A guy named Gerard sends me tips from an address in Richmond Hill, Queens, from time to time. The other day, I opened one of his snail-mail missives to find a pair of neatly folded menus for a place with the intriguing name of Cedars Meat House. At the top was a picture of a spreading fir tree, the emblem of Lebanon. The number of grilled items was impressive, listing kebabs I’d never heard of before, including Aleppo and “tawook,” which sounded like the names of stately Upper West Side apartment buildings.
Picking up people along the way, my crew and I propelled across the Queensboro Bridge, singing Simon & Garfunkel’s “Feelin’ Groovy”—which references the same bridge, of course. Descending onto Queens Boulevard, we took the difficult illegal left onto Northern Boulevard, and soon found ourselves in a region of Middle Eastern hookah parlors, Egyptian seafood restaurants, and Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) butchers. Cedars turned out to be a very brightly lit grocery, grill, and halal-meat market, with the kebabs marshaled in a glass case right inside the front door, as plumes of white smoke shot up from a gas-fired grill in the background, attended by a wise-cracking guy who charmed the pants off us immediately.
A narrow marble counter with 10 stools provided the seating—which is more than adequate, since most customers dart in for a sandwich or a pastry. The latter include an excellent homemade zaatar bread ($1), an Ottoman mini–meat pizza called lahmacun, and the toothsome cheese flatbread khubz bij-jibin, plus the usual tricorner spinach pie given a slightly sour kick by vinegar. Made in a giant oven with something that resembles pizza dough, these pastries are reason enough to persuade you to visit Cedars Meat House. But the grill and its lure, after all, is the raison d’être.
Without committing to a full flesh spread, you can get your feet wet with one of the bargain sandwiches ($3.50): an outsize pita with blessedly thin layers rolled around a meat filling of your choice, joined by parsley, sumac-dusted onions, wedges of purple pickled turnips (the eerie color provided by beet juice), and spears of dill pickle. If you stopped there, you’d be cheating yourself, because you must beg for lots of “garlic sauce.” This oily yet fleecy condiment is a species of Provençal aioli, a mayo so garlicky that it burns the lips, demonstrating an unexpected French influence on Lebanese cooking.
An array of vegetarian sandwiches is also available, deploying fried cauliflower (surprisingly great), fried eggplant, and falafel—which the menu transliterates “flafel,” which is maybe just Queens English. Check out the extensive glass cases when you come in, because specials fly in with frequency. One evening, we enjoyed a dish of spinach stewed with pine nuts and ground lamb inundated with rich broth. Another time, it was a plate of kibbeh—the torpedo-shaped national dish of Lebanon. Break the cracked-wheat crust and ground meat spills out. I asked the grill master if he made all the dishes displayed: “If I made them, they’d be much better,” was his facetious reply.
Mr. Cutlets, are you listening? Now, for the meat roster: Sold by the pound, most are priced around $10.99 and served on a bed of parsley and onions. There are long ground-beef kufta kebabs shining moistly on their swords, which give them the air of medieval armaments that have just been removed from tender flesh. Regular kufta comes ramified with parsley and onions, which complement the smoky flavor. Named after an ancient trading city in Syria, the Aleppo kufta kebab is much redder. The bright color is the result of chile powder, and Lebanese attribute the love of spiciness to Syrians in much the same way that Italians attribute anything hot to Sicilians.
Sometimes, there are beef shish kebabs (tough but tasty); other times, there are lamb kebabs (as tender as a lover’s nether cheek). The chicken “tawook” kebabs are made with breast meat marinated in yogurt, and hence a bit bland. Instead, choose the rustic, house-fabricated chicken schwarma if you see one rotating behind the counter. Small and flavorful lamb chops are sometimes available, and, though liver is listed, I’ve never found it actually available. Finally, you can’t go wrong with the sausages. Soujouk is a short, spicy red sausage tasting of cumin, and there’s also a longer, darker sausage dubbed Makanek, traditionally made with lamb and red wine. If you don’t like it, maybe you can get it to fix your car.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 2, 2008