck here by Norwegian crown prince Olaf in 1939, the stone is shaded by a handsome line of London plane trees that forms an informal boundary between Sunset Park and Bay Ridge. Walk east to Fifth Avenue, where the country store called ALSALAM MEAT MARKET [7206 Fifth Avenue, 718-921-1076] has long been a favorite for chicken shawarma sandwiches, sluiced with thick yogurt and laid with dill pickles, but the tongue and lamb brain salads are equally popular among the locals. A few doors down, the Lebanese bakery ARAYSSI [7216 Fifth Avenue, 718-745-2115] touts a delectable line of pastries, ice cream, and other sweets. I particularly adore the marzipan-stuffed and pistachio-poked little morsel called kaak bloz, and not just because of the name, either! The bakery also happens to be certified kosher, reflecting its popularity among Sephardic Jews as well as Muslims.
Syrian business: Damascus Gate
photo: Cary Conover
The city’s most ambitious Syrian restaurant, DAMASCUS GATE [7224 Fifth Avenue, 718-680-8836], is the place to glom onto such rare specialties as grilled kibbeh and the yogurt-pita porridge known as fatteh. You’ll have to backtrack a block to smoke a postprandial bowl of fruit-flavored tobacco out of the sheesha pipe at ARABESQUE CAFÉ AND BAR [7113 Fifth Avenue, 718-759-0935]. Around the corner amid Bay Ridge Avenue’s stately row houses, find BAHRY [484 Bay Ridge Avenue, 718-680-8135], an Egyptian fish market where you can pick your own fish, have it fried or grilled, then served with baba ghanoush and “chips”—excellent fried potato disks. Though a little off topic, I should mention there’s a slammin’ Salvation Army at 7410 Fifth Avenue.
Another local fave is LA MAISON DU COUSCOUS [484 77th Street, 718-921-2400], where the tajines are the star of the show. Or eat at its upmarket successor LES BABOUCHES [7803 Third Avenue, 718-833-1700], where you can wash down the sometimes stunning North African fare with impressively saturated Moroccan red wines. Finally, come full circle by meandering over to NORDIC DELICACIES [6909 Third Avenue, 718-748-1874], a Norwegian carryout and grocery store and one of the neighborhood’s Scandinavian holdouts, where I recommend anything made with herring, cheese, or ground meat. Make sure you take home a package of lefse, the potato flatbread that makes flour tortillas seem dull by comparison.