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The restaurant scene in New York can be unnervingly similar to elementary school friendships.The closing of a restaurant is like a best friend moving to a different country: You know that no one will ever fill that void, and the most aching pains come when someone new arranges their pencil case in the desk where that old friend once sat.
That is precisely how I felt when Blue Restaurant closed on 30th Avenue in Astoria almost three years ago. The regular menu at Blue wasn’t even very good, but it had this secret menu–an actual printed secret menu that we in the know could request–loaded with some of the tastiest and dirt-cheapest Mexican food around. Learning that my secret flauta stand was being bulldozed was like a punch in the gut.
The new kid that moved in was called Queens Comfort. And like a stubborn child, I held out for exactly two days before succumbing and giving it a chance. It helped that the menu was loaded with guilty pleasures. Mac and cheese is my kryptonite, and donuts, pot pies, and anything with a soft-centered egg test my willpower as well.
Queens Comfort owner Donnie D’Alessio graduated with a film production degree from the New School, and his prior work experience includes a stint as a videographer for a Pakistani soap opera filmed throughout the United States. The soft-spoken camera-man-turned-restaurateur was never formally trained in a kitchen other than the one owned by his mother and grandmother, which yielded some old family recipes, though he’d collected a team of friends with enough culinary ability to make a restaurant work.
He gave his new space a kitschy makeover: Christmas lights dangle from the ceiling, and bizarre indie films or WWF wrestling matches play on a movie screen on the back wall. Accessories look like they came from a vintage toy attic, with shelves of Halloween masks from the ’80s, a remote-control Godzilla, old McDonald’s toys, figurines from Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and Gizmo in a pink Corvette. There are even haphazardly framed childhood photos of customers above the booths.
And then he got off to a slow start. While the mac and cheese was almost better than my grandmother’s, it was inconsistent. And while the Tabasco-and-honey-doused fried chicken biscuit convinced me that it was no longer necessary for me to ZipCar to Pies ‘n’ Thighs in Brooklyn, the wait time to get it verged on agonizingly long some days. But most notably, the menu then had nothing for someone not wishing to binge on carbs–not to mention vegetarians–making it difficult to coerce my herbivore friends into joining me for Sunday brunch.
“The first two years were rough,” D’Alessio recalls. “We opened with no money and had to overcome a lot of the obstacles most small businesses face.” The most pivotal change came just a year ago when D’Alessio brought on Hernan Heras as executive chef, who he found through a tip from a cab driver. Heras spent time in various New York kitchens since he moved here from Ecuador in 1991, but he’d recently reached the burnout point after spending 10 years working for an Argentine restaurant in midtown. When asked to name his greatest influence, his face straightens and he grabs his heart. “My mom is a great cook. I got my technique from her, especially the love. That’s the first thing, you’ve gotta put love in the food.”
D’Alessio brought him in, and the result was a collaborative culinary romance (cromance?) “There are no egos involved,” explains D’Alessio. “We both strive for the best, we both get a kick out of pushing boundaries. Originality is our common denominator. There are times when we both finish each other’s sentences, which is amazing considering how outlandish our imaginations are. And of course there are times when we look at each other like we have two heads.”
Now, the menu changes slightly almost daily as new experiments are deemed worthy of a public audition. Tart and sweet fried green tomatoes are served with lemon pepper ranch as a starter, or stuffed with cheddar, capping a plump burger on brioche. Juicy chicken fingers are dusted in Cap’n Crunch and served with red chili bacon caramel for dipping. A cheese-cloaked slab of homemade meatloaf crowned with onion rings and house bacon ketchup is stabbed into place on a bun with a steak knife. Macaroni and cheese is now blended with a kaleidoscope of topping options–and the three leek with vintage gouda and cabot cheddar is insanely good.
Heras also added some worthy vegetarian options. Crispy fried tofu is glazed in a shiu hau plum barbecue sauce, crowned with a crunchy Asian “goddess” slaw. A po’ boy called the 1-800-PAPI-CHULO uses a slaw with smoky mayo atop a fried mozzarella ball stuffed with Portobello mushrooms and roasted peppers.
Brunch has become a destination meal for diners from all five boroughs thanks to items like butter-poached lobster served en croute–topped with a poached egg and a citrusy hollandaise polka dotted with asparagus and a dusting of Old Bay–and huevos rancheros that arrive stacked like a leaning tower of Pisa smothered in homemade chorizo chili.
And for dessert, D’Alessio turns to his family to supplement Heras’s list: His mother bakes eccentric bread puddings in flavors like red velvet and milk chocolate with salted caramel. His sister, Montana, turns out some legendary donuts for weekend brunch.
The restaurant has come a long way, and D’Alessio knows it. “One of our regular customers pointed out that we are like an art project with no end in sight–the food, decor, staff, constantly growing, evolving, getting better every day,” he says.
I still miss my old best friend. But when I step through these doors, I’m reminded that sometimes, change is good. Really good.
Go to the next page for a few photos of Queens Comfort.